Since its creation, the European Union and Britain’s relationship to it has been one of the hottest topics of political debate. It divided the Labour Party in the 1970s and 80s, and then brought John Major’s government to its knees in the 90s. More recently, the United Kingdom Independence Party has enjoyed a surge in popularity, thanks in no small part to its stance on EU membership and the freedom of movement this entails. To get a better insight into this complex debate, I spoke to Jacqueline Minor, the EU Commission’s Head of Representation in the United Kingdom since 2013, after she gave a talk to the Exeter European Law Society.
I began by asking Minor about her life before working for the EU, and how she became interested in doing so. “I fell into by accident,” she replies. “I studied Law at Birmingham before going on to do my postgraduate. Having done that, I went on to teach Law for five years at the University of Leicester.” She continues: “The professor who arrived there during those five years had previously worked at the European Court, and he breezed into my office one bright day and told me that they needed someone to cover for a year’s leave of absence. He said, ‘It would be good for you to get some practical experience, and I’m sure I can arrange study leave, but you must come back.’ Of course” – she smiles – “I never did.” In Minor’s view, the thing that really drew her in was the buzz and variety of working in an international institution. “You forget this after a time,” she says, “but the thrill of going into work with people of nine different nationalities, all speaking different languages – it was incredibly energising.”
“the thrill of going into work with people of nine different nationalities, all speaking different languages – it was incredibly energising.”
Minor took the job as Head of UK Representation in early 2013, only a month before Cameron announced his plans to renegotiate the UK’s settlement with the EU. I asked her if this turn of events had made her job rather harder than she had anticipated. Laughing, she replies, “Actually in many ways it’s not as hard as people might think. If you look at some of the debates in parliament or look at the way it’s reported in newspapers you might think there is a lot of anger and hostility, but in fact I don’t encounter much of that.” She does concede that she receives the “occasional email sent at 2am” which describes the EU using “fairly Anglo-Saxon language”, but most angry correspondence is a little more measured in tone. “I try and write back to everybody who engages me in conversation,” she says. “Sometimes they go away totally unconvinced, but actually they are normally pleasantly surprised that someone replies to them at all.”
I decided to push Minor on the elephant in the room: the referendum. “Say I’ve seen Cameron’s renegotiation and remain unconvinced we should remain in the EU. What reasons can you give me to stay?” I asked. I knew this was a contentious question, and Minor became wary. “The Commission is not going to campaign,” she explains. “Firstly, I would say I’d say that the renegotiation is important – of course it is – but I think as the debate progresses towards the date of the referendum it will become broader, and focus not just on the renegotiation but on the overall benefits of membership.” To her, these benefits can be summed up in three words: “Peace, prosperity and influence”. “It’s often taken for granted,” she says, “but I don’t think you can forget what has already been achieved by the European Union: 70 years of unbroken peace between the original member states; a template for democracy; rule of law and respect for minorities.” Furthermore, “this was very attractive to those countries that had regained their independence [from the Soviet Union], and as they’ve become members this model has had a stabilising influence.”
Moving on to prosperity, she explains how as one of the world’s “biggest economic powers” the EU wields real “clout in international trade, and in securing international trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)”. Similarly, she suggests, those campaigning for the UK to stay in will be arguing that the EU is still the UK’s biggest market and as nearly half of our exports go into the EU we have an interest in setting the terms on which we trade with those 27 member states. They will say that while trade wouldn’t cease if we left, we might find it less easy.” Her last point on the benefits of the EU is its diplomatic clout. “A big bloc of 28 countries can bring real influence in solving some of the world’s problems, whether we’re talking about climate change, the refugee crisis, or political issues like the Iran nuclear deal. So the argument will be that it is better to be part of a big group like that, wielding its clout, than independent with less clout.”
“A BIG bloc of 28 countries can bring real influence in solving some of the world’s problems”
Aside from anger about immigration, one of the most common accusations levelled at the European Union is that it’s too distant, bureaucratic and byzantine, and Minor acknowledges that the EU has real problems with public perception. “The difficulty I think for a lot of people is it’s distant – geographically distant – unfamiliar,” she observes. “People have a very clear image of the Houses of Parliament: they see pictures of the chamber, they know what Whitehall looks like. They don’t have that visual affinity with the European Union.” Refreshingly, Minor clearly understood one of the defining characteristics of our time: uncertainty.”The European Union in some ways symbolises the insecurity that everybody feels about a rapidly changing world. Some of this results in the growth of populist parties, but some of it translates into a perception of the EU as ‘far away from us … they don’t understand us, don’t listen to us, don’t pay attention to our concerns’. However, she refutes the idea that these perceptions are borne out in reality, stating that “it is very easy to talk to MEPs to members of the Commission staff, and obviously the Council of Ministers are in your national government anyway”.
“What should Exeter students who are interested in working for the EU be pursuing?” I ask. “Languages,” comes the instant reply. “Definitely languages.” She explains that there are two stages to the application process. The first is an online test, taken in your mother tongue. After this, there is an “an ‘e-tray test’ where you get a screen of emails and a task to complete,” she explains. “You have to decide which emails to open first and how you’re going to respond to the task. Then you have a group debate followed by a presentation. All that goes on in your second language, which has to be either German or French.” It doesn’t stop there. “Once you get in, the rules require you to acquire a third language. However, the institutions provide you with all the facilities and resources you’d need to learn it.” All this may sound rather intimidating, but Minor does have some reassuring words for Exeter grads: “As for the rest, if you have a decent degree – which you certainly will if you’ve been to Exeter – you should be able to cope with it.”
The interview finishes with me asking Minor what lies in the future for the EU. She laughs. “That’s a little above my pay grade.” However, she does have some observations. “When Jean Claude-Juncker came in he said we need to be bigger on the big things and smaller on the small things. So I think there’s a refocusing on core priorities, which in the short to medium term are getting European economic growth back on a stable footing and creating jobs.” She cites ideas like the “capital markets union”, which aims to get “Europeans, like Americans, to put their money into capital markets rather than just in savings accounts. In the long term,” she continues, it is difficult to say: it will take time post-crisis for the EU to fully restore its credentials as a driver of prosperity. Further political integration in economic policy making is being discussed for the euro area – though not for the UK – and the exact outcome of that is not yet clear.