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Business Comment

James Ashton: Britain could do with the EU's internal markets brief

My Week

I started the week in Brussels, dining with some lawyer friends. Belgium's capital is full of fervent political types, but my friends would rather debate anti-trust legislation than who succeeds in next Thursday's European Parliament elections.

How well Marine Le Pen's and Nigel Farage's far-right parties poll is clearly of political interest, but from a business perspective little is expected to change. For my friends, even David Cameron's pledge to hold an in-out referendum on European Union membership if he is re-elected next year is a fringe issue.

What does matter, though, is the make-up of the next European Commission, the bloc's executive and where the real power lies. Whether Mr Cameron's nominee this summer is the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley, or the former trade secretary Peter Lilley, it would be helpful to grab the internal markets brief currently held by Michel Barnier. That would give Britain more influence over the eurozone's banking union, whose creation we are unwisely sitting at arm's length from.

As Mr Cameron focuses on picking a commissioner who can sell Europe to Britain as well as vice versa, he might also consider statistics from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee that suggest the Brussels retreat has already begun. The number of UK nationals on the European Commission's staff has dropped 24 per cent in the seven years to 2012. They now make up less than 5 per cent of the workforce, despite Britain accounting for more than 12 per cent of the EU's population. The lawyers won't mind, but it doesn't augur a prosperous future with our biggest trading partner.