David Cameron's nominee for the new EU executive ran into trouble on Wednesday within 24 hours of being named when he was accused of being a "radical anti-European" who would struggle to pass muster in European parliament hearings in September.
Cameron's surprise choice for the plum Brussels post, Lord Jonathan Hill of Oareford, meant the prime minister followed Gordon Brown in naming a leader of the House of Lords for the European commission. Five years ago Brown sent Catherine Ashton, the outgoing EU foreign policy chief and a former Lords leader, to Brussels.
Downing Street's choice ran into immediate opposition from the European parliament president, Martin Schulz.
In recent months, Schulz has been making the political weather in Brussels. It was largely his politicking that outwitted EU national leaders, not least Cameron, and propelled Jean-Claude Juncker to the top of the European commission. Juncker, vehemently opposed by Cameron, was confirmed in the post in Strasbourg on Tuesday with 422 votes in the 751-seat chamber. Schulz called it a "historic day".
On Wednesday, he said: "I cannot imagine Hill, whose views – in as far as he's got any – are radically anti-European, getting a majority in the European parliament."
Hill, who has previously worked for the ardently pro-EU Kenneth Clarke and also for John Major at Maastricht more than 20 years ago, is not particularly known for being Eurosceptic.
Later Schulz backtracked from his attack on Hill . "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," Schulz told a Brussels press conference. "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."
Cameron hopes to secure a major economics portfolio in the new Juncker commission. The word in Brussels for the past 10 days has been that to succeed, the prime minister would need to nominate a "big beast".
Hill does not pass that test, lacking any profile in national or European politics. When the relatively unknown Ashton was named by Brown five years ago, the reaction in France was "Lady Qui?" The nomination of Hill has met with similar bemusement particularly since many countries are putting up senior national political figures of cabinet rank for the Juncker team.
In Westminster and Whitehall, however, Hill is reputed to be a skilled fixer and networker. British officials say his primary function in Brussels will be to build alliances, strike deals and reach consensus with his EU peers with a view to assembling support for some of the reforms Cameron hopes to achieve if he is to fight and win a referendum in 2017 keeping Britain in the EU on new terms.
Hill was one of the most influential lobbyists in Britain after founding Quiller Consultants, which was then bought out by public relations firm Huntsworth in 2006. He remained a director of Quiller until his appointment as a junior minister in 2010 and he has kept a substantial shareholding in Huntsworth, according to his list of interests.
Quiller – whose clients in the last quarter included HSBC, the United Arab Emirates and private healthcare investor Circle Holdings – still has strong links with the government. It now employs Sean Worth, a former special adviser to the prime minister until last year and ex-head of the Conservative policy unit, and Ruwan Kodikara, who worked for Nick Clegg's leadership campaign team. Their lobbyists have recently had meetings with the head of the Downing Street policy unit, Jo Johnson, and the prime minister's deputy chief of staff, Kate Fall.
Asked about his shareholding, a UK government official said: "He was nominated yesterday. He has considered that and he has decided he will sell those shares...He has made the decision. The process is under way."
After the bruising confrontation over Juncker, which Cameron lost overwhelmingly a fortnight ago when 26 EU national leaders supported the Luxembourg ex-prime minister, leaving Cameron only with Hungary on his side, the talk in Downing Street and Brussels is of mending fences and damage limitation. Cameron is to have breakfast on Thursday morning with Juncker to discuss Lord Hill's post in the new commission from November, with the prime minister pressing for a major economics portfolio. It will be the first meeting between the two men since Cameron argued vehemently against Juncker's appointment at an EU summit a fortnight ago and was outvoted.
The two men are also to discuss Juncker's policy blueprint for the next five years and "the reform of the UK's relationship with the EU", said a Downing Street official.
But the European parliament is flexing its muscles after triumphing over national leaders in deciding how Brussels works. It is unlikely to do Hill any favours in September. The parliament cannot reject individual commissioners, only the Juncker commission en masse. But it can force Juncker to drop and replace commissioners-designate.
"It remains to be seen whether Mr Hill will be unprejudiced toward us," Schulz told a German radio station. "Whether he gets a majority depends on that."
Nigel Farage, the MEP and leader of Ukip, which won the election in Britain in May, denounced his parliament president as anti-democratic. He said: "This is a declaration of war by Schulz on the choice of the British government. How dare Martin Schulz interfere in the British nomination of European commissioner and prejudge what the decision of the MEPs will be. He is supposed to be an independent chairman, but he has demonstrated absolutely no respect for national democracy or national government."
Hill's lack of prominent political status contrasts with nominees from many other EU countries who are fielding former prime, foreign, or finance ministers for plum jobs, apparently reducing Britain's chances of taking one of the main portfolios.
Cameron wants a key economics post, meaning ideally but improbably being put in charge of the EU's single market. Alternatives would be energy or trade. Ashton, Peter Mandelson, and Leon Brittan also served as trade commissioners.
The trade portfolio would put Britain in charge of negotiating the EU's sensitive trade pact with the US, one of the biggest political topics on the current EU agenda. But the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is a risky undertaking.
A successful negotiation under UK stewardship would allow Cameron to sell a major achievement in his planned referendum campaign in 2017. Many, however, expect the trade talks to fail, meaning a UK-led negotiation could turn into a fiasco.
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