Open Europe Blog

When it comes to EU top jobs, if you snooze you lose, as
Gordon Brown discovered to his cost in 2009

In a new briefing published this morning we argue that after the row over Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment, David Cameron can regain the initiative by sending a heavy-hitter – and not simply someone who happens to be available – to Brussels with the view to securing a top job in the new European Commission. But here is the crucial question – what job should the UK push for?

Here are the key points from our briefing:

  • Even though conventional political wisdom says that it’s impossible for the UK to bag the internal market portfolio, this is precisely what David Cameron should ask for, not least given that Germany, in particular, may want to give the UK a quick win in order to reduce the risk of Britain leaving the EU.
  • To boost the chances of this happening, financial services could be split off from the internal market portfolio. However, in this scenario, the key is for this portfolio to go to a country that actually has a meaningful financial services industry, or the strategy could backfire.
  • The second best outcome for the UK would be to secure the competition portfolio. competition is by far the most powerful DG, with the power to impose multi-million euro fines, prevent mergers and restructure banks. The portfolio would allow the UK to ensure a business-friendly environment and ensure fair competition within the single market by preventing discrimination against non-euro member states. It also establishes a political link to eurozone – it’s impossible for eurozone leaders not to engage with the Competition commissioner.
  • The Trade portfolio is often mooted as a good one for the UK, and on substance it certainly is. Being able to conclude the EU-US free trade deal (TTIP) would be a great scalp. However, it is important to remember that Commissioners’ ability to impact EU policy is not limited to their own briefs; many policy proposals are debated within the College of Commissioners offering every Commissioner the opportunity of raising any concerns at an early stage. Just as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs – currently held by Baroness Ashton – the Trade Commissioner is often absent from Brussels, thereby limiting the UK’s overall influence.
  • The energy portfolio would be a relative disappointment for the UK. Yes, energy is a hugely important issue for Europe – and liberalised single market could help tremendously in both boosting energy security and keeping cost down. The Energy Commissioner could also play a key role in keeping the EU out of shale gas regulation – a key UK objective. However, the big push needed to change the political culture in Europe for this to happen won’t come from the European Commission and will take a long time to achieve anyway. This battle will first need to be won in national capitals. Taken together though, the Competition Commissioner probably has more sway over the EU energy market by being able to strike down attempts at creating national champions and new forms of intervention – as illustrated by the current stand-off between Germany and the Commission over Berlin’s rebate for energy intensive industries from its domestic renewable surcharges.
  • Arguably, the social affairs brief would be better than the energy portfolio given how hugely important the rules on access to benefits for EU migrants are for the wider debate in the UK.

Just as important as the UK’s portfolio is the distribution of other key portfolios among reform-minded countries like the Netherlands and Sweden. Cameron needs to be far cleverer than Gordon Brown was in 2009, when France got internal market and Romania agriculture. This won’t be easy though. Having lost out on one of the three ‘top jobs’, France could push for either the competition or internal market brief. However, if France keeps the internal market, financial services should be split off as well.

Finally, the appointment of the new President of the European Council will also be crucial – in some ways just as significant as that of the Commission President – given that this will be the person in charge of brokering Cameron’s negotiations with other heads of state and government.

It’s certainty all to play for.

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