BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - The head of the European Parliament rowed back on Wednesday after saying the EU legislature might reject Britain’s nominee for the European Commission, Jonathan Hill, for “radically anti-European” views.
Martin Schulz told a news conference he had been answering a hypothetical question from a German radio interviewer who said that Hill, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s nominee for the EU executive, was an extreme Eurosceptic.
Schulz said he had no personal knowledge of the Conservative lawmaker’s views.
“Today friends told me that Mr Hill is a rather pro-European person by UK standards. I’m very pleased with that,” the German Social Democrat said. The British nominee should be given a fair chance to prove to at a parliamentary hearing his competence for the portfolio he would be allocated, he added.
Schulz’s early morning comments to Deutschlandfunk radio caused outrage and incomprehension among British politicians.
“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,” the parliament president had said.
Cameron’s choices of the little-known moderately Eurosceptic leader of the House of Lords as Britain’s next European Commissioner and of prominent Eurosceptic Philip Hammond as foreign secretary dismayed some European Union politicians.
Schulz said he had since learned that Hill had been former Prime Minister John Major’s chief of staff and was a bridge-builder in the House of Lords, so he was withholding judgment.
Cameron promises to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties and hold an in/out referendum in 2017 if he is re-elected next year. The nominations are a nod to Eurosceptics among his Conservatives and to the growth of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).
“It’s no secret that Lord Hill shares the prime minister’s views in terms of the need for Europe to reform ... and also the changing of Britain’s relationship with the EU as part of that,” said Cameron’s spokesman.
The British leader was confident Hill “will command wide respect in Brussels”, added the aide.
The 28 EU member states’ commissioners-designate undergo individual confirmation hearings with parliamentary committees on their portfolios in September and an informal indicative vote on their suitability is usually taken afterwards.
However, the EU assembly cannot formally vote to confirm or reject individuals. It can only give or withhold a vote of confidence on the entire Commission as a college at the end of the process, usually in early October.
Parliament has applied pressure via the committee hearings to force member states to withdraw their candidates in three cases since 2004. The best known was when Italy withdrew Rocco Buttiglione’s candidacy for the justice and home affairs job after he said in his hearing that homosexuality was a sin.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage called Schulz’s remarks “a declaration of war ... on the choice of the British government”.
“How dare Martin Schulz interfere in the British nomination of its European Commissioner and prejudge what the decision of the MEPs will be,” said Farage in a statement, adding that it was “beyond me” how Schulz could consider Hill a Eurosceptic.
Cameron opposed the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former premier of Luxembourg, as the new president of the European Commission but was defeated by other EU leaders. Juncker’s appointment was approved by lawmakers on Tuesday.
A senior member of the European Parliament said lawmakers would want to look into any potential conflict of interest between Hill’s Commission duties and his role as founder and owner of a lobbying firm in Britain.
Philippe Lamberts, Belgian co-chairman of the Greens party in the EU legislature, said: “I’m waiting to get the facts. Is he still the owner? What interest did he represent. Is he appropriate for the job? Doesn’t he have conflicts of interest?”
Additional reporting by Gernot Heller in Berlin, William James in London; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Susan Fenton and Madeline Chambers. Editing by Mike Peacock