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European Commission: Portfolios

Volume 754: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, which portfolio they are seeking to secure for their nominee as Commissioner.

My Lords, Commission portfolios will be allocated by the Commission President designate to those persons nominated by member states and agreed by common accord in the Council. This will happen after the confirmation of the Commission President designate by the European Parliament. The Government are interested in an economic portfolio.

My Lords, after the Prime Minister’s abject failure in stopping Juncker becoming the European Commission President, will the Minister explain whether the Prime Minister has a better negotiating strategy in mind to secure a decent and substantial portfolio for the British nominee as commissioner? Will the Minister give an assurance that both Houses of Parliament will have the opportunity to question the nominee before the European Parliament has an opportunity to do so?

I think the noble Baroness will have to accept that the UK took a principled stance on an incredibly important matter. It was the right of the European Council to nominate the President of the Commission. All three main political parties, including her party and, indeed, its leadership, supported the Prime Minister’s position, and it was right that the Prime Minister stood up for the principle of the European Council retaining its treaty-given role.

In relation to appearances before the UK Parliament, of course parliamentary committees are free to invite whomsoever they choose to give evidence before them, including the UK Commissioner and other Commissioners. It would be for them to respond to those invitations.

Given what my noble friend said about the importance of an economic portfolio, does she agree that the important thing for the Prime Minister to do is to find someone who is a heavy-weight, has good judgment and substance, irrespective of whether he or she is from Parliament or from outside of Parliament, and that he must particularly put aside considerations about by-elections and other partisan matters because, if Britain needs a strong batter for the internal market or trade, this is the time that it needs it?

Where there are so many issues at stake, it is important that we nominate a strong candidate. My noble friend will be delighted to know that the Prime Minister has a strong line-up of strong candidates.

Is the Minister aware that, while a member state Government may certainly express enthusiasm for the appointment of one their nationals to a particular Commission post, the reality is that each Commissioner has a treaty obligation to,

“solemnly undertake”—

Yes, it is because I want to be accurate, which may be a virtue not universal on the other side of the House. The commissioner has a treaty obligation to,

“solemnly undertake … in the performance of my tasks, neither to seek nor to take instructions from any Government or from any other institution, body, office or entity … I formally note the undertaking of each Member State to respect this principle and not to seek to influence Members of the Commission in the performance of their tasks”.

Since it is clear that no partisan advantage can be gained or allowed from a particular Commission portfolio, will the Government stop trying to give the impression to the British public that there is such a means available to Her Majesty’s Government?

The noble Lord gives important advice, and I am sure that he gave similar advice to Prime Ministers when Labour was in power, when it nominated Commissioners and made sure that they did not have any form of partisan interest when they went to the European Union. He can rest assured that whichever Commissioner goes on behalf of the coalition Government will act in the same incredibly impeccable manner that Commissioners have in the past.

My Lords, will my noble friend remind the House of the oath which is taken by a privy counsellor, that he or she will always uphold the interests of Her Majesty against all foreign interests? Will she not agree that, unfortunately, it would be quite wrong to appoint a privy counsellor to a job where he would have to swear the exact opposite, as the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, has just described?

Because I am a privy counsellor and have sworn that oath, I have to be incredibly careful as to how I answer that question. Fundamentally, it is because of the great expertise in this House that I love being here.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether she thinks it would be useful for Prime Ministers to receive training in recruitment, diplomacy and negotiation skills?

I understand the point that the noble Lord is trying to make. However, we all have to accept that the Prime Minister stood up for UK interests and was responsive to what we all heard—or should have heard—at the recent European elections, which is that the people of the European Union, across the European Union, want change.

Would it not be appropriate for the Prime Minister to be rather less abrasive and rather more constructive as regards the EU institutions? Insults get us nowhere at all, particularly when significant jobs are being sought for incumbent or future Commissioners. Is that not the most important issue facing the Government at the moment?

The Prime Minister has a good record of delivering for the United Kingdom, whether on the Budget, on Ukraine or on red tape. We can be confident that he is the right Prime Minister, delivering for Britain at the right time.