Lord Hill takes ‘Hugh Grant approach’ to EU hearing

Britain’s Commissioner promises to defend interests of 28 nations

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Indy Politics

It was billed as Hill on the Grill, but at first glance the European Parliament hearing for Britain’s European Commissioner appeared to be a more of a friendly fireside chat, with plenty of banter on literary giants and only the occasional hostile salvo about his ties to the City of London.

Taking what some Twitter users dubbed the Hugh Grant approach, Lord Jonathan Hill employed a mix of sympathy and understanding, nodding and a bit of bumbling, and some classic British self-deprecation to try and remove the sting from a tough questioning session.

But, although his appearance was widely perceived as successful on the charm front, MEPs were not so convinced by his grasp on the financial markets portfolio, and called him back for a second hearing next week – making Lord Hill the first Commission candidate to face a repeat grilling.

Members of his own party tried to offer some consolation. “Not easy to learn five years of financial regulation in 10 days,” tweeted Kay Swinburne, Tory MEP for Wales.

A bumpy ride was to be expected. When the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, last month handed Lord Hill a senior economic post in his 28-member Commission, there were cries of surprise and then dismay in Brussels. Britain had been expected to get a minor portfolio after David Cameron’s vigorous but unsuccessful attempt to prevent Mr Juncker from getting the top EU job.

Instead, Mr Juncker gave the former lobbyist and Conservative House of Lords leader the post of Commissioner for Financial Services – a crucial economic sector for Britain – leading one Green MEP to say the appointment was akin to letting “a fox guard the hen house”.

It was not only his historical ties to the City of London when working in the private sector that  irked many in the European Parliament, which has to approve Mr Juncker’s Commission. Letting a politician from a non-eurozone and often Eurosceptic country take on the task of forging greater economic co-operation between the 28 EU nations also seemed inconceivable.

So when Lord Hill adjusted his tie in the glare of the cameras ahead of his questioning by MEPs, many people were expecting fireworks. He immediately went in for a conciliatory tone, delivering his opening salvo in French – “the language of Molière” – to prove even a Brit can be urbane and multi-lingual.

He swiftly addressed a key concern of many in Brussels. “I want Britain to be part of a successful European Union,” he said, before reassuring MEPs that he had sold all his shares and did not sit on the board of any companies.

Many questions were on technicalities regarding financial markets, often followed by proclamations in favour of Shakespeare, Cervantes or Goethe to match his Molière. But some MEPs returned to the question of his allegiances, forcing Lord Hill to insist he was “not a representative of the City of London”. Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe injected a surreal element by quoting the Bible, then asking Lord Hill whether his allegiance was to the Queen or the EU.

But near the end of the nearly three-hour session, it became clear that some MEPs were not convinced by his grasp of some of the complexities of banking union and financial regulation which they see as key to the EU’s recovery. “You show an impressive rhetorical brilliance, but also a lack of substance,” Germany’s Liberal MEP Michael Theurer said.

Lord Hill must now work on his substance or face rejection by MEPs and end Mr Cameron’s hopes of having a friendly face in a top position.