Guilty Secrets: Why I Have A Soft Spot For Anna Soubry MP

Brexit is a strange time. It has made judges into enemies of the people, and Etonian ex-Bullingdon types into champions of ‘ordinary working-class people’. And it has made an arch-liberal like myself gradually warm to a certain Conservative MP. I am talking, of course, about The Honourable Member of Parliament for Broxtowe: Anna Soubry.

I was reading the Guardian on Saturday (yes, I know…) and Decca Aitkenhead was reporting on an interview with Anna Soubry. Anna had come to my attention during the Referendum debate for being one of the few Westminster Remainers who seemed to share the same genuine horror with regards to Brexit as me. I mean yes, she has spoken out in favour of fracking… But on the plus side I recall her being one of the earliest to raise alarm over the rising levels of xenophobic rhetoric being brought about by the Referendum. She seemed genuinely worried by the frequency with which she had heard constituents saying things like ‘get these foreigners out’.

Anna Soubry looking as numb and shell-shocked about Brexit as I do.

Anna Soubry looking as numb and shell-shocked about Brexit as I do

And then their is her delightfully saucy way with words. Anna Soubry once said of Nigel F*rage (and I quote):

“I always think he looks like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it.”

Magnificent. Wonderful. I cannot fault it. Anna Soubry, you have won a hard-fought place in my heart.

Unfortunately for those of us who voted Remain, we woke up on 24 June to find that the majority of the British electorate had put rather more than their fingers up our bottoms. And we did not like it at all.

R.

Life After Ralph

“2016 has thrown up its fair share of shocks. Unfortunately the Trainees’ Committee are sad to have to inform you of one more.”

It was with these words that the current intake of European Commission trainees were apprised of the news that Ralph’s Bar, that most dubious of Brussels institutions, had closed down.

If you remember from a previous post, Bar Ralph is where much of the EU’s ‘networking’ goes on. Located on a corner of Place du Luxembourg outside the Parliament, it offered generous Happy Hour deals on Thursdays from 6pm-7pm to lure in beer-hungry trainees. And now, alas, it is no more.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

Where, I hear you ask, where will trainees go for cheap booze on a Thursday night? Luckily Ralph’s was merely one bar in a long row of bars on Place du Luxembourg. Each one offers some sort of Happy Hour deal. Ralph’s was in any case one of the less salubrious of these bars. It was tacky, it sold Carlsberg, and you had to pay to use the toilet. The only advantage it had was that most of the trainees met there.

I don’t think Ralph’s will be too sorely missed. It is doubtful that networking opportunities will decline as a result. I doubt how much career-building really went on there. Most employers probably avoided Ralph’s like the plague.

So long, Bar Ralph! It was short but sweet. But what am I going to do with my Thursday evening now…

R.

On Being a Guardian Reader in the Age of Trump and Brexit

Brace harder.

Brace harder.

Today, like many people across the world, I woke up this morning with a feeling of ‘what on earth just happened?’ Or, as they say here in Brussels: ‘Qu’est-ce qui le fuck se passe?’ Yes, we are living in the era of President Tr*mp.

A quick trawl through my Facebook newsfeed has revealed an outpouring of horror, shock and anger at the US election results. Here, for your perusal, is a representative selection:

“No way!!!!! Seriously?”

“Holy shit.”

“Ffs.”

“As if 23rd June 2016 wasn’t bad enough”

“As a woman I’m appalled. As a human I’m absolutely terrified.”

“As with Brexit, the electorate doesn’t always know what’s best for them”

So there you go. And while 9 November 2016 might seem like a grim day to many, we have of course been here before. Not that long ago. This summer, in fact. Here is a selection of my favourite Facebook statuses about Brexit, plucked once again from the annals of my newsfeed:

“Heartbroken.”

“Literally crying…. How could this happen???”

Etc.

I may also have bared my own shock, horror and anger in similar fashion, in the hope that someone out there in my select pool of FB friends (which more-or-less overlaps with my select pool of actual friends) would offer some ‘crumbs of comfort’.

And yet, and yet. While these examples are representative of my own social circle, there appears to be one political group of which they are NOT representative: the majority. Like it or not, 52% of voters voted in favour of Brexit, and the majority of US voters voted for Tr*mp. So where, you might say, are the jubilant Facebook statuses celebrating the results of these two recent exercises in democracy? They are nowhere to be seen, at least not on my newsfeed. This therefore means that the people with whom I associate do not constitute an accurate cross-section of society. I doubt that this is particularly unusual these days. But I think it is probably why I keep being so adversely surprised.

Political Silos

Back in June, my surprise stemmed from the fact that I personally knew no one who voted Brexit. I would discuss the referendum with friends, with family, with family-friends… None of them were going to support it. It was unthinkable. We kept reinforcing each other’s entrenched views, and by the time we got to June 2016 I couldn’t imagine how anyone could seriously contemplate voting for Brexit.

The obvious point is that my social circle was restricted entirely to people who generally held the same political views as me. Liberal, pro-EU, Labour voters, with a few Lib-Dems and Greens. No Tories, no UKIPers. My mistake, though, was in believing that these political views must surely constitute the majority viewpoint.

All the same, I was uncertain. There were moments in the dim and distant past (when the world was a much simpler place) when I began to doubt my place in the political mainstream. Most notably this happened after the 2015 UK general election.

I read articles about what a Tory government would do to the country. I read about the things they had wanted to do between 2010-2015, which the Lib-Dems had prevented in coalition. And yes, I read it all on the Guardian website, and on the BBC. Based on all this, it seemed inconceivable to me in 2015 that many people would vote for a Conservative government. It looked like we were heading for a hung parliament. All the polls seemed to think so.

Then the Conservative Party won an overall majority in the House of Commons, and was able to rule alone, unfettered by their former Lib-Dem coalition partners, and then we had an EU referendum, and then Donald Tr*mp got elected, and nobody could find the lid for Pandora’s box any more. And, I have to say, I was surprised.

And what’s more, I think, the Guardian was surprised.

The Guardian appears to have its black armband on.

The Guardian appears to have its black armband on.

Reading the Guardian

I like the Guardian. Yes, I do, most of the time. It presents news to me in a way that largely coincides with my political sensibilities. I mean, sometimes I do roll my eyes at certain opinion pieces – the ones that go along the lines of “Here is why you should feel guilty about XYZ”. But in its attitude towards things like Brexit, the US election, Boris Johnson, the UK Tabloids etc., I usually feel a reassurance that there are a large number of people out there who must have the same opinions as I do.

Now, however, I am awakening to the fact that my opinions are becoming decidedly niche. It turns out that people do vote for Brexit, Tr*mp and the Conservative Party. The more I see voters supporting things that I personally find abhorrent, the more I begin to wonder whether I, and not they, am part of the ‘loony fringe’. Here I am in my comfortable silo, remonstrating earnestly on the plight of the modern world, agreeing largely with those around me, perhaps taking solace in the notion that we alone know what’s best for the world… Except the majority of voters don’t agree with us. I imagine this must be how the hard right-wingers must once have felt, back when Brexit was just a cheeky glint in Nigel’s eye.

A secret Guardian reader. Maybe Dave should have read more widely before calling the referendum.

A secret Guardian reader. Maybe Dave should have read more widely before calling the referendum.

So what is the answer? Stop reading the Guardian? Make friends with people who vote for Tr*mp and Brexit? Start buying the Sun, and strive to understand the point of view of people whose political views are so diametrically opposed to my own? It doesn’t sound easy.

As you may have gathered from previous posts, my initial reaction to Brexit was ‘suck it, Britain, I’m never coming back, at least not on your terms’. I started eying up an EU passport. I started contemplating Scottish Independence. (Two things I had never before thought to be appealing or necessary.) I decided, in short, to cut myself off from it all. I do wonder if this is sustainable, though.

Whose Fault Is It

I am aware of some Guardian readers arguing that it is our own fault that Brexit happened. That we weren’t persuasive enough. That we didn’t campaign energetically enough. I am sure many disappointed Americans right now are also flagellating themselves for not being able to persuade ‘the other half’ that Donald was a bad choice.

I am not sure I agree. The arguments against Tr*mp and Brexit were all out there. Everybody warned the UK not to vote for Brexit. Everybody warned the US not to vote for Tr*mp. I find it hard to believe that supporters of Tr*mp and Brexit were not sufficiently exposed to the necessary arguments. But time and again these arguments were dismissed. One might recall Michael G*ve’s statement about the public having had enough of experts. In the face of these things, I don’t really know what more could have been done to prevent the outcomes of these two democratic exercises of the public will.

Nonetheless, I will try to read more widely. I will try to make more of an effort to understand why the majority of voters have voted for things that fill me with visceral horror. I will try to accept that reading the Guardian alone does not provide an accurate insight into the sore realities of the political landscape. But I wonder, all the same, if this is enough. At the moment I am a little pessimistic.

I suppose I’ll go and check out what the Guardian‘s Arts and Culture page has on it today to make myself feel better…

R.

What is the Point of Networking?

To network or not to network?

Incoming trainees at the European Commission are encouraged to network as much as they can. Landing a cushy job in Brussels is partly about who you know. Of course, if you want to work for the Commission itself then you also have to pass rigorous EPSO tests. But to work at the numerous lobbying firms, NGOs, interest groups and think tanks in Brussels it is advantageous to have contacts who already work there.

I recently went to a meet-and-greet event at which former trainees were present. Clutching my half-pint of Stella, I did as you are supposed to do and interposed myself in small groups and thrust out my hand in search of a handshake. It feels less obnoxious if you try to think about it as a game, and yourself as a persona. (“Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be a Networker.”)

"You don't say!" Bridget Jones networks with an unimpressed Salman Rushdie.

“You don’t say!” Bridget Jones networks with an unimpressed Salman Rushdie.

I asked some former trainees about finding a job once the traineeship was over. All of them had managed it. Not surprising though. I suppose all the people who ended up jobless had to leave Brussels and were therefore unable to attend. Generally the method by which these former trainees landed their current jobs went along the lines of “I got really lucky”. So no actionable tips there. It wasn’t all plain sailing though: one trainee told us she had had to do a total of six internships before she finally got her job at a lobbying firm. This was met with gasps of horror from the current trainees.

The hottest place to network, though, is Place du Luxembourg next to the European Parliament. On Thursday nights hundreds of trainees congregate in the three or four bars that line one side of the square, and there they network the shit out of each other. The networking is helped along by the Happy Hour deals that most of these bars offer from 6pm-7pm. One word of warning though: Bar Ralph’s at the end of the square is often touting its generous Happy Hour deal, but I have discovered that this is simply shrewd marketing, and the deals at the other bars are generally better. At Ralph’s you get one Euro off a beer, whereas in other bars it is BOGOF. Also at Ralph’s they only seem to sell Carlsberg.

Ralph's Bar on Place du Luxembourg

Ralph’s Bar on Place du Luxembourg

During our introduction week we were told that Place du Luxembourg (or ‘Plux’ to the insiders) is where we would make contacts that would help in our future careers. People whispered feverishly that EC officials sometimes lurked in Plux’s bars, and that making a good impression on one of them would do wonders for your future job-hunting. Maybe I am doing it wrong, but the only people I have met at Place du Luxembourg are drunk trainees.

That was until last night. While jostling for warmth under a heat lamp, who should I espy leaning against the bar? Was it the Conservative MP for North East Somerset, everyone’s favourite Eurosceptic maverick old Etonian, the Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg enjoying a crisp, frothy pint of Stella Artois? You decide:

Is it Jacob Rees-Mogg? Is it?

Is it Jacob Rees-Mogg? Is it

In any case we didn’t speak. A failure of my networking skills, no doubt. Also it probably wasn’t him.

R.

What Will Happen to UK Employees of the EU Institutions?

Last week it was reported that a large number of UK citizens living abroad have applied for the EU nationality of their host country. This was no doubt fuelled by signs from the Conservative government that the UK is seriously thinking of leaving the Single Market.

This is an issue of great urgency not least for UK citizens currently working at the EU institutions. The Treaty on the European Union sets out the following stipulations for employees in Article 28 (a) SR:

« an official may be appointed only on condition that he is a national of one of the Member States of the Union, unless an exception is authorized by the appointing authority (…) »

By the time Brexit comes into force sometime in 2019 (perhaps), UK citizens will no longer be nationals of an EU member state and will no longer fulfil the requirements of Article 28. So what will happen to them?

Maybe somebody still wants us...

Maybe somebody still wants us…

The short answer is: nobody really knows. But the general feeling that I have got during my month in Brussels is that British employees will either have to gain another EU nationality, or be made redundant with a handsome severance package. Probably many people who have made their career at the EU Institutions will have been living in Brussels long enough to apply for Belgian citizenship. But no doubt there are also many who are not eligible.

The EU clearly thinks that naturalisation is the best option. In September the Council held a conference on British nationals at the EU Institutions. You can watch a shaky video recording of the conference here. (Why not see if you can become the 300th viewer!) The main thrust of the EU’s message was along the lines of “Don’t worry, Brits! This is how you become Belgians.” Belgium requires 5 years’ residency before granting citizenship. The many British stagiaires who have just arrived in Brussels with an eye to getting a job will therefore not be eligible for Belgian citizenship by the time the UK leaves the EU.

There was recently a glimmer of hope from Germany, however. Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the SDP (the junior partner in Germany’s ruling coalition) urged Germany to grant fast-track citizenship to young Brits living in Germany. (Why oh why did I ever leave Berlin??) Since UK citizens aged 18-24 supposedly voted 70% in favour of Remain, certain politicians in Germany felt that these people should not have their European futures closed off from them by older Leave voters. However, when the issue was debated in the German parliament, it was met with stiff opposition.

Save us, Sigmar!

Save us, Sigmar!

It is understandable, really. Germany’s Turkish community has long faced barriers to naturalisation, and Germany is already trying to integrate more refugees than any other EU country. Why should Britons be given preferential treatment? In any case, this is of little use to UK citizens who are currently based in Brussels.

And yet, never one to give up hope, I made my own enquiries with the German embassy in Brussels. I emphasised my time spent in Berlin, my fluent command of German, my European career, and my lasting ties to Germany. None of this was of much interest to a certain Herr Zeiler, who replied with the following:

“eine Einbürgerung von im Ausland wohnhaften ausländischen Staatsangehörigen ist äußerst selten und regelmäßig nur bei Vorliegen eines besonderen öffentlichen (staatlichen) Interesses möglich. […] Anhaltspunkte für ein derartiges besonderes öffentliches Interesse vermag ich Ihrer Zuschrift nicht zu entnehmen.”

Disappointing but not surprising.

This leaves only the option of citizenship through marriage. Time to call in a few favours…

R.

In the words of Tina Turner, 'What's love got to do with it?'

In the words of Tina Turner, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’

Visit to UKREP

Welcome back! It has now been over three weeks at the Commission, and the list of conferences and networking events is growing ever longer. For example, today we went to the offices of UKREP. UK trainees from all EU Institutions were invited for an afternoon of presentations, quizzes and hobnobbing at the UK’s EU embassy. To start with, here is an insider tip: UKREP is not pronounced “UK Rep”. It is pronounced “ukrep” – as in “uck-rep” – which is an acronym crying out for vandalism.

The auspicious premises of (f?)uck-rep in all their glory.

The auspicious premises of (f?)uck-rep in all their glory.

I can’t provide too many juicy details, as we were all sworn to secrecy. But we were assured right at the start that, despite what some of our European colleagues might suggest, Brexit is definitely going to happen. This was met by gasps of shock from the trainees. Those looking for reassurance (or ‘crumbs of comfort’ as one trainee put it) were to be disappointed.

The general feeling I got was that most of the staff there quite understandably were Remainers who now grudgingly have to work on Brexit. We all felt sorry for one speaker who had devoted much of her career at Whitehall towards working on the issues she felt passionate about at the EU level. Only weeks after finally being seconded to Brussels to do her dream job, Brexit happened. The UK would no longer be playing an active part in her project, and instead of working on issues of EU-wide benefit, she was now having to help negotiate the UK’s exit. Another dream smeared greasily underneath the Brexit bus.

No crumbs of comfort. Only dollops of disappointment.

No crumbs of comfort. Only dollops of disappointment.

The UKREP offices have a red telephone box in them, and pictures of the Queen. The speakers were at pains to assure us that there were still opportunities for Brits in Brussels, and that we should network tirelessly to get jobs and make contacts. However, the mood was resigned. And all the while I could not stop my eyes drifting, ever so slowly, out the window and across the road to where a Saltire hung above the offices of the Scottish government’s representation…

R.

The iconic British phone box, similar to the model found on UKREP's premises.

The iconic British phone box, similar to the model found on UKREP’s premises.

Referendum Night

23 June 2016 will forever go down in my personal memoires (if anyone should ever read them) as ‘The Night Everything Got F*cked Up’.

I was living in Amsterdam at the time. I had a full-time office job at an international company. I had been working there for almost a year. The previous summer, in 2015, I had completed my MA in European Studies. Living, working and studying in the Netherlands had felt no more complicated than doing so in the UK. These were rights to which I felt entitled, and which I’d never questioned. I had taken it for granted that these rights would always exist.

Then Brexit happened.

Sad flag. :(

Sad flag. 😦

The run-up to the referendum

I hadn’t been too worried during the run-up. In the office, people had occasionally asked me about Brexit. Did I think it would happen? What would I do if the UK voted to leave?

It was moot, I said. It would not happen. The consequences would be too disastrous. Only oddballs and xenophobes supported Brexit. (The people David Cameron once dismissed as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’. Oh, the hubris!) Most of the UK wasn’t like that. Nobody I knew was going to vote Brexit. Sense would prevail.

And yet, the result was rather different. So why did it take me so much by surprise?

I wonder now, in hindsight, if perhaps my understanding of the UK was ‘trapped’ in the politics that were current when I left. It had been four and a half years since I left the UK. It had never occurred to me that within a few years we would be out of the EU. Surely things couldn’t have changed that much in so short a time? Surely my grasp of UK politics wasn’t so tenuous?

Surely politics couldn’t have shifted so swiftly and drastically to the right without me noticing? But things had shifted.

I felt the first inklings of doubt back in May. It started when I watched the Question Time referendum debate. The panellists for Remain were Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Frances O’Grady. The Brexiteers were represented by Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom. In front of a packed Wembley Arena, populated by equal numbers of Remain and Leave voters, I watched Boris Johnson blurt out one jingoistic soundbite after another, while Gisela Stuart robotically repeated the phrase ‘Take Back Control’. But what chilled me was the response that these empty words received. At the sound of each signal-word, whether ‘Sovereignty’, ‘Democracy’, or ‘Control’, a great roar would rise up from the Leave voters in the audience. As the Leave panellists derided the Remainers for their lack of ‘patriotism’, the baying of the crowd became frightening. What scared me was the vehemence with which those audience members supported Brexit. My God, this might actually happen, I thought.

I consoled myself, though: there was a precedent. In the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, there had been a point when one poll had put Yes ahead of No. And that had worked out all right in the end.

I was against Scottish independence at the time. I worried that it would leave Scotland isolated and outside the EU. Now, thanks to Brexit, Scotland is about to be dragged into isolation outside the EU anyway – how times have changed. (But more on that in another article.) In short, although my confidence stumbled, it quickly recovered

David Dimbleby. The bearer of bad news.

David Dimbleby. The bearer of bad news.

The fateful night

On 23 June, I wasn’t worried. I had arranged to vote by proxy. Remain had it in the bag. In the evening I went home and settled down to watch the results come in on the BBC. (In Amsterdam you get BBC1 and BBC2 on TV, as well as some fun German channels.) It wasn’t until after 2am that the first results started to come in. The exit polls suggested that Remain had narrowly won it. Nigel F*rage had conceded defeat. David Dimbleby was saying that Remain wasn’t winning by as much as it needed to in the results that had already come in. But it was all going well enough. ‘I’ll stay up until I know it’s safe,’ I said to myself.

But the long horror had only just begun.

I don’t remember exactly when Leave started to overtake Remain in the results. But it was after 4am before I decided to take myself off to bed. There was a cold, hard feeling inside me. I think I knew, as I drifted off to sleep that night, that Remain had lost.

A UK passport. Not worth so much now.

A UK passport. Not worth so much now.

The morning after

My radio alarm woke me at 7:30am on Friday 24 June. The Dutch news blared out. I could hear something about Brexit. Groot-Britannië heeft gekozen voor een vertrek uit de Europese Unie. A clip of David Dimbleby’s voice was saying: ‘That’s it. We’re out.’

I looked at my phone. It was full of messages from fellow Brits in despair, and from non-Brits expressing shock and sympathy. I was so angry that I will admit I teared up.

I was numb as I got ready for work. I switched on the TV to see what the BBC were saying. My Danish flatmate appeared from her room. ‘Cameron is about to resign,’ she said. I didn’t stay to watch. I was already late for work.

On the tram to work I read the news on my phone. I watched the video of David Cameron resigning. And I remember it was then that it hit me. Cameron was gone. Brexit was not just an idea; something concrete had happened because of it. Should I even be going to work today? Did I still have a job or was I suddenly an illegal immigrant? Why had none of the Leave figureheads thought about this?

When I got to work I didn’t speak to anybody for a while. A fellow Brit had kindly left a Cadbury’s chocolate bar on my desk, in commiseration.

Eventually though, life intervened, and a semblance of normality descended. The jokes began. Colleagues from Egypt and Turkey offered to give advice about visa applications for non-EU citizens. It helped. We laughed. It was funny. But at the same time, it was very much not funny.

My last resort was to telephone the Austrian embassy in The Hague. My grandmother is from Austria. I asked the embassy’s citizenship department whether I was eligible for a passport. No, they said. I was not. This was the final nail in the coffin. And with it, I realised that my future living in Europe was now very much in question.

Weltweit für Sie da.

Weltweit für Sie da.

The future

But life is not without its little coincidences. Two days later I received an email from the European Commission. My application for a traineeship had been successful.

My first day of work in Brussels would be 3 October 2016. It wasn’t over yet!

So here I am sitting in Brussels, at the heart of the European Commission, with a front row seat to watch the UK navigate the quickest route up its own derriere. Stick around to see what happens. Let the tragicomedy commence!

R.

Brussels, October 2016