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Dr Lee Rotherham: We must appoint a good EU Commissioner, for a change

Rotherham LeeDr Lee Rotherham is author of The EU in a Nutshell and A Fate Worst Than Debt. He is on the Conservatives’ Approved European Candidates List.

Today is Europe Day, the time of year when we reflect on how wonderful European integration is.

Well, sort of. Today is one Europe Day, the EU’s. The Council of Europe first held its Europe Day on 5 May in 1964. Twenty years on and the Brussels institutions pretty much gazumped the concept, commemorating Schuman’s far more integrationist approach. The EU crucially also has a far more imposing PR budget to sell it. Let us know in the comments below if you spot the Commission spending your money on anything particularly naughty this year, like lighting the London Eye yellow and blue.

So let’s turn our thoughts to the European Union.

Baroness Ashton has been an exemplary Commissioner, and rather a good one. She has successfully expanded her empire, the EU’s diplomatic corps or EEAS, beyond the size of her counterparts in almost all EU national capitals; expanded its budget despite an era of supposed austerity; avoided getting Brussels embroiled in a land war in central Asia; not annoyed any major rising power by saying anything too noticeable on human rights; and issued an incessant flow of commendably banal press releases outmatched only by Herman Van Rompuy at his best. Solid Eurocrat fare.

It all of course depends on your perspective. If you are not an employee of the European Commission, but are however a native of the country which sent her out there, you might understandably take a rather more negative view of the former CND Treasurer and NHS quangonaut and what she’s done during her superannuated tenure. But what is a European Commissioner for?

Originally, it was someone that the likes of de Gaulle might send out to Brussels to keep an eye on the national interest. Despite perceptions, and the recruitment of a serious number of card-carrying integrationists, this is a role that has survived. Those who have never been closer than the outer orbits of the Directorates General might profitably peruse a book written by one of our MEPs’ ECR team members. Derk Jan Eppink is a former Dutch journalist, now representing a Belgian seat as an MEP, but with a rather interesting background in the Commission. His Life of a European Mandarin is an intriguing view of life inside the Berlaymont. It’s particularly valuable in showing the in-fighting between DGs each pushing their own agenda, and how a Commissioner with - shudder - ideas of his own fits into this today.

The choice of modern candidate seems to default on those matching two key criteria. The first is availability, which as a politician means your career is already over. The Commission operates as a less gilded version of the House of Lords, but with better sauce béarnaise. The second is that you should have some track record as a true believer in European integration, or at least very loudly proclaiming so.

Yet from a UK perspective, a precondition of selecting Europhiles is absurdly self-limiting. There’s no legal obligation for it for starters. The oath the Commissioner takes is predominantly one of impartiality and of ignoring instructions from national governments, and commissioners have on numerous occasions been caught out cheating even on those. True, it does oblige the oath-taker to “respect” the treaties and the charter of fundamental rights; but then I also rather respect a crocodile when I see one up close.

Why then should we just plump for those candidates who might like the place, rather than drag the best unwilling from the plough? Do we really think a Commission President would exercise his right of veto on our Eurosceptic nominee? Even if he did, would that be politically such a bad thing?

It does matter who we send to Brussels. Who else gets to turn up to or turn down the mass of lobbies pouring into the legislative cauldron? Take the European Gender Summit, one example of how the policy boiler room gets fired up by insider campaigners and academics feeding directly into the various institutions. The incestuous relationship between policy makers and lobbyists – especially the large bloc funded by the Commission itself – is one that needs radical action, and can only happen if there are Commissioners with gumption rather than arrivals who accept the system at face value.

Consider too just the following taken from just a single copy of the Official Journal;

  • A Court of Auditors evaluation showing that the latest error rates in spending in Cohesion, Energy and Transport is running at 7.7%; one in four EU-funded energy efficiency programmes in France lacked monitoring reports; and two thirds of errors spotted by the Court of Auditors in External Aid, Development and Enlargement had not been detected by the Commission.
  • The European Parliament complaining to the Commission that when it was running the aid programme to Haiti, the EU flag and name needed to be far more prominent for PR purposes.
  • Concerns about large-scale fraud cases in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Mali, Mauretania, Djibouti and Zambia. One in eight European Development Fund projects is assessed to be Badly Performing, with high frequency of errors in decentralised management.
  • A poor recovery system revealed to have led to 87.8% (€428.9m) of wrongful CAP payments over 2006-9 being written off.
  • Italy noted as having outstanding fines of €424 million, 58% of the total of all EU countries, despite huge reductions over the years: would these now be excused because of the Eurozone Crisis?
  • 70% of the €127m budget of the (pointless) European Economic and Social Committee is identified as being spent on people. Even MEPs are expressing surprise at their average flight being 2,000km, pertinently asking if they commute in via a short break somewhere sunny.
  • The European Borders Agency showing an “inability” to manage a large increase in its budget and whose budgetary authority needed to be more “responsible” in the future.
  • A case of possible conflict of interest for a very senior manager of an EU agency, who failed to declare it. Another agency member left to join a firm previously being regulated by his team, without a ‘cooling off’ period.

This is a passing list of just the bread and butter stuff before we even get to the tough issues that bite into national sovereignty. Far too often, tricky problems have been kept in-house , brushed under the carpet and the bulge jumped up and down on.

So a good choice of Commissioner would be a vital asset, and a key support to critical MEPs operating elsewhere within the system. Regardless of whether you believe we should be in or out, for as long as we’re in we need the right people there. Given declared policy, at the very least we need a friend of serious renegotiation.

We need a good nominee, who won’t go native. Someone who understands how the system works. An individual who ‘gets’ the democratic deficit, and has seen the impact of Brussels on ordinary people.

This brings me to my suggestion. We surely can’t afford to treat a Commission appointment like dishing out a grace-and-favour retirement home. This isn’t an honourable sinecure like looking after Walmer Castle or being appointed Constable of the Tower. The mere fact that Nick Clegg has featured as a possible nominee, purely on the grounds of political expediency and some time spent as a drone in Commission Section 7-G, cannot be reason enough to qualify as the next Baroness Ashton. We need someone better.

I would recommend David Heathcoat-Amory. He resigned from government in protest over Treasury ambivalence on keeping the Pound. He was an effective delegate to the Convention that drafted the EU Constitution, indeed he made up a core part of the opposition. He is also a former Europe Minister. He comes up ideas and proposals without needing any Treasury or backbench prompt. His background is an accountant, which may be rather useful digging into some of the books.

There are alternatives equally capable. I think Patrick Nicholls would also do sterling service thanks to his experience in tackling the Common Fisheries Policy, and the credibility he gained in turning the Party’s dire handling of that policy around.

Whether either might want to go other than at gunpoint is a separate issue. No doubt readers will have their own ideas as to who a good candidate might be. The point is the Party leadership really needs to start thinking about the sort of person it needs within the Commission, and what his or her mission needs to be, before it finds it’s anointed somebody in its sleep.

ConservativeHome has quite rightly pulled Conservative ministers up in the past for letting quango nominations keep falling by default to their ideological opponents. As the EU Competence Review progresses, here’s one appointment that might just win back a slight inside edge.

Happy Europe Day, and bon schumanage.


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