The UK’s new European commissioner candidate may face one insuperable problem – he is not a woman.
The new UK nominee as European commissioner, Lord Hill, was known in a previous life to the Law Society. Indeed, he did work as a consultant for the Society. He had two separate stints in government in the 1980s and 1990s – first, as special adviser to Ken Clark when he was at the departments of employment, trade and health in the Thatcher government (1986-1989), and, second, in various capacities working closely with John Major (1991-1994).
Between those two, Lord Hill worked for the well-known PR firm, Lowe Bell (1989-1991). The governments for which Lord Hill had worked and would work passed the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which, among other things, broke the solicitors’ conveyancing monopoly. The Law Society hired Lowe Bell to help with the anticipated changes, and Jonathan Hill was often in and out of the Law Society in those days.
The fact that he has been a lobbyist for periods of his life has already cropped up in the context of his EU nomination. Lord Hill knows that the word ‘lobbyist’ is not the most popular in Brussels. He immediately offloaded his stock in a public relations company, owned as a result of his former connections, despite presumably not wishing to do so (the shares were apparently down 40% in recent months).
And Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the Green group of MEPs, said: ‘If it comes to a hearing, someone with a past in lobbying can expect to be grilled with double the energy. We want to reduce the influence of lobbying and we don’t want to let the wolves into the sheep fold.’
The European institutions have been trying with varying success to make lobbying more transparent. During his confirmation hearing as Commission president in the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker promised to introduce a mandatory lobbying register. The present one is only voluntary.
The change would cause problems for the legal profession, whose concerns about the relationship between lawyer-client confidentiality and the requirements of mandatory registration in an open register have still to be resolved. Can I mischievously suggest that, when Mr Juncker is allocating portfolios, Lord Hill is given responsibility for the lobbying register?
Mr Juncker has problems well beyond lobbying. For instance, he would doubtless prefer that Lord Hill were Lady Hill. The European Parliament has made it clear that it will reject any Commission team that has too few women. So far only two of the official nominees are women – Sweden’s Cecilia Malmstrom, currently already serving as a commissioner (home affairs), and a minister from the Czech Republic.
There are nine women commissioners in the current Commission, and campaigners want at least the same this time around, if not a symbolic one more. ‘If no solution is found, it may be that more time is needed to form the Commission,’ said Mr Juncker’s spokesperson. The parliament has no power to reject individual commissioners, but it can reject the whole slate, and may well do so on this point.
As for Lord Hill, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, had to row back on his fire-eating words of rejecting him for his Euroscepticism when he was informed that, within the UK spectrum (an admittedly narrow range), Lord Hill is a model of moderation and Eurocentrism. I hope that my saying this does not ruin his chances – so that, if the slate of commissioners is rejected, a Mrs Hill with more Eurosceptic views is nominated in his place.
The transition to the new Commission may, as a result, go on for longer than expected. The battles, however, are being fought over sound values: greater transparency, and more balanced representation of the sexes.
And in any case the governance of the EU may turn out to be like that of Belgium, where the country continued operating for endless months without anyone noticing that it did not have a government.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs