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View from Brussels: Four jobs the UK Commissioner could do

Image credit: European Commission

The European Commission has asked the UK government to decide on who should serve as Britain’s representative in the next EU executive. But since all the plum jobs are already gone, what could be left on the table?

Britain may have entered election campaign mode but that has not stopped the EU’s executive branch insisting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson nominate someone to serve in the next Commission.

In fact, Brussels wants the UK to nominate two candidates, one male and one female, so that president-in-waiting Ursula von der Leyen can try to salvage a pledge to make her Commission as gender-balanced as possible.

At time of publishing, Johnson had not sent a name to Brussels or even acknowledged von der Leyen’s request but the Commission is most insistent that the UK has a legal obligation to do so.

A spokesperson told reporters on Friday (8 November) that “this is black and white. It is a legal decision,” citing the revamped withdrawal agreement brokered last month.

The incumbent Commissioner, unaffiliated diplomat Sir Julian King, could be in the frame to continue in his position until the UK is in a position to leave the EU, although King has repeatedly told Brussels media that he has not been approached about it.

Regardless of who gets the nod, what could the UK’s Commissioner oversee, given that all the top jobs have already been doled out? Here are four suggestions.

Security Union

King is the EU’s Security Union chief, a portfolio that involves anti-terrorism measures, improving intelligence-sharing and fighting cyber crime. The position was created for him when he replaced compatriot Jonathan Hill, who resigned after the Brexit referendum.

The Security Union gig also involves “reinforcing the capacity to protect critical infrastructures and soft targets”, according to the job’s official brief.

Recently, that has focused on safeguarding 5G networks and assessing how vulnerable those planned systems are to outside or even domestic interference.

King refers to the 5G networks of the future as “the essential digital plumbing” of everyday citizens’ lives and recently oversaw a report into the risks facing their rollout.

Both he and the Commission were criticised for not naming and shaming outside powers that pose the greatest threat to EU security but King remained defiant that the neutral approach at this stage was the right one to take.

The next Commission’s proposed work programme has digitalisation at the heart of lots of its policies, and although the current executive favoured Wi-Fi over 5G in specific areas like connected cars, it is clearly still an area of immense interest.

According to sources inside the executive, the most likely scenario is that King will be retained in his current position, so that Johnson does not have to spend too much political capital on explaining a new nomination to his voter base.

It also means that von der Leyen does not have to chop and change too much when it comes to the jobs she has already allotted. Her Commission has already had to delay its start date by a month due to difficulties in getting the European Parliament to give her the green light.

Given that King already proved his mettle in front of MEPs more than two years ago, sticking with security could be the option that works best.

Industry, defence and space

France is on track to land the huge industry, defence and space job. Current candidate Thierry Breton was the head of multinational tech company Atos and was parachuted in last month when the previous candidate was rejected for a conflict of interest.

What has been dubbed as a “mega-portfolio” in Brussels will oversee everything to do with the internal market and defence industry policy. That latter aspect has been boosted by the creation of a department dedicated solely to defence and space.

Emmanuel Macron was adamant that his candidate be given the job, since France sees it as a huge area of interest. But a conflict of interest was not the only thing to take down the previous candidate.

The portfolio is massive and it will involve overseeing billions of euros in investment and funding. Breton’s past involvement in the industry has also been questioned.

“With Thierry Breton new questions of conflict of interest arise. He is the shareholder of a company that gets European subsidies and that could lead to cutting down his portfolio," French Green MEP Yannick Jadot said.

Breton has sold €34 million-worth of shares to placate fears but MEPs are still pumped up from felling three of von der Leyen’s picks. They could therefore insist on Breton’s job being scaled back.

Enter Julian King or another candidate proposed by Johnson.

The UK Commissioner could be given joint or junior oversight over the policy areas. It would be an elegant solution to various problems, as the current state-of-play still sees Britain leave the EU in January.

Whether a London-Paris axis could work is another matter entirely, of course.

Multilingualism

Language policy is something of an in-joke in Brussels. When Romania joined the EU in 2007, its Commissioner was given the multilingualism portfolio, an area of policymaking where the European Commission has very little actual power.

The decision to give Bucharest what was effectively a nothing job was basically a message from Brussels at the time that the newcomer could not yet be trusted to oversee an area of real importance.

As an aside, Romania was in charge of regional funding last time around and is now on track to be in charge of transport, showing that there is room for career progression in the Commission. It is just a matter of building trust and keeping your nose clean.

In the same vein, the multilingualism job could be brought down from the top shelf, dusted off and given to a UK official, especially if Johnson nominates someone specifically meant to disrupt the EU’s work.

Inland waterways

Another Brussels bubble joke is the fictional portfolio of ‘Inland Waterways and Catering’, which was held by fictional Commissioner Albert Kuñardocz, a parody Twitter account that has been running since 2015.

Kuñardocz hails from an unknown member state and has regularly lampooned EU jargon and the official ‘stakeholders’ that ply their trade in the various institutions and offices in the Belgian capital.

His mandate mostly focused on dredging the Union’s various rivers and canals, as well as launching new initiatives like the EU’s ‘Blue Roads’ programme.

Von der Leyen’s new Commission will focus heavily on green policies, so a focus on shifting freight and even passengers from roads to waterways could end up happening.

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