Cameron must focus attention on post of internal market commissioner and president of the European Council

Internal market is the core of the EU

Following his defeat over Jean-Claude Juncker, David Cameron should consider his next moves urgently but  carefully. Mr Juncker will probably not be a dominant head of the Commission and the quality and suitability for their jobs of other commissioners will be very important. Particularly important is the commissioner for the internal market and services held by Michel Barnier in the outgoing Commission. Despite the addition of other policies, the internal market remains the core of the EU and most EU legislation is connected with achieving a level playing field for the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, especially the first two. Therefore the internal market commissioner is arguably even more important than the Commission president, at least from the point of view of the UK, which does not need to share in the macro-economic policy co-ordination needed by members of the euro zone. The perception that EU legislation is excessive and burdensome, to whatever extent it is  justified, is one that can be best be addressed by the internal market commissioner and he or she also can play a key role in the British aim of opening further the market in services trade.


Could the UK put forward a suitable candidate?

There is a reasonable chance that the job could be taken by a British candidate, but the choice would have to be a good one for the job, and it is not easy to identify a suitable candidate. It would be difficult to argue that the choice, which has been informally suggested, Andrew Lansley, would be good for this job. He does not have any major experience in related fields. His period in office as secretary of state for health was highly controversial particularly with doctors and nurses. Although there is room for debate as to whether NHS staff were right in their criticisms, Cameron clearly did not feel full confidence in him as he decided to move him to his present position of leader of the House of Commons.  Arguably, he actually increased the amount of time NHS staff have to spend on form filling and general bureaucracy, precisely the opposite of what is wanted for the internal market commissioner.


He or she must support logic of the internal market

Some comments have suggested that the choice should be of a better known person. While that might help, it is more important that he or she has drive, judgement and understanding of business needs while not being subject to particular interest group lobbying. The British commissioner who pioneered the 1992 single market programme, with considerable success, Lord Cockfield, was not well known at the time of his appointment, but the appointment by Mrs Thatcher proved a good one. There would be no harm, indeed it would be beneficial, that the commissioner has been highly critical of EU legislation. But he or she must not be fundamentally opposed to the principles of the internal market. It is not actually easy to make a clear distinction between potentially constructive euroscepticism and destructive europhobia, since most of the mainstream rhetoric in the Conservative Party is imprecise. What is above all needed is an understanding of logic:

  •  A market economy cannot function effectively except within the framework of the rule of law.
  •  Therefore a common market requires a common framework of law.
  •  Given that the market is a very important part of a modern society such a common framework of law cannot but intrude significantly into the right of each country to make its own laws.

If the above logic is recognised, a good candidate should be one who is determined to prune ruthlessly the legislative constraints on member states and on businesses to the minimum necessary to enable free movement of goods and services, while safeguarding the most important health, safety and environmental objectives.

It may be that the UK does not have an ideal candidate in which case Cameron would do best to push for a good one from another country, while still looking for a significant post, like trade, energy, competition or employment, for the British commissioner.


European Council president is key to UK renegotiation

The other key post is the president of the European Council of heads of government. This is the person that will chair the renegotiation of membership terms which the next government will conduct if the Conservatives win the 2015 election and form a government on their own or in coalition.

In a sense these renegotiations, which will aim to change the specific conditions of UK membership, are less important than the overall reform of the EU in a direction which the UK wants, but which it can argue benefits all members. It is only by overall reform that there can be changes effecting conditions for businesses and so for economic performance. With regard to UK-specific conditions, the UK already has huge opt-outs, notably from the euro, banking union and the Schengen border-free area, and it can decide independently whether or to what extent it participates in common rules on criminal justice.  There is not that much more it can opt out of without opting out of the EU altogether.

Nevertheless these negotiations will be of great symbolic importance. There is for example the question of whether the UK should continue to accept the principle, stated in the founding treaty, of aiming for an “ever-closer union of the peoples”, a phrase which tends to be over-interpreted by both euro-sceptics in the UK and euro-idealists on the continent as meaning deeper political union. The UK did sign up to this principle when it joined the then European Community in 1973, but it could argue that the principle of subsidiarity, or devolution of powers whenever there is no compelling argument for common powers, a principle which has subsequently been taken on board by the EU institutions and all member states, contradicts the idea of moving towards ever closer union. A Council president sympathetic to the British viewpoint on this and similar matters could make an enormous difference to the success of renegotiations in achieving what the UK’s Conservative Party wants