Strangely for the usually staid European Parliament, the session began with a burst of laughter. Then there was laughter during the sitting. And it finished with an amusing digression on the subject of gardening.
Thus, Lord Jonathan Hill had brought with him to Brussels a sample of the British humour. Hill will now take over as the EU commissioner to lead the EU’s new DG for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets.
The parliamentary session – a repeat vetting of the UK prime minister David Cameron’s nominee – looked as if it could open on a sour note. The previous week, MEPs in the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee failed to clear him.
“It was as if the commissioner designate were a disgraced schoolboy being put on detention”, is how a German MEP described the situation. Not only had Hill had past links with the City of London (partly blamed for the financial crisis), but he also appeared to be weak on financial law.
However, Hill kicked off his opening remarks with the words that he was “happy to be back”, but then immediately joked: “But I didn’t expect to be welcomed back so soon!” His wit got him copious laughter and even applause. Immediately, it was as if the temperature in the Brussels debating chamber shot up from pretty cold to pretty warm.
Hence, Hill succeeded in carrying his audience (at least a lot of it) with him through his next cheerily expressed “scenario” of what he’d like to see at the end of his mandate. It was a glowing vision of sunny uplands, indeed. It included a completion of the banking union and went on to visualise contented EU citizens happy to be experiencing lower costs for life insurance and pensions.
Furthermore, implementation of a European Capital Market Union would see to the successful funding of SMEs. This, in turn, would contribute to large-scale employment. Also, Hill predicted, there would be no retreat by the UK from the EU. Applause!
Nevertheless, one MEP did sneer. He mocked the 2019 scenario as a “gloriously rosy picture”. As a UKIP member, he particularly pointed the finger at the UK staying in the EU.
In contrast, there was a specific tribute paid by another of Hill’s interrogators for his British sense of humour. This was unlikely, in that she is a Socialist – that is, on the other side of the fence from Hill, and French! However, Pervenche Berès is herself no stranger to humour. She had once, as a somewhat barbed joke, presented a predecessor of Hill with a Barbie Doll horse. The doll had big blue eyes and a long mane of fine hair. The ceremonial presentation, during another committee session, was to reprimand the commissioner for skipping a meeting, for the sake of attending Cheltenham races.
Later, for Hill, came a probing question on how often he met with David Cameron. There was laughter when Hill said he did not attend the “Chipping Norton does” (the British Chipping Norton “set” is an elite group of media, political and show-business acquaintances based on a market town in Oxfordshire).
Finally came the gardening. As he was known as a keen gardener, what seeds should be sown when he gets into office, an MEP queried? Whoomph! Hill was now on serious ground. He advised, authoritatively, that, at this time of the year, one does not normally plant seeds. One digs. One cuts back unwanted growth. One applies manure, to achieve sound growth in season. The MEPs laughed. And Hill cleared through his grilling. He is expected to enter office on 1 November.