The man likely to be the Britain’s last European commissioner has vowed he will act in the EU’s interest, rather than be London’s voice in Brussels.
Sir Julian King, nominee to become Britain’s next and probably final European commissioner, said he would act in the common interest if confirmed in the post. I know the high levels of integrity and impartiality as well as European commitment that you will rightly expect of me, he told MEPs at a hearing designed to test his suitability for the job. I am genuinely not here to speak for Her Majesty’s government.
European commissioners are meant to act in the EU’s interest rather than represent their countries. But as a career diplomat, who is likely to face greater scrutiny because of Brexit, King is expected to strive even more for impartiality than a politician commissioner might.
King will play no formal role in Brexit negotiations. Instead he has been offered the portfolio of security union but had to convince MEPs of his suitability for the role during a three-hour hearing in Strasbourg on Monday night. The European parliament, which votes on his appointment on Thursday, does not have a veto but it would be difficult for King to take up the job without MEPs’ support.
Security has shot up the EU’s agenda since terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice, with recriminations about repeated national failures to share information, allowing terrorists to slip through the net.
The EU’s executive has vowed to create a security union – a host of measures to deepen co-operation on counter-terrorism – as a complement to economic union.
Efforts to develop a common defence policy are also picking up speed, as it emerged that France and Germany are intensifying efforts for great military co-operation. According to a policy paper seen by Reuters, the EU’s two largest founding members want to create a permanent joint EU command headquarters for civilian and military EU missions, although the plans fall short of an EU army.
Security and common defence are expected to be themes advanced by the European commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in his annual state of the union speech on Wednesday. EU leaders are also likely to touch on these subjects on Friday when they meet for a summit without the UK.
The decision to offer King a security portfolio is seen as a shrewd move. King stressed the UK would need to continue to work with the EU, regardless of Brexit. Jihadi terrorists don’t make any distinction between Brussels, Paris and London and don’t make any distinction [on the basis of] the relationship a country has with the European Union.
A former director-general of the Northern Ireland office, King referred several times to his experience countering radicalism in the aftermath of the troubles. He stressed repeatedly that the most successful counter-radicalisation work is not done by the state, it is done by civil society actors.
Currently serving as ambassador to France, King opened the hearing by making the first half of his speech in French, although he mostly spoke in English. Unsurprisingly for a top British civil servant, he said he had supported the government’s remain position. But the EU had to respect the leave vote, he said, adding that he would not be giving a running commentary on negotiations.
The vacancy arose after Lord Jonathan Hill quit his position as EU financial services chief following the Brexit vote. David Cameron appointed King in one of his final acts as prime minister, as the UK is entitled to have a commissioner at the table in Brussels for as long as it remains an EU member.
Several MEPs previously questioned whether the British commissioner should get any portfolio. But some may be assuaged by the fact that King would arrive at the commission, already steeped in the workings of the EU.
Whereas his predecessor was an ex Conservative minister, King is a seasoned diplomat who knows Brussels well. He has served as chief of staff to two former British commissioners, Peter Mandelson and Catherine Ashton. Between 2004-08 he was the UK’s representative on the EU’s political and security committee. He is married to Lotte Knudsen, a high-flying civil servant in the EU’s diplomatic service.
In a sure-footed performance, the diplomat dismissed suggestions that his appointment signalled an attempt by Britain to depoliticise the commission or downgrade the job. I am not a politician but I have spent the past 25 years swimming in a political sea, he said. It doesn’t look to me like a dossier that is part time or second class.
The tone of the meeting was polite, ranging over numerous technical policies, from EU data retention to wildlife trafficking.
But the hearing showed that King could be caught in the crossfire of delicate questions. If confirmed as a European commissioner, he would become an architect of an EU entry-exit system that could result in Britons paying to visit the continent. The British diplomat also made clear he saw a problem if the British government failed to opt into Europol, the EU policy agency. The UK will be excluded from Europol’s crime-fighting work unless it adopts a new law by May 2017, posing an awkward political problem for Theresa May’s Brexit government. King said he would do everything in his power, without fear or favour to ensure EU member states engage with Europol.
Claude Moraes, the British Labour MEP who chairs the civil liberties committee, praised this answer for showing strong political judgment, arguing that a lesser candidate would have dodged the question. I was very impressed, he showed a deep-seated understanding of the dossier, the MEP said after the hearing.
The strongest criticism came from British eurosceptics sitting in the Ukip-led and far-right group, who questioned King’s commitment to Brexit. You work for the 65m [British citizens] said Janice Atkinson, the former U kip MEP who sits with Marine Le Pen’s far-right group. You don’t owe any allegiance to this place.
News Source TheGuardianNews