Syed Kamall is MEP for London, leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs and chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
As David Cameron rises to his feet in Birmingham this Wednesday, Jonathan Hill will be all set to appear before MEPs in Brussels at the start of a three-hour grilling. Those 180 minutes will decide whether he becomes the European Commissioner for Financial Services.
Over the next two weeks, all 27 candidates to become European Commissioners will appear before MEPs from the parliamentary committees related to their assigned portfolio. The European Parliament only has the ability to approve or reject the entire team of Commissioners rather than individual candidates – so these committee hearings will decide whether Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposed Commission is approved intact, or whether he is “invited” to replace one or more Commissioner designate.
This leaves my Conservative MEP colleagues wishing they could be in two places at once next week – and several of them will be shuttling between our party conference in Birmingham and the hearings in Brussels in any event.
Five years ago, our European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group were the new kids on the block. As Chairman of the Internal Market Committee, Malcolm Harbour, a Conservative MEP, was joint chairman of just one of these hearings.
Now that we are the third-biggest parliamentary group, we will play a bigger role in this important process. Vicky Ford, who took over as chairman of the Internal Market Chairman following the election, will be sole chairman at the hearing questioning Estonia’s prospective Commissioner, former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who is in line to be Vice President overseeing the digital single market. Vicky will also be joint chairman at the hearings for Poland’s Elzbieta Bienkowska (Internal Market and Industry) and the Czech Republic’s Vera Jourova (Justice and Consumer Protection) – putting the ECR at the helm of three crucial economic hearings.
Importantly, when Lord Hill faces his grilling on Wednesday it will be Kay Swinburne, our highly-expert co-ordinator on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, who leads the line of questioning for the ECR. The Left have already made it clear that he will have a hard time, but having got to know him over the past few months, I am confident that he will demonstrate his skill in a portfolio that will affect not just my constituency of London as a leading financial centre but the whole European economy.
As Vicky Ford stressed at a briefing for international journalists, we will bring basic Conservative and democratic principles to bear in these discussions. We believe that, broadly speaking, the right of national governments to put forward the commissioner of their choice should be respected.
It is traditional for the parliament to pick off one commissioner before the confirmation vote – either because of concerns about their background, or their views. This time, it feels almost like MEPs are trying to find someone to take down, just because they can. I do not believe this political chest-beating serves anyone.
For us, the questioning in these hearings needs to be rigorous, forensic and well-informed – and it should focus on the candidates’ competence and suitability for the proposed portfolio, and their ideas for reform. If a Commissioner is rejected then it should not be because of the passport they hold or the party they come from, but because they are not up to the job. These impending hearings provided the real political intrigue of last week’s plenary session of the parliament in Strasbourg.
The formal agenda was, on the face of it, very light, and dominated by international crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. My London colleague Charles Tannock, our foreign affairs spokesman, put our position eloquently and powerfully – particularly on the need for EU member states to ratchet up sanctions pressure on Putin and to back the Kurds against ISIL with a little more than warm words and humanitarian aid.
Away from the chamber, however, the backroom meetings and coffee-bar talk was dominated by the new Commission and the hearings. Who would oppose whom? Who could be relied upon for support and who was playing a game of bluff?
I had a steady procession of prospective Commissioners visiting my office to set out their stall, answer questions about their brief and solicit support.
And there was, of course, one other hot topic: the small matter of an independence referendum back in Scotland. A number of Conservative MEPs travelled to Scotland to help the No campaign, and of course my Scottish colleague Ian Duncan played an important role in exposing the SNP’s unanswered questions on Scottish EU membership.
Now that the referendum is over, Ian has stressed the need to focus on the future and the “healing process”. I believe that will also mean a healing process in England, as well as in Scotland, with a clear answer to the West Lothian question.
While David Cameron and Conservative MPs consider these issues in the UK, in Brussels, Conservative MEPs and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group will hold the incoming European Commission to account and seek to extract clear commitments to deliver our reform agenda. Whether they are successful in delivering them will not be for me to judge, but for the British people to judge in a referendum in 2017.