One year ago this week, David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK’s role in the EU and hold an in/out referendum by 2017. It was an attempt by a weak Prime Minister to close down the EU debate and head off a backbench revolt and the UKIP insurgency. It has not worked. In the last 12 months he has talked about little else and viewed key political debates on welfare, immigration and jobs through the prism of EU membership.
This year things could get a lot worse. In May, the European Parliament election could see the Tories come third, behind Labour and UKIP, for the first time ever in a national contest. More important is the choice of the UK’s next EU commissioner in October. The uninspiring names of fired cabinet ministers such as Andrew Mitchell and Michael Moore have been floated, although the long-held Tory hope that Nick Clegg would slope off to Brussels looks dead.
The lack of obvious candidates leaves a more intriguing possibility. Cameron has written to industry and business leaders to ask whether the next commissioner should be a non-political figure. The choice is politically toxic. Any candidate would need to bridge the huge chasm between the coalition parties’ views on Europe. No eurosceptic could effectively fight Britain’s corner in Brussels but anyone seen as pro-EU would be fiercely opposed by large sections of the Conservative Party.
The next commissioner will be Cameron’s key EU cheerleader with the unenviable task of achieving unprecedented UK-led reforms. In 2009, Britain’s choice, Labour peer Cathy Ashton, was handed the foreign policy brief in what is now seen as a major error. Michel Barnier, the French-born commissioner for internal markets, has wielded by far the most power in the last five years. Ashton’s role has been far more limited.
Now the UK is seen as an outlier on financial services – it was outvoted 26-to-1 on introducing a bankers’ bonus cap – the chance of a Brit succeeding Barnier to the post is remote. This leaves the trade and competition briefs as the two key roles for the UK reform agenda. Employing someone with expertise could boost the chances of taking these positions.
So, who should get the job? Names in the frame include the CBI director general John Cridland. He runs a pro-European, pro-business lobby organisation but has also tussled with EU regulations and its tortuous policy-making process. Leaders of financial service trade bodies also have a pedigree of battling EU rules and winning key victories for the UK and the sector.
Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles is a Brussels veteran and international expert on financial services regulation. In her role as chair of the powerful Economic and Monetary Affairs committee no one has seen more EU horse-trading. She likes the idea of a technocrat, telling me: “It’s an interesting idea. If you put forward good business credentials there is a good chance the new President of the Commission will look at the talent and put them in the best position.
“I always thought Cameron would look among his own kind. There are still people supportive of the Conservatives even if they are not politicians. I don’t know how someone who has never been involved in politics will find it because it is quite political. However, it is an interestingly refreshing thought.”
Samuel Dale is politics reporter at Money Marketing