STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The diplomat nominated to take Britain’s vacant seat on the EU executive pledged on Monday to serve “only the European general interest” if EU lawmakers accept him as, probably, the last ever British commissioner.
Julian King conceded he was in a “particular situation” that he “would probably not have believed” before the June 23 Brexit referendum when Britons voted to quit the European Union.
However, nominated by London after predecessor Jonathan Hill resigned from the Commission following the vote, King told a confirmation hearing in the European Parliament for the new post of EU security commissioner that he would respect the Brexit verdict but also be loyal to the EU if he takes up the post.
“I strongly advocated the position of the British government during the UK referendum campaign,” he said, noting he was the ambassador to France at the time, when then prime minister David Cameron was campaigning to keep Britain in the EU.
“I have always been proud to be British and proud to be European and see no contradiction between the two. But on 23 June a majority of my compatriots decided they wanted to leave the EU. We must respect that decision.”
Speaking in French, King added: “For the avoidance of doubt ... I will fulfill my tasks to the best of my ability serving the European general interest, and only the European general interest”
Britain is expected to leave the Union in the next few years when King, 52, would then have to leave the Commission. He was nominated by Cameron before he resigned as premier and lawmakers said he was likely to be approved by parliament later this week.
Pressed by Gerard Batten of the UK Independence Party on how long he expected to have the job, King declined to speculate on how long Brexit negotiations would last and insisted he would be entirely independent of the British government if confirmed.
In an intimation of independence from a nominee who unlike most commissioners has not been an elected politician, he said Prime Minister Theresa May faces a “problem” if she opts out of new EU legislation next year on its Europol police agency.
Pro-Brexit figures argue it is illogical to sign Britain up to closer police cooperation while it is already negotiating to leave the bloc. But King, who described Europol as a “fantastic organization”, said failure to opt in would create a possible “gap” in Britain’s security arrangements until it is able to strike a new agreement with the EU once it has left the Union.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has offered King, who has also been a senior official at the Commission in the past, the post of security commissioner, responsible for promoting closer coordination against militant violence.
As he noted in remarks to lawmakers on the civil liberties committee, he has considerable personal experience, including as a civil servant responsible for Northern Ireland and as ambassador to Dublin. The choice of portfolio is also one that Juncker sees as an area in which London will continue to work closely with Brussels even after Britain has left the EU.
King said that while security remains primarily a responsibility of member states, the EU had a clear role in promoting coordination as threats from groups such as Islamic State were ranging across borders and posing common risks.
“Neither terrorism nor organized crime respects national borders,” he said. “Indeed their business models thrive on the lack of coordination between states.”
Even after Brexit, he noted, London would still be two hours by train from Paris or Brussels, both struck by Islamic State in the past year. “We would still have a shared interest in trying to tackle these threats,” King said.
King is widely expected to be accepted by lawmakers and would then take up his post in Brussels in the coming weeks.
Editing by Ralph Boulton