Post-Election Thoughts From Brussels

It would be churlish, caddish, to kick someone when they’re down. It would be mean to react to the results of Theresa May’s snap election with a resounding HAHAHAHAHA. And so, I will hold back, and chortle silently into my sleeve at my desk here in Brussels, instead.

“Did somebody say ‘hung parliament’?”

A Hung Parliament

After a night spent sitting up to watch the results come in, I am now hanging as badly as our parliament, or, indeed, as badly as Theresa May’s credibility in Brussels. However, it looks as if the Conservatives will cling on to power, with Theresa May at the helm, propped up by the DUP. The DUP’s apparent condition for their support is that Northern Ireland will not get any special treatment in a Brexit deal. Sporting of them to want to be screwed as hard as the rest of us.

Aside from Schadenfreude and Fremdschämen at the Tories losing their majority, there are scant reasons for liberal-minded voters to be cheered by the result. Yes, Labour won more seats under Jeremy Corbyn than under Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband; however, they are still about 60 seats short of a majority. The only way to see it as a good result for Labour is to reflect on how low expectations were at the start of the campaign. Managing expectations has played a role on both sides: despite becoming the biggest party, the Conservatives pitched too high, and made it seem as if anything short of a landslide would be a disappointment. Labour on the other hand was expected to do badly, but instead managed to gain a number of seats. Still, not enough. Meanwhile the Lib Dems and SNP do not hold enough seats between them to prop up a government of progressive alliance with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. Whichever way you cut it, we will still have a Conservative government led by Theresa May.

A slightly saggy and bloated-looking map of the UK election results

North of the Border

As mentioned in a previous post, the political situation in Scotland is different from that in England. The SNP held 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats following the 2015 election; this has been slashed to 35. After years of returning only one MP north of the border, the Conservatives have gained several seats in Scotland including, it irks me to say, my own constituency. Rest assured my pen is a-quiver as I write to congratulate my new MP and ask politely how he plans to champion my rights as a UK citizen living in an EU country. Rest assured I will share his reply.

What is frustrating is that, in many seats where the SNP were unseated by the Conservatives, the difference  was adequately made up by those who voted for Labour and the Lib Dems. So much for voting tactically. In these cases a vote for the SNP would have helped Jeremy Corbyn more than a vote for Labour. Still, not to be helped.

Jean-Claude Juncker showing how much confidence he has in Theresa May’s chances of getting a good Brexit deal

Where Does This Leave Brexit?

The European Commission has reacted with dismay at the fact that they are still unclear who they’ll be negotiating Brexit with. It is no secret that they would have preferred to be dealing with a Prime Minister who represented a firm majority of whatever colour. A Prime Minister with a broad enough support base would have felt more confident making concessions. A Prime Minister clinging to the flimsiest of mandates is more likely to be captive to the demands of ever smaller sections of her own party. If Theresa May is forced to demand things from the EU which are unworkable, simply because she fears the rebelliousness of the hard Brexit right of her party, then the chances of talks collapsing are increased.

Another unfortunate outcome of this election result is that most likely we have not seen the last of the Three Stooges, the Brexit clowns, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris J*hnson. Fearful of angering their supporters in her party, May will be unable to consign them to the political bin, where they have long belonged. Interestingly it was Davis who said, on election night, that if the Conservative majority had been badly reduced, then this was a sign that voters did not support the Tory vision for Brexit. He dropped a saucy hint that remaining in the Single Market might now be an option.

The Three Brexiteers. Humpty, Dumpty and Numpty.

So there is that to hope for. Here in Brussels, one can only look on aghast. The uncertainty and stability caused by the Brexit vote a year ago has continued unabated. So much for strong and stable government. A humiliated Theresa May will now have to show up at the negotiating table, in full knowledge that her credibility is in tatters. We shall see what kind of a Brexit deal that ends up getting us.

It seems needless to add that all this could have been avoided if the British public had voted differently a year ago on 23rd June 2016.

R.

The UK Election: A View From Brussels

In some ways the UK general election tomorrow presents voters with difficult choices. With a hard-right Tory party and a far-left Labour party appearing to be the only real options, many voters will feel that their more centrist views are not represented.

In another way, it is not a hard choice at all. The Conservatives will pursue a hard Brexit, make those needing social care worse off, and allow the reintroduction of fox hunting. And yet, there are Labour voters who say they won’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn because he “just doesn’t look like Prime Minister material”. This is a strange cognitive leap. Even if you can’t picture Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, surely the alternative is not to vote for pure evil?

“Bring me those foxes.” You know pure evil when you see it.

A View Through The Brussels Prism

Here in Brussels, it is hard to forgive Jezzy Corbz for his lacklustre “7 out of 10” performance during the Remain campaign. Barring a surprise Lib Dem landslide, it looks like whichever Prime Minister we end up with after 8 June will be pursuing some form of Brexit. Still, I would much rather have Jez and Keir Starmer negotiating a soft kind of “I can’t believe it’s not Brexit” than Theresa May and D*vid D*vis crashing us out with no deal and no friends.

It is no secret that the powers in Brussels do not like Theresa May. May’s relationship with Angela Merkel is thought to be ‘almost non-existent’. Her pre-Brexit dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier was described by EU sources as ‘disastrous’. Her unwillingness to criticise President Tr*mp for pulling the US out of the Paris climate deal has alienated her from European leaders. Personally, as a UK citizen living in another EU country, I feel ignored by her policies and embarrassed by her government. Never in the short span of my political awareness have I felt less represented by those in power in London.

Best friends.

To The Polling Stations!

It might now seem strange, after all this, when I say that I am not in fact going to vote for Labour. My home constituency, where I will be voting by proxy, is in Scotland. And Scotland, for better or worse, is a whole different kettle of fish. The vocally pro-European SNP has swallowed much of the Labour vote, with the result that the election has successfully been presented as a two-horse race between the SNP and the Conservatives. While my admiration for the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson rose during the EU Referendum campaign, in which she lacerated B*ris J*hnson for lying to the British public, her decision to now toe the Tory party line on Brexit is lamentable. Though my views on Europe are best represented by the Lib Dems, the polls do not suggest that they will do well. A vote for Labour, meanwhile, risks splitting the so-called progressive vote, and letting the Conservatives in “by the back door”.

From here in Brussels at least, it has long felt as if the loudest pro-European voice in the UK is Nicola Sturgeon’s. A minority Labour government supported by a pro-European alliance of the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems seems to me like the best possible outcome. It is for this reason that I will be casting my vote tomorrow for the SNP.

Save us Nicola! The voice of reason on 24 June last year.

R.

The Return of Ralph?

Everyone remembers how they felt when they heard that Ralph’s Bar on Plux had closed down. Grief, panic, indifference… Any of the above. Ralph’s was the place where trainees were lured into parting with their meagre earnings in return for supposedly discounted Carlsberg and wine.

And then, in November last year, it closed.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

Often irreverently referred to as the EU’s unofficial 7th Institution, Ralph’s absence was keenly felt by the trainees of the October 2016 intake. Ralph was, after all, one of the places where they were led to believe they might find an employer. In reality, chances of this were slim, unless Ralph had an opening for bar staff.

Nonetheless, by the time the next intake of trainees arrived in March 2017, Ralph’s reputation as the melting pot of the traineeship had been assumed by Pullman’s, an equally insalubrious bar next door. Life, as ever, moves on.

The punters at Pullman celebrate the sad demise of Ralph

But wait. On an off-peak trip to Plux last Friday, I happened to notice that Bar Ralph was shrouded in stygian darkness no longer. No, its doors were open, people were moving about inside, and its parasols were up and fluttering in the unseasonably cool breeze. Is Bar Ralph back in operation? Who can clear this up for me?

Needless to say, I didn’t go in to investigate myself. In my view, the only place to be seen on Plux is Quartier Leopold. The main reason being that Quartier Leopold sells Pilsner Urquell, a superior beer.

Pilsner Urquell. I know I want one now…

It is also the bar where I once saw Alyn Smith MEP knocking back a few pints amidst a group of admirers. Starstruck, I failed to ask him why his press officer had never responded to my speculative job application.

Alyn Smith MEP, about to receive a standing ovation from the European Parliament the day after Brexit

Oh well. I’m sure she’s getting round to it.

R.

 

Brexit: A Case of Mid-life Crisis?

It occurred to me the other day as I was thinking about Brexit (as I often am) that Brexit is not unlike a case of mid-life crisis.

Britain, everyone’s favourite former imperial power, had been in a marriage for some time now, from which the spark had gone out. It is a problem that probably occurs in many marriages. And most married people will probably suffer a bout of existential angst, before deciding that on reflection sticking with a secure, comfortable (if no-longer-sexy) marriage is probably preferable to casting oneself once more upon the world of dating, with the risk of rejection, loneliness and dying alone being chewed by Alsatians, while the rest of the family gets on with their lives.

52% voted for spinsterhood and Alsatians.

The UK is the husband who, in his forties, flexes his saggy pecs in the mirror and says to himself “you know what, I’m still fuckable”, and then ditches his wife and family, buys a leather jacket, and starts hanging out in dodgy bars in the hope of picking up a younger model.

“I’ve wasted the best years of my life on you,” says Britain to the EU. “Trump, Duterte and King Salman of Saudi Arabia still want to fuck me, and they’re way sexier than you, so you can take this marriage and shove it!” Britain then straddles its motorbike and zooms off into the desert with King Salman on the back seat, whispering sweet nothings into its ear.

Liam Fox has butterflies in his stomach as he shakes hands with President Rodrigo ‘The Punisher’ Duterte of the Philippines.

It remains to be seen how this solo gambit will pan out. But the UK might well be warned that just because someone has their hand down your trousers doesn’t mean that they’re marriage material.

Following the established pattern, the UK quickly starts looking up its former flames in the hope of rekindling what, through the prism of nostalgia, seem like the missed opportunities of the past. To this end, Philip Hammond went off to Southeast Asia to try to convince India that what we had in the past was really good, baby, and we can have it all again if you want it. We can call it Empire 2.0, I mean True Love 2.0, I mean Global Britain. We can have the strong and stable relationship we never had.

Theresa May eagerly clasps the strong and stable hand of President Donald ‘Grab em by the pussy’ Trump.

Needless to say, India told him where to go. India had moved on with its life.

And so the quest for new romances continues. Maybe the UK just hasn’t been hanging out in the right bars yet. Nobody said it would be easy, right? But true love is surely just around the corner…

“Come get me, world.” Yep, Britain’s still got it.

The only hope is that, when the UK comes grovelling back, bruised and humiliated by its unrequited romantic advances, the EU is prepared to give us a second chance.

R.

Being an Interimaire: Coffee and Toilets

I have been an interimaire now for almost a week. As a trainee I had easy access to all my coffee and pain-au-chocolat needs. In this new building however, things are different.

Pain au chocolat. Never start the day without one.

Coffee

The route to the cafeteria is long and complicated. You have to take the lift up two storeys, walk down several corridors until you are actually in another building, take a different lift down to the ground floor, walk through the lobby, up some stairs, and there is the cafeteria.

The success of the next step depends on who is on shift. There is a woman who works in the cafeteria who does not smile. Last week I asked for a coffee to take away.

‘Non,’ she said. ‘C’est impossible.’

There were paper takeaway cups in plain view. I asked for a coffee ‘pour ici’ instead, which she made for me. Then I took it out of the cafeteria and back to my office in the other building, making sure she didn’t see. By the time I got there, it had gone cold. So far, though, I have not been caught.

Exhibit A: purloined coffee cup

Toilets

I am still very happy that I get to work for the European Commission here in Brussels. Not every trainee gets the chance to stay on. Even in this post-Brexit, post-truth world, many people are still impressed when you tell them you work for the Commission. Despite the bad rap that the EU sometimes gets, working for the Commission still retains a hint of glamour.

The glamour starts to fade, however, when you find that someone has blocked the u-bend.

Opening a door onto uncertainty.

I don’t know who it was, but in my previous building such infractions were rampant. I left at the end of my traineeship without knowing who the culprit was. But I had my suspicions.

Now, in my new building across the street, it has happened again today, forcing me to go to a different floor.

So whenever someone’s eyes widen when I tell them that I work for the European Commission, inside I carry the secret and unspoken shame that some people in the office still don’t know how to flush.

I suppose we are all just human in the end.

R.

End of the Traineeship and the Next Steps: Becoming an Interimaire

It hardly seems like any time has passed since I first tinkled my cuticles across the keyboard to write the inaugural entry on this blog. But now, after 5 months in Brussels, my Traineeship at the European Commission is coming to its natural end. On 01 March the new intake of stagiaires will arrive to take our places, and Place du Luxembourg will once more be throbbing with the fresh faces of Trainees who have been duped into thinking that drinking pints of Carlsberg while cowering under a heat lamp in the rain will get them a job.

Happy trainees jostling on the Commission's application website. It can be this good!

Happy trainees jostling on the Commission’s application website. It can be this good!

What Next?

This is not to say that my time in Brussels has come to an end. Far from it! I learned this week that I have been lucky enough to be kept on as an “Interimaire” at another Unit in the European Commission, starting from 01 March, for a duration of 6 months. This, I think, is probably the best that could have been hoped for in the short term. It will save me from furiously prowling the streets in search of gainful employment for a while yet, at least. (Though there is a very nice old pub in St-Josse which I had been planning to frequent by day in the event that I found myself jobless in March.) So the European Dream continues!

Hooray! Cheers to being an Interimaire

Hooray! Cheers to being an Interimaire

What is an Interimaire?

As I understand it, an Interimaire is someone who works for the Commission on a short-term basis, usually to fill in for permanent employees who are temporarily elsewhere. You receive a Belgian contract rather than an EU contract, and it is renewed (or terminated) week-by-week. If this sounds exhilaratingly unstable, then yes: it is. But the Commission department offering you the Interimaire position will tend to enter into a “gentleman’s agreement” with you to employ you on this basis for a set period, e.g. 3 or 6 months. It may sound slightly dodgy, but I know current Interimaires who have been working as such for several years.

The Holy Grail of working at the European Institutions is of course becoming a permanent employee. However, this involves sitting a number of difficult tests (the notorious EPSO tests) and then, if successful, being put on a waiting list, possibly for a year. Being an Interimaire is the maximum-risk-for-immediate-gratification alternative. While Interimaires are at the very bottom of the food chain here at the Commission, becoming one is regarded as a glittering prize by Trainees, and is often seen as the best chance of staying on after the end of the Stage. (Or at least that was my impression.)

The elephant in the room. The turd in the punch bowl.

The elephant in the room. The turd in the punch bowl.

What Next for Europe?

You’ll note that I’ve held off from making political comments so far in this post. Following months of outrage, anger and self-flagellation over Brexit, I’ve now entered a state of numbness. I am keeping Brexit at arm’s length, and have been avoiding reading about it too much in the news. I found that reading the news just makes me angrier.

In December I found a new outlet for my Remoaning on the Huffington Post. However, that too has fallen quiet of late. I wrote a couple of articles there, and received “Likes” from like-minded friends, and unpleasant comments from Leave voters. I realised that these articles were being read either by people who already agreed with me, or by people who hated everything I stood for and would never be made to see otherwise. I don’t think anybody was persuaded by my articles. As such, I was merely adding unhelpfully to the noise.

A few weeks ago I met up with my old European Studies professor from my MA. He too was taking Brexit rather hard. We complained about how it was impossible to have constructive arguments with many of the people who voted Leave. As a European Studies professor and a Commission employee, anything we say or write is branded as “propaganda”, and the substance of any argument we put forth is therefore nullified. We generally failed to comfort each other.

The joy of British politics.

The joy of British politics.

The European Dream

And so my precarious European career here in Brussels goes on, while I try to ignore the Brexit vultures circling overhead. The current plan is to stick it out here for as long as possible, until the big meaty Brexit turd hits the fan and I’m shipped off back to Fortress Britain. I know of some fellow British Trainees who applied for jobs at the UK Representation here in Brussels. But to be quite honest, I don’t think I could bring myself to work there as a representative of the British Government. Not in the current climate.

I did briefly think about joining the Scottish Representation in Brussels, and even had an (unsuccessful) interview there. However, I think that probably my true alignment is with the EU itself. These days I am feeling more European than British or Scottish, and indeed I haven’t lived in the UK for over 5 years now. With Theresa May’s hand hovering over the self-destruct button, urged on by the now all-powerful Brexiteer fringe of her party, the UK feels like a very foreign place nowadays.

That is not to say there is not hope! Only today I read that Tony Blair has popped back onto the scene, emerging like grizzled prairie-dog from its burrow, and wanting nothing less than to block Brexit. His rallying cry to Remainers is to “rise up in defence of what we believe”. (Though I seem to remember him ignoring all the people who rose up in defence of their belief that the Iraq War was a bad idea.) He accepts, apparently, that the British people did vote to leave the EU. But then again, who is more adept than Blair at flouting public opinion?

Can Big Tony stop Brexit and save Christmas?

Can Big Tony stop Brexit and save Christmas?

I will keep my excitement in check over Big Tony’s intervention. At the moment it seems like little more than another step in the big, mad Todestanz of Brexit. I’ll try to cheer myself up by ordering another subsidised portion of steak and chips in the Commission canteen. And then I’ll pour myself a couple of stiff Mussolinis.

R.

New Year Round Up and Defeating the Nazis

Happy New Year, everyone. January has certainly been an interesting month. And February looks set to prove equally interesting.

I suppose the main news from Brussels must be the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, who was once the UK ambassador to the European Union. His attempts to warn that Brexit negotiations might take up to 10 years to negotiate were not well received in Downing Street, nor in the tabloid press. The Daily Mail opined that “there is no good reason an agreement with some of our closest allies should take nearly twice as long as it did to defeat the Nazis”.

I suspect the author at the Daily Mail probably knows as much about negotiating with the EU as he or she would have known about how to defeat the Nazis. In any case, Sir Ivan Rogers resigned, frustrated that his advice was falling on deaf ears, and as such, another expert was thrown under the Brexit bus.

The owner of the Daily Mail in the 1930s, Viscount Rothermere, plotting to defeat the Nazis while standing next to Adolf Hitler.

The owner of the Daily Mail in the 1930s, Viscount Rothermere, plotting to defeat the Nazis while standing next to Adolf Hitler.

In general I have been struck by the frequency with which references to the Nazis are being made these days, and not just in the Daily Mail. Days ago, Boris Johnson suggested that any EU attempts to give the UK a bad deal on Brexit would be similar to WWII punishment beatings, in which the EU is a Nazi prison camp and the UK is a noble POW who has tried to escape its fascist captors. Perhaps likening the other EU states to the Nazis will get us a better deal, but I don’t know. If only Sir Ivan Rogers was around to offer his advice.

Moving on. Following complaints that the civil service is unprepared for Brexit, David Davis and others have asserted that if the civil service was able to cope with WWII then it can cope with Brexit. Hurrah! Britain defeated the Nazis, so it can do anything!

It is clearly irrelevant that no one who has any first-hand experience of defeating the Nazis is in power in 2017. Yet the defeat of the Nazis still looms large in our political discourse. Is it because 1945 was the last time Britain was Great? And are Boris Johnson and David Davis under the impression that Britain defeated the Nazis alone? My understanding, flawed though it may be, was that the USA and the Soviet Union were also at least partially involved in the Nazis’ defeat. And so, in a bizarre twenty-first century re-enactment of history, perhaps Trump and Putin will become our new best friends in our endeavours to tear up our friendships with the countries of Europe. We shall have to see.

"The Special Relationship": cartoon by Steve Bell for the Guardian, 26.01.2017

“The Special Relationship”: cartoon by Steve Bell for the Guardian, 26.01.2017

Which brings me to Trump. Yes, Trump has also now been inaugurated as leader of the Free World. So far he has imposed a 90 day ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, and banned federal money from going to organisations that support or provide abortions in the developing world. With such a volatile president ensconced in the White House, it might be prudent not to cast ourselves adrift from our European neighbours just yet. But no, the government’s Article 50 bill is currently being debated in the House of Commons, and is likely to pass. As such, while the US is banning immigrants from seven countries, an upcoming hard Brexit is likely to ban immigrants from twenty-seven countries. It is on such policy alignment that Special Relationships are made.

Trump and May: a friendship is born

In recent days the UK government has been criticised for its slowness in offering its mealy-mouthed opposition to Trump’s draconian Executive Orders. Theresa May’s recent “tour of questionable world leaders”, which so far has included Trump and Erdoğan, has led to comparisons with Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease the fascist leaders of Europe in the 1930s. We have been treated to the usual reminders of the “Special Relationship” that is said to exist between the UK and the US. Yet here in Brussels, it is difficult to see the wisdom of ditching our EU neighbours in order to cosy up to the Trumps and Erdoğans of the world. But then a lot of things confuse me these days.

On a lighter note, speaking of fascist dictators: in Croatia there is a popular cocktail called a “Mussolini”, which consists of red wine and Coca Cola. I was told this by a Croatian trainee at the European Commission. Fun fact for the day.

This is how you make a Mussolini.

This is how you make a Mussolini.

Anyway, that’s about it from Brussels at the moment. The only other news is that a cup of coffee in the Commission canteens has gone up from 1,01€ to 1,02€ as of 01 January. The size of the coffee remains the same. Then again, we might all be needing more than coffee to get ourselves through the coming months. Time to pour myself a couple of stiff Mussolinis…

R.