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MM profile: MEP Syed Kamall: Fighting the financial services’ corner in Europe

Conservative MEP Syed Kamall reflects on the UK’s role in the EU and the importance of MEPs

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Conservative MEP Syed Kamall’s record in elections is not good. He has the unenviable achievement of losing in local, regional, national and European elections.

However, given the growing power of Europe to make regulatory decisions affecting financial services, and Kamall’s role on an influential committee involved in the policy making process, he is now in a position of significant political influence.  

Since he joined the Conservative Party as an under-graduate in 1987, Kamall knew that politics was an unpredictable trade.

His first election came in Bath in 1994 when he was just 27 and ran for council. After being knocked back by voters he made a fresh bid in 1995 but the result was the same.

He then waited five years to run for the first General London Assembly elections in 2000 but struggled in a Labour-dominated election.

The following year he ran in the general election under the doomed leadership of William Hague in the super-safe Labour seat of West Ham.

He says: “I didn’t have a chance but I came close and took 15,000 votes. It was a good experience and all parties will tell you to go and cut your teeth in an unwinnable seat.”

In 2004 he got back on the horse again and ran for the European Parliament for one of the eight seats from London. Under the proportional representation system voters choose a party rather than a candidate so as the party gets more votes more of its candidates are elected.

Kamall was third on the Tory list but only the top two were elected. However, in 2005 he had a breakthrough when Theresa Villiers, who was second on the MEP list, was elected to the House of Commons and he was moved up the Tory list to replace her.

After a decade of attempts he had finally been given a chance and was re-elected in 2009 and has plans to run again in May 2014.

However, Kamall is still keen to become an MP at some stage. To do so he must obey a new party rule meaning he has to quit as an MEP to become a parliamentary candidate. It would be a big risk but he says he is ready to do it for the right opportunity.

While politics has been a major part of his life he also had a parallel career. He studied at university to masters level before completing a doctorate in organisational change in transitioned economies, focused on the post-communist eastern European countries.

Once obtaining his PhD he taught post-graduates on foreign direct investment and trade at Bath University and Leeds University but has also held a string of other jobs.

His only spell in finance came as a short stint in the IT department of NatWest in foreign transactions between his masters and Phd. After leaving teaching he worked for a small management consultancy but left after three years.

Until his election in 2005 Kamall was self-employed doing a selection of freelance lecturing, management consultancy, public affairs consultancy and a small recruitment company.

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He says: “Politics was always parallel as it is such a lottery, I know people who are elected immediately and people who are never elected so you have to do it alongside your career.”

Since becoming an MEP he has made waves in Brussels as a member of the economic and monetary affairs committee, a key driver of EU financial services rules..

The Financial Conduct Authority has repeatedly warned most regulation will come from Brussels in future meaning the role of UK MEPs involved in financial services is only going to grow in importance, as long as the country remains a member state.

On the one hand, Kamall is involved in crucial votes, debates and policy making on major issues and yet he is unknown to most voters. Even national politicians have been slow to recognise the shift in power.

Kamall says: “When we were in opposition I found it frustrating talking to the shadow ministerial team about our work as they would say it’s fine but then contact us a year later when it was too late. Since we have got into Government there has been more realisation we have a role to play.”

The raft of Brussels’ financial services regulation since the crash has led to the suspicion that the EU is out to punish the sector for the crisis.

The bankers’ bonus cap was seen as a symbolic attempt to attack London and the UK and was outvoted 26 to one. It was closely followed by an attempt to cap fund manager bonuses to the further anger of the City. This was narrowly defeated in the European Parliament last month.

Kamall says: “I hope we have seen it off but another country may try and introduce it again at Council during trialogue negotiations. We are hoping it is the high watermark of bashing for the finance sector but I can see future moves to place further restrictions on the asset management sector so we have to stay alert all the time.”

Kamall has been involved with the packaged retail investment products rules, which is reforming investor transparency through the Key Investor Information Document.

Prips is the subject of fierce debate both within the parliament and between the parliament and council leading to fears it could be delayed for years or kicked into the long grass. 

Prips is symptomatic of haphazard and glacially slow EU rule-making. For example, in the first meeting to discuss the Kiid MEPs spent 45 minutes poring over the first line.

Kamall says: “It’s been a surreal experience with politicians just sat around a table effectively writing what is going to be in the Kid. There is no consumer testing or real debate, it is just MEPs sitting there and saying this is what is going in the Kid.”

In response to mounting frustrations over the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and hold an in/put referendum by 2017.

As part of the renegotiation Kamall believes the UK needs more power to stop financial service rules damaging the sector.

He says: ”The EU has to recognise where regulation disproportionately affects a member state. When it comes to agriculture the French always stand up for themselves and the Germans put their foot down on the automotive industry. There has to be a similar situation for us and financial services.

”For example, there are politicians from countries with no hedge funds or private equity sector who are quite happy to regulate so firms leave London.”

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Born: 1967

Lives: Surbiton, Kingston

Career: 2005-present – Member of the European Parliament for London; 2001-05 – self-employed, strategy/marketing consultancy, lecturing, recruitment, public affairs; 1997-2001 – strategy consultant, Omega Partners Ltd; 1996-97 – post-doctoral research fellow, Leeds University Business School; 1994-96 – post-doctoral teaching fellow, University of Bath, School of Management; 1989-91 – business systems analyst, NatWest Bank

Likes: Cricket, football, walking, cycling

Dislikes: The waste and hassle involved in the European Parliament moving to Strasbourg 12 times a year

Drives: Just given away my 1999 Jeep Cherokee and moved to a ZipCar

Favourite book: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Favourite film: Burnt By The Sun of the Revolution, The Matrix

Favourite musician: Jimi Hendrix

If i wasn’t doing this I would be… trying to get rich in order to fund community-led projects

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