28 Apr 2016

Brussels Commission: in the Belly of the Beast

If there is optimism about the outcome of the referendum in Downing Street they most definitely have not communicated it to Brussels successfully. EU Diplomats in the city mutter that they think it is all going the wrong way in the UK. In the Commission building, the Berlaymont, some officials say they’re gloomy about the prospects of Brexit.

At the weekly meeting of the College of Commissioners yesterday Jean-Claude Juncker did his regular kiss and slap tour of the table before the meeting started. But away from the soothing routine there are strong undercurrents of concern.

Frans Timmermans, former Dutch Foreign Minister and now Vice-President of the Commission, admits that the EU could be in crisis if the UK goes. It’s “not the favourite subject these days in any member state,” he says, before reeling off a list of criticisms that could come from the pen of a Leave campaigner. He insists the litany of criticisms is being taken on by the current Commission which has taken to heart the pan-EU frustration with Europe delving in where it is felt it is not needed or wanted.

Mr Timmermans says the Commission has managed a drastic cut in legislation proposed, 80% down he claims. Apparently that is not reflected in any correlating job cuts as the work is shifting elsewhere (though Commission staff can be rather difficult to shuffle around as Commissioners, not matter the relative workload of the brief, insist on getting the same number of staff in each silo).

Mr Timmermans threatens a messy and ill-tempered divorce if the UK goes its own way.

There was no sign of packing cases in the office of Lord Hill, Britain’s Commissioner in the European Commission. He says he hopes that even if it’s a narrow victory for the Remain camp on June 23rd it could mean the UK pressing the re-set button on its relationship with the EU. Many in Brussels expect relations to be as bad as usual if not worse because they expect David Cameron to have to accomodate the Brexit wing of his party and watch his back. Lord Hill said “Britain ought to press the re-set … (because) that is the logic of having decided where our engagement should be.”

At the end of yet another long featureless corridor in the Berlaymont you come across a few pictures of views in the UK sellotaped to the walls. This is the Brexit Referendum Task Force, a six person team under the veteran British-born Eurocrat, Jonathan Faull.

Mr Faull’s job includes scanning the landscape for issues that might pour petrol on the referendum fires in Britain so the Commission can make sure they don’t fire up before 23rd June. He’s credited, amongst other vanishing tricks, with disappearing the ban on high power kettles and toasters which was gently cruising down the legislative track but mysteriously disappeared. He says: “absolutely not, the Commission is not hiding things.”

Senior diplomats in Brussels think if Britain does exit the EU the Commission that could put Mr Faull in the very awkward position of being asked to lead their effort in the negotiations with the country of his birth.

Jonathan Faull said You sense, talking to Jonathan Faull, he doesn’t want to go there.

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