Listen to this article
Regular readers of Brussels Briefing will know Paul McClean. For the first half of this year he wrote many of these morning emails, offering you a glimpse of the remarkable, impossible-to-miss, can-he-really-be-that-young talent we worked with every day. Wit, charm, tenacity and the sucker punch of the finest writers — he was only 24, but a first-class journalist in the making.
Paul died while on holiday in Sri Lanka. The circumstances were tragic but the final cause of death has yet to be established. Our thoughts are with his close family and loved ones. We were so very lucky to have him as a friend and colleague in Brussels. We’ll miss him dearly.
There have been touching tributes to Paul’s exceptional character. He was smart, supremely generous and infectiously funny. We could go on.
But here we wanted to recall some of his genuinely groundbreaking work on the EU. As a graduate trainee in Brussels for a six-month stint, Paul turned out pieces that established journalists at the peak of their careers would be proud to match.
On Brexit, he delved into complex and overlooked areas of policy to emerge months later with clear, lucid stories that grabbed people’s attention. They travelled far and wide — even making an appearance on John Oliver’s satirical show, Last Week Tonight. That is a special talent. And, perhaps just as impressive, much of his best work is as relevant today as the day he filed it.
When Paul arrived as a trainee with no EU experience and lots of time on his hands, we decided to throw him in the deep end. His first long-term assignment was to work out how many EU-signed international agreements Britain would be excluded from at the point of Brexit.
Until then British ministers and EU officials vaguely referred to the 50-odd EU trade deals that would need to be replaced on departure. We knew there was more to it than that. There were lots of other agreements — covering fisheries, the nuclear sector, regulatory co-operation, customs — that by law fell away on Brexit day.
It took someone with Paul’s grit and patience to work out the exact number. Britain would need to renegotiate no fewer than 759 treaties with 168 countries, ranging from agreements on Chilean swordfish to the trade guarantees that keep Britain’s nuclear power stations going.
This was not just a matter of data mining. Paul spent five months checking every agreement — and excluded hundreds more that were not relevant to the UK.
At one point he even looked at a 1923 Anglo-Finnish treaty on “the disposal of the estates of deceased seamen”. It was painstaking work, but oh how he made us laugh.
Paul elegantly explained his findings, and richly deserved his mention on the John Oliver show. His revelations were widely read in Whitehall and the European Commission. They will only grow in importance over time.
Early this year the impact of Brexit on the aviation sector was one of the least understood elements of the looming EU-UK divorce. It was hard for anyone — including in the industry — to imagine the regulatory umbrella provided by the EU being suddenly withdrawn from UK airlines and passengers.
Paul’s first piece outlined why that EU regime was so important — and why the politics of Brexit potentially put it in jeopardy. He started from a simple question: What permissions are required for a passenger plane to fly out of Britain and land overseas? It was an exemplary piece of explanatory journalism.
From it emerged a news story: several airlines might need to forcibly buy out their UK shareholders to maintain their EU licences. When the Guardian lifted part of Paul’s story almost word-for-word, we encouraged him to send an invoice to the editor. He was too polite for that.
Even after the first story was done, Paul did not give up. International Airlines Group, the owner of British Airways and Iberia, had been particularly circumspect in spelling out the implications of Brexit for its business. It has an especially large British shareholder base and is potentially well below the 50 per cent threshold to automatically maintain its EU licences after Brexit.
Most analysts were satisfied with the company’s guarded explanations. Paul was not. After months of working contacts in industry, the EU institutions and member states, he cracked it. The pride he took in that story was an inspiration to us all.
From the European Commission
“Paul was an extremely dedicated and talented young journalist. He had an exceptional eye for detail and never shied away from difficult stories.”
“But above all, Paul was a gentleman and an absolute pleasure to work with. He will be fondly remembered and greatly missed by all in the spokespersons’ service and in the wider Brussels community.”Margaritis Schinas, spokesman of Jean-Claude Juncker
FT reporter Paul McClean dies in Sri Lanka
‘Talented, energetic and dedicated’ journalist with an eye for hidden stories