Listen to this article
They called it “French face-ache”. The dull cramp struck at the close of a long office day, spread across their jaws, numbed their cheeks, knotted their tongues. It was a bothersome and oh-so British ailment.
Its sufferers were the first British eurocrats, the Brussels pioneers of 1973. They were 300 mostly male pilgrims to the European Community, a grand experiment in continental power-sharing that operated almost entirely in fearsome, technical French and showed no mercy to monoglots. The Brits were latecomers to this six-country club and they felt it.
“A-jabber with alien tongues and local jargon . . . obeying customs unknown to Englishmen and laws unknown to the gods,” wrote seasoned diplomat-turned-eurocrat Sir Leslie Fielding in his 2009 autobiography Kindly Call Me God, in which he also diagnosed the troubling facial malady blighting the freshman Brits.
As well as face-ache, there were teething problems; some turned up to find no phone, no desk and nobody aware of them having a job. But on the whole, the class of 1973 liked it. The pay was stellar – roughly three times that in Whitehall – the work verged on glamorous, their (three) secretaries raced to supply them with coffee, and the food was incomparable to lousy home fare. Bill Robinson, a former Treasury economist, thought he had “died and gone to heaven”.
Like Britain itself, many saw the union in terms of its economic merits rather than as a historic calling. But there was idealism, too, a spirit of joining a bold and big endeavour. It shines through “Changing Horizons”, an in-house collection of pioneers’ stories. When he was offered a senior Commission job, Stanley Johnson recalls his wife asking: “But where will the children go to school?” “They can go to the European school and grow into good little Europeans,” he replies. Echoing Wordsworth, he adds: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”
Forty years on, little Boris, the tub-thumping eurosceptic mayor of London, isn’t quite living up to father Stanley’s billing. And Stanley’s golden dawn has sunk to twilight, at least for the pioneers. Those young recruits of the 1970s are retiring from a Brussels transformed in outlook, bigger, more liberal and abuzz with (at times criminally bad) English. The Brits made their mark. Yet many admit to departing with a feeling of deep sadness. Euroscepticism is riding high. Their country is edging towards the EU exit. No longer happy cruising in the European-integration slow lane, Britain is proudly standing aside, outside the single currency, the passport-free Schengen area and more. Now David Cameron’s Conservatives want to go further with a “new deal” on Europe, put to an in-out vote in 2017. The eurocrat pioneers joined just before the (easily won) 1975 referendum on Harold Wilson’s sham “renegotiation”; they retire fearing an (easily lost) referendum that would unwind a partnership to which they have dedicated their careers.
The eurocrat is not a popular thing, whatever its ilk. The Brussels machine has vastly expanded in ambition and reach, pronouncing on anything from olive-oil jugs to lorry wing mirrors to the unaffordable pay packages of (other) civil servants. The price of power was accepting the role as Europe’s political whipping boys. Listen to the commission’s critics and it is at once too liberal, too austere, too lax, too dirigiste, too timid, too meddlesome. This profession requires a thick hide.
Yet the British eurocrat faces a special kind of scorn. A breed apart, they are the unloved orphans of eurocracy. Derided at home as pampered, overpaid, rulemaking fanatics, they are the faceless men riding the gravy train (or so the cliché goes). Meanwhile in Brussels they are at best forever apologising for their truculent countrymen or at worst facing suspicion as a perfidious fifth column. What really hurts, says one, is being “the recipient of pity”.
Their career path is uncertain, their numbers plummeting. About 40 per cent will retire by 2020, a 300-strong exodus unmatched by new Brit recruits. Even now, the Poles have overtaken them, having joined just a decade ago, and the French outnumber them two to one. Britain is the most under-represented country in the EU institutions. Within the commission alone the gap represents a missing battalion of 900 Brits, the size of an entire department. There are powerful Commissioner jobs that are out of bounds. You don’t get to run things if you opt out. And there are pockets of the city that are virtually Brit-free. Giles Goodall describes himself as an “endangered species” at the justice directorate, one of just four permanent policymaking officials in a 300-strong department.
“We are in a dark and lonely place and it will only get worse,” one serving Brit confesses.
All this is a painful denouement for a generation that thinks it won the battle for Brussels yet is losing the war on the home front. Its plight is the story of Britain’s hokey-cokey with Europe.
If the anglocrats have a patriarch, it is Jonathan Faull. Affable, cricket-mad, restless and wily, Faull is entrusted with one of the hottest potatoes in town: running a French Commissioner’s department overseeing the EU single market. His stint has coincided with the biggest overhaul of City of London rules in a generation, often in the teeth of opposition from Whitehall. We talk over lunch in a scruffy old Belgian haunt, replete with ashtrays beside the toilets, which touchingly looks like it was last refurbished when Faull arrived in Brussels in 1978.
Like many of his peers, Faull reckons that the shape of the EU – so decried in the UK – is a triumph of British foreign policy. Enlargement to 28 members, the single-market ideal, open trade, liberal economics, tough competition enforcement – all are largely hard-wired into the system. Those who attempted to create Fortress Europe, promoting its industry champions and cosseting its workers, largely failed. “If you ask the French who has been the dominant force in the EU for the last 20 years, they would probably say Britain for the first 15 and Germany since the crisis,” he said. “Just as we think it’s a great French plot, they think it’s a great British plot. People like easy conspiracy theories, and the truth is a lot more complex, but the British influence in Brussels has been enormous, long-lasting, and far beyond the number of Brits in senior positions.”
City regulation was the apple of discord between Britain and Brussels; relations with Michel Barnier, Faull’s Commissioner and London’s nemesis, were at times poisonous. Banker bonus caps, new powers to EU financial watchdogs, the regulatory annexation of untouched parts of the City – this was a hard sell to the ever wary UK Treasury. Often unfairly, Faull played fall guy for failing to stop the more controversial measures. Treasury suits would mutter: “There goes his gong.” (Knighthoods are tossed out like confetti in Whitehall but held back from eurocrats until they retire, supposedly to avoid undermining their impartiality.) Faull stood in a horribly awkward place. But the fact that he was standing there at all made a difference. It could have been much worse.
Does he fear for the next generation? “If I were 40 years old, with a mortgage and kids, I’d be asking, ‘What is going to happen to me if my country leaves the EU?’ To which, by the way, there is no clear answer. I don’t think anybody really knows. There are apparently still Norwegian ghosts wandering around [the commission], who joined between the signing of the Treaty and their referendum that said no.”
Among the crop of forty-something Brits is Matthew Reece, an official at the EU Council, which represents member states. He is not your average eurocrat. A former soldier, he served with the Welsh Guards in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. He has a straight back, a crushing handshake and the nerve to speak his mind. This is a man who served Queen and country. But he is a “believer” in Europe finding strength in numbers and “not well disposed to having [his] patriotism and loyalty questioned”. He worries about what happens when the current cohort of senior, influential officials leaves. “We’re close to the brink of an abyss,” he says. “Right now there are enough Brits around so we don’t have to skip along the corridors festooned in garlic and berets, in disguise. But that is likely to change. The numbers go. There’s friction ahead.”
It depends on where they work but others already feel the heat. Some senior eurocrats are in a perma-sulk with the UK. David Cameron’s veto of an EU fiscal pact in 2011 – dubbed 9/12 – certainly soured the mood. At the extreme, Brits are just ignored; Brussels is getting used to working round London. Brits are already losing out on senior appointments; backers for other candidates whisper, “Don’t pick the Brit – they may have left in three years.” Sir Julian Priestley, formerly a top official at the European parliament, has said these tactics are all now “fair game”. Then there are the softer signs. One Dutch official with a British name and Home Counties accent resorted to planting an orange flag in his office – just to make his heritage absolutely clear.
Budding eurocrats need to pass muster with David Bearfield. He is in charge of the dreaded concours – a Brit overseeing an entrance system that seems fiendishly stacked against monoglot Brits (most of it is done in non-native EU languages). When I arrive in his office he sits behind his desk, in shorts, one leg wrapped in bandage and hoisted on a chair. Football? No. Over the weekend, he fell into a first world war trench showing his children the past.
Bearfield, born in Kent, rose through the fabled “European Fast Stream” – a Whitehall-to-Brussels scheme recently resurrected after a brief hiatus and much fuss. From Brussels he has watched his home coast turn into a Ukip eurosceptic stronghold. “It’s fairly hostile territory,” he says. “It is ironic because it’s so close to Europe. On a sunny day you can see France. And the economy benefits tremendously there from all of the young people who come over every summer to learn English. So it’s very, very strange.”
Being upbeat is in the job description but it comes to Bearfield naturally. He recalls the “hysteria” around the 1990s “beef war” over BSE being far worse than today’s froideur. “There was almost a personal edge to it, you didn’t always feel comfortable.” And while the UK intake numbers are still pretty low, they’re improving, he says. This isn’t just a UK issue; the imbalance is the result of the first ever enlargement. It hits the Irish and Danes too. Others will follow.
He puts great stock on the generational shift. “I was talking to my kids the other day about the war, when I was falling down that trench in France,” he says. “For those people setting up the EU, or the EC, 12 years after the end of the second world war, it must have been very, very personal. We can’t have that, perhaps only vicariously.”
The post-1989 generation discovered Europe in a different, more positive way, seeing it as “a big space they can go and live and work in and study in, in a way my generation didn’t”. These young people are flocking to Brussels jobs, forcing him to reject roughly 100 applicants for every one accepted. “I spoke to Edinburgh university 10 days ago. There were 400 people in the room. It was packed out. That speaks volumes,” he says.
But there is no hiding the dire stats. The UK represents 12 per cent of the EU population and 2 per cent of applicants; there are almost as many Dutch and Slovakian hopefuls as Brits. In 2012, just five Brits made the shortlist – an 11th of the Italian recruits. Even those university crowds are not quite what they seem. Antonia Mochan, an even sunnier official who used to visit UK universities to drum up interest, says: “There are a lot of people but a lot of them aren’t British.” Language requirements are tougher these days but that’s not the only thing deterring Brits. For all the talk of gravy trains, at lower levels the pay is not what it was. Young eurocrats may never earn in salary what the class of ’73 will draw in their pension alone. Then there is reputation. “You can’t have years and years of undermining, running down and belittling an institution and then expect your brightest, best graduates to go and work for it,” Mochan says.
It’s not only serving officials who fear what happens to them if Britain leaves. I press Bearfield on the rules and, like other Brits, he mentions the ghostly Norwegians. “Goodness knows. Hopefully they will let us . . .” he trails off. “I don’t know.”
Some Brits have an escape route: switching flags. Faull is married to a Frenchwoman, Reece and Bearfield to Swedes. If Britain and the EU come to a bitter divorce, one old hand jokes, those beached Brits “better have married well”.
Alex Barker is the FT’s EU correspondent
To comment on this article please post below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Be alerted on Brexit