Britain's Hill starts ordeal in EU parliament

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 01, 2014 7:44 AM

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain's controversial choice for the European Commission declared his support for closer European financial integration at the start of an expected tough confirmation hearing in the European Parliament on Wednesday.

After three days of largely softball questioning of other nominees, Jonathan Hill, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron's increasingly Eurosceptical Conservative party, faced deep doubts among EU lawmakers about his suitability to oversee banking and financial services in the 28-nation bloc, given his country's refusal to join the euro or a European banking union.

Before Hill took the stand, many deputies had questioned the judgment of Jean-Claude Juncker, president-elect of the EU executive, in assigning the sensitive portfolio which covers the City of London, Europe's main financial center, to the former lobbyist.

Philippe Lamberts, Belgian president of the European Green party, said it was the most egregious example of "Juncker's pack of jokers", matching candidates to portfolios for which they were least suited due to their countries' track record.

"Perhaps most perverse of all was the job allotted to the candidate from the UK – a country dominated by, and at times destabilised by, its outsize financial sector," he wrote in the Financial Times.

He suggested Hill should be reshuffled to a less sensitive portfolio, along with the French nominee for economic and monetary affairs commissioner in the light of France's serial breaches of EU budget rules, and the Spanish candidate for EU energy and climate action chief, who was a shareholder in an oil company.

In his opening statement and in written answers released before the hearing, Hill sought to disarm criticism of his nationality and background, depicting himself as a bridge between countries inside and outside the single currency area.

"As European Commissioner, my job will be to build greater trust and confidence between the euro "ins" and "outs" in the interest of the European Union as a whole," he said, in remarks that began by thanking the committee chairman in Italian and continued, briefly, in French.

He drew sympathetic chuckles with a self-deprecating joke about his "approximation of the language of Moliere".

"We are all agreed there can be no going back to pre-crisis days," Hill told lawmakers. "No going back to the wild risk taking with its terrible toll on the jobs and living standards of so many of our citizens. No going back to our banks having to be rescued on the back of taxpayers."

He also offered an impassioned defense of the EU, telling lawmakers: "I want to work for the common European interest and I want my country to remain part of a Union of 500 million people with shared values, who live together, work together, trade together and who face global challenges together."

HANDFUL IN DOUBT

Hill was the first of a handful of nominees who may face a difficult confirmation process to appear in parliament, although even irritated Greens doubt whether he or any others will be blocked by a parliament where Juncker has broad backing.

In an effort to limit any risk, Juncker removed the ultra-sensitive of issue of bankers' pay from Hill's brief, giving it to the Czech nominee for justice commissioner instead.

Spanish conservative Miguel Arias Canete, a bogeyman for environmentalists, and Hungarian nationalist Tibor Navracsics, seen by human rights campaigners as unsuited to be in charge of European citizenship, were to be questioned later on Wednesday.

Former French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici is sure to face a grilling on Thursday after his country announced it would not meet its EU budget commitments this year or next and needed another two years until 2017 to get its deficit down to the EU limit of 3 percent of national output.

Parliamentary sources said that all 10 nominees questioned on Monday and Tuesday, including trade commissioner-designate Cecilia Malmstrom, had been given a green light by the parliamentary committees.

"There are no problems so far," one said.

However, Hill faced a bumpier ride since his party is not part of one of two big centre-right and centre-left political groups that dominate the EU legislature, meaning he cannot count on their protection.

Back home in Britain, a schism over Europe cast a pall over the annual conference of the Conservative party, overshadowing Cameron's showcase speech, after a party donor became the latest figure to defect to the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

Seeking to appease Eurosceptics in his own party and beyond, Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU and hold an in/out referendum on membership in 2017 if he is re-elected next year.

The prime minister said this week it would not break his heart of Britons voted to leave, although he believed it was in the UK's interest to stay in a reformed union.

"NO CONFLICTS OF INTEREST"

In his opening statement, Hill underlined his experience in government and business without referring explicitly to his work as a lobbyist on behalf of corporate interests, including in the financial services sector.

"I left over four years ago when I entered the British government as a minister. And by the way, I have since disposed of any shareholding. I hold no shares. I am a not a member of any boards. And so I do not believe I have any conflicts of interest," he said.

He described the establishment of a European banking union as the centrepiece of work to restore the financial system, even though Britain has turned its back on joining it, promising to "put the remaining pieces of the jigsaw in place".

"Yes, I come from a country outside the Banking Union, but the crisis has highlighted how interdependent the 28 member states are," Hill said. "A strong Banking Union matters to us all, and I will do everything I can to make it a flagship for the European Union."

The project will take a major step forward next month when the European Central Bank takes over as the single supervisor for some 130 of the biggest euro zone banks after conducting thorough health checks on their balance sheets.

Britain is keen to see EU markets opened up more to its powerful banks, insurers and others, but is anxious not to see Brussels gaining more regulatory oversight on the City.

In a move that defused one possible source of friction for Hill, Juncker move a part of the portfolio that deals with an EU cap on bankers' bonuses to a different commissioner - though his staff insisted that was arranged before Hill was given the job.

(Additional reporting by Huw Jones in London; Writing by Paul Taylor)