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.

Why Is There No Free Coffee at the Commission

The European Union gets a bad rap sometimes. Its Institutions are vilified by the tabloids, and its employees are lambasted for not having proper jobs.

Contrary to stereotypes, working for the EU is not quite the gravy train that some people imagine it to be. True, there are 2-for-1 pints of Carlsberg at Ralph’s Bar on Thursdays between 6pm and 7pm for Commission trainees… But on the other hand, there is no free coffee.

The true federalist only drinks out of an EU mug.

The true federalist only drinks out of an EU mug.

This can be a rude awakening. Before starting my internship at the European Commission in Brussels, I worked for a well-known holiday company in Amsterdam. In plush offices in the Dutch capital we guzzled free coffee, gorged ourselves on free fruit, and pushed the boundaries of decency at the subsidised daily lunchtime buffet. Once a month, the company organised free drinks for all its employees at several local bars. I don’t think the tabloids ever accused us of being profligate.

But after such luxuries in the private sector, arriving at the European Commission seemed a bit austere in comparison. As a government organisation the Commission can’t be seen to be frivolous with things like free apples. Apples have to be bought and paid for out of one’s own private pocket. EU employees also have to fork out 1.01 EUR for very small cups of coffee. No one I know is quite sure why the coffee is such an awkward price, nor why it hasn’t been rounded up or down to a less awkward number. Basically you end up with a lot of loose change rattling around in your pockets.

Perhaps I am too far down the food chain, but neither does the EU seem particularly elitist. The Commission employs a large number of remarkably normal people. There are IT staff, janitors, people who do photocopying, cleaning staff, kitchen staff, and of course the people in the canteens who make small coffees. Here on the inside, I have met surprisingly few people whose sole aim in life is to freeload on champagne and screw over the United Kingdom. You are more likely to come across people whose job it is to allocate funding for research at UK universities, or who are fighting for more investment in youth programmes in Britain’s cities.

Reality Check

But if anything were to prove that life isn’t all a blur of caviar and parties at the Commission, it is the misery that broke out last week in our office when the departmental kettle stopped working. The on/off switch snapped off irreparably, and the broken kettle was packed away into its box; an event which shall forevermore be known as Kexit. Those of us who had brought in our own sad jars of instant coffee to avoid shelling out 1.01 EUR in the canteen were deprived even of this small comfort. Life at the Commission did not feel like such a gravy train that day.

Dead kettles in the Commission's kettle graveyard.

Dead kettles in the Commission’s kettle graveyard.

At my previous company, broken kitchen appliances would have been instantly replaced and paid for out of the company’s overflowing coffers. At the Commission, though, we had a whip-round. Everyone in the office coughed up 2 Euros to pay for a shiny, new kettle for communal use. (Imagine it, if you will, as a bit like paying into the EU budget in order to use the common benefits of the Single Market.)

Since then, life has returned to a semblance of normality. The dark days of kettlegate are thankfully behind us. Nobody opted to ‘take back control’ from the evil communal European kettle by trying to negotiate a better deal for themselves at Starbucks. For better or worse, we all have a stake in this new departmental kettle.

And for my part, I will always be glad that I contributed my 2 Euros to Kemain.

R.

An Epistolary Spat

It is interesting to know that in this day and age politicians still indulge in the exchange of epistles. There have of course been some changes since Biblical times. Nowadays important letters invariably appear online rather than in print. Such was the case in this week’s spat between Donald Tusk and Justin Tomlinson MP.

Tomlinson and around 80 other MPs had taken it upon themselves to inform the European Council, or the Commission, or whoever else would take notice, of their outrage that the EU seemed ‘worryingly indifferent to securing reciprocal rights for our and your resident citizens’. This, they felt, was causing ‘anxiety and uncertainty for the UK and EU citizens living in one another’s territories’. An interesting argument, Mr Tomlinson; thanks for bringing it up. I will address it with the following points.

Justin Tomlinson MP - defender of my rights, I think not.

Justin Tomlinson MP – defender of my rights, I think not.

First of all, as a UK citizen (and currently very much still an EU citizen) living in an EU territory, I must presume that I am one of the people whose interests Mr Tomlinson is trying to defend. I should therefore like to point out to him that ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ are nothing new to UK citizens living on EU territory. I for one have been experiencing ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Indeed, my levels of anxiety and uncertainty were markedly lower before 24 June 2016. Furthermore, I am very sure about who I blame for my current state of uncertainty, and it certainly is not the European Union.

Secondly, Mr Tomlinson et al. express concern at the EU’s ‘worrying indifference’ towards the rights of the EU’s resident UK citizens. I wholeheartedly agree that there has been an overabundance of ‘worrying indifference’ regarding the question of Brexit; however, I was (and am) far more concerned about the worrying indifference that the Leave campaign, and ultimately the British electorate, showed towards not only the safeguarding of my rights as a UK citizen abroad, but also towards issues such as Northern Ireland’s border, the value of the pound, and various other looming calamities. Therefore I do not think it is the EU that has shown the most callous indifference.

As I’ve written before: prior to Brexit, my rights as a UK citizen on the European mainland were settled. Now, they are very much in question. This is a state of being which was brought about solely by the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016. The EU has not thrown my rights, nor the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, into question; British voters have.

Thankfully Donald Tusk has pointed this out. On 29 November 2016 he wrote a reply to Tomlinson et al., and asked ‘Would you not agree that the only source of anxiety and uncertainty is rather the decision on Brexit?’ The UK has put itself, and its citizens living abroad, into the situation in which we now find ourselves. I do not believe the EU owes the UK anything over Brexit, and is rightly concerned about the rights of its own citizens living in the UK. The MPs who wrote the letter seem unhappy that UK citizens abroad will be used as ‘bargaining chips’; but let us not forget that it was our own Secretary of State for International Trade who referred to EU citizens in the UK as ‘one of our main cards’ in the Brexit negotiations. We were not bargaining chips before 24 June.

It is the recklessness of the Leave campaign, the results of the vote on 23 June, and the embarrassing actions of the Conservative government since then that have brought the EU’s internal emigrants into this state of anxiety and uncertainty. Any attempt to shift the blame for this onto the EU is duplicitous and shameful.

R.

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.