David Cameron will press the case for reform in Europe when he holds talks with Jean-Claude Juncker today.
After failing to block his appointment as European Commission president, the Prime Minister will meet Mr Juncker one-on-one for the first time and urge him to bring about real change and help return powers to nation states. He will also push for Lord Hill of Oareford, the nominee to represent Britain in Mr Juncker’s team, to be handed a key economic portfolio.
The encounter comes after Mr Cameron’s decision to put Lord Hill forward was branded a “shambles”, with the peer having to sell shares in a lobbying firm to avoid criticism over conflicts of interest.
He acted to head off concerns over his significant holding in £140 million global public affairs company Huntsworth, which operates in Brussels. MEPs had warned that they would be looking closely at the interest in deciding whether to confirm his appointment.
President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz also suggested that he could be rejected for being too Eurosceptic. “I can’t imagine that Hill, with his radical anti-European views, which he is supposed to have, will get a majority in the European Parliament,” he told told German radio.
“It remains to be seen whether Mr Hill is unprejudiced towards us, and on that will depend whether he gets a majority.”
But Mr Shultz later bactracked on his comments, telling a press conference: “I have now been informed that he was head of private office under John Major and that he has been able to build consensus within the House of Lords. Friends have also informed me today that Mr Hill is in fact more pro-European than anything else in the UK context, and I’m glad to hear that.”
Number 10 pointed out that the European Parliament has the opportunity to approve or reject a new commission “as a whole, as a slate, not as individuals”.
Lord Hill told journalists in Brussels he would not view himself as a Eurosceptic. “I’m not a great one for looking for names or badges or boxes,” he said.
I think I have a pretty straightforward view which is that we need to make reform in Europe and one should want to make reform in Europe if you want to make Europe stronger and make it better for the people of Europe.”
He insisted reform was “achievable”, saying: “From my time working in government 20 years ago up until more recently, when people say it’s not possible to reform, actually successive periods of time there have been big reforms in Europe. So yes, I am optimistic about reform.”
Lord Hill previously replied “non non non” when asked if he wanted the EU job – but said last night: “I am not a reluctant conscript. It is true that I loved my time at the House of Lords, which is a fantastic institution, full of wonderful people.
“The fact is, having thought about the importance of this job, the pivotal role that it will play, the crucial time in the history of the European Union and also of Britain, it is a fantastic opportunity to be involved and I would be mad not to do it.”
EU leaders last night put off decisions on commissioners and portfolios for a few weeks, with an impasse between Germany and Italy being blamed. Each of the 28 member states nominates someone to serve in a post for a four-year term, with Luxembourg’s spot already taken up by Mr Juncker.
Britain’s current commissioner, Baroness Ashton, has a senior role as High Representative, which means that brief will go elsewhere this time round.
The summit also failed to agree a president of the European Council to succeed Herman Van Rompuy – a position for which Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, wife of Neil Kinnock’s son Stephen, is thought to be in the running.
Lord Hill declares his shareholding in Huntsworth – which dates from when it bought his firm Quillier in 2006 – on the parliamentary register, meaning it is worth at least £50,000. The total value is not clear, although the value of the company’s shares has dropped from over 70p to 43p over the past three months.
Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the Green bloc, is reported to have indicated that Lord Hill would get a rough ride in confirmation hearings. “Someone with a past in lobbying can expect to be grilled with double the energy,” he said.
“We want to reduce the influence of lobbying and we do not want to let the wolves into the sheep fold.”
Shadow Europe minister Gareth Thomas described the nomination of Lord Hill as a “shambles”. He said: “David Cameron’s approach to Europe goes from bad to worse.
“After his complete failure to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming commission president this shambles will not help in rebuilding our influence to secure crucial reforms.”
:: Mr Cameron gave German chancellor Angela Merkel a bottle of House of Commons whisky to mark her 60th birthday, Downing Street said, and the EU leaders also signed a Germany football shirt to mark the team’s World Cup victory.