“If I said I had been a convict the British would probably have given me more respect” – a retired EU official reflects on Brexit, his relationship to the UK, and the future of Europe
Born and raised in a working-class family in the South of England, Dave Skinner came to Brussels in 1973 as a stagiaire interpreter for the European Commission. After passing a concours he moved to the translation service, where he worked for 25 years. In 2003 he joined DG Environment, working in Catherine Day’s office as an editor and speechwriter.
In this interview, Dave talks about his life working for the EU, the impact of the Brexit referendum, and his love for his adopted country, Belgium.
(An interview I conducted a couple of months ago with Dave’s son, Alex, can be found here.)
TMN: Were you always a fan of the EU?
DS: If I’m honest, when I started out I didn’t really know that much about it: I wasn’t into news or politics at the time. I was so conscious of this that after two years I took a year’s sabbatical to go to the College of Europe in Bruges to do a masters in European Studies. The other students thought I was crazy. The only reason they were at the College was to land a job at the EU. They weren’t so interested in learning about Europe. Whereas I had the job, but did want to learn about it …
TMN: What was the reaction among your family and friends back in England to you working for the EU?
DS: In the early days most people thought, “Wow, he’s done pretty well for himself.” People in general were very supportive. This feeling lasted for about 10 or 15 years. But, slowly, things started to change. The attitude of the British people toward the EEC began to shift almost certainly because of the British media and the lies it circulated. Remember, Boris Johnson started inventing anti-EEC pieces for the Telegraph in 1989. Newspapers found that making up or circulating ridiculous stories about European rules on cucumbers, bananas and prawn cocktail crisps appealed to their British readership and turned them against the EU (or EEC). They seemed to figure that they could sell papers by blaming the EU for pretty much all of the problems in British society, and it became convenient for large segments of the British political establishment to blame the EU for anything that it could. Certainly by the end of the 1980s a lot of people had seriously started to hate it.
It eventually became so bad that when I went back to the UK, I actually stopped telling people that I worked for the EU. My colleagues who ended up moving back to the UK after retirement also used to tell me that they never mentioned to anyone in the UK who they used to work for; I mean, if you said you had been a convict they’d probably have given you more respect!
I remember an interesting story which is relevant here. In the early 1990s, I met a prominent British journalist who was based in Brussels as the BBC’s EU correspondent. I asked him a fairly blunt question: “Why don’t you ever publish anything positive about the EU?”
His reply was interesting. He said: “I used to write both positive and negative stories, but then after a while I realised that only the negative ones were getting published. So I eventually stopped writing positive stories – there was no point.”
TMN: That’s amazing. And this is the BBC we’re talking about – not The Sun, or The Daily Express!
DS: Yes. Again, there just seemed to be an appetite among the British public for nasty stories about the EU. And remember that many of them were fictitious, often made up by Boris Johnson in his column for The Daily Telegraph.
TMN: Do you think this appetite for nasty stories was itself partly created by an antagonistic media system?
DS: Yes, maybe. I also remember another similar story. I sang in an octet called The Commissionaires. We all worked for the Commission and enjoyed a cappella close harmony singing. Just after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty one of our members set the Treaty’s preamble to Gregorian chant. Our audiences loved it and eventually we were asked to perform it for the BBC in the Grand Place and they filmed it.
But when they showed the clip on the lunchtime news, the BBC’s comment on our performance was ridiculous. They basically said: “Look at these British workers for the Commission: not even they are taking the Treaty seriously!” But we were! I mean, we were parodying the language a little bit, but we certainly weren’t mocking the spirit or the principle or even the details of the Treaty. But that’s not what the BBC reported.
TMN: Can you say a bit more about how your relationship with the UK changed over this period?
DS: Well, I noticed during my time working for the EU that the UK was always an outlier of sorts; that it never really belonged in the same way that every other country did. It was always complaining about its various obligations, seeking opt-outs, things like that. And I found myself apologising to colleagues about the British attitude, because I believed in the EU.
Largely as a result of this, in addition to the biased media coverage and the serious animosity large segments of the British people bore towards the EU, I began, slowly, to drift more and more apart from the UK. I remember, around 20 years ago or so, my mum said to me: “You really don’t like England any more, do you?” And, in a way, it was true. Maybe I had just lost touch.
TMN: What was your reaction to the Brexit vote?
DS: I was totally shocked, and seriously disappointed. It felt like a knife in the gut, almost a personal violation; as though my entire professional life had been invalidated, that it had been for nothing. It was also, in my view, a real scandal that people like me, British citizens living abroad, couldn’t vote, especially given that we probably knew more about the EU than the average British citizen.
TMN: Did it affect you in a practical sense?
DS: Not really. Myself and my wife, and my daughter, already all had Belgian citizenship. My son never bothered to get his though: he’s still only a Brit. It could possibly affect him.
TMN: What do you think about what’s happening now in the UK with regard to Brexit?
DS: It’s a constant soap opera. I initially thought that a solution would be found very quickly: that either the British establishment would claim that the referendum result was only advisory and Britain would therefore remain a member of the EU, or that the EU and the UK would quickly be able to reach a deal. I was wrong. Problems arose that I don’t think many people had even considered, or knew about, like the Irish border. The UK is now such a divided country, it’s unbelievable. Ironically it wanted to leave the European Union, but now its own union is starting to appear under threat.
TMN: What do you think were the main causes of the vote?
DS: Well, one factor is the lies and bias of the media over several decades, as I already explained. Another factor, in my view, is the after-effect of the 2008 financial crisis. I don’t understand why bankers can play fast and loose and still not get punished. People felt really hard done by, and justifiably so. They hit out at the first thing they could hit out at: the political establishment wanted them to remain, so they voted to leave. There are also other big related issues, like gross economic inequality. But I think the vote was largely a vote against the establishment, rather than merely a vote against the EU.
TMN: What do you think is going to happen?
DS: I don’t know. It’s all such a mess. Your guess is as good as mine.
TMN: What do you want to happen now?
DS: Well, part of me doesn’t really want the UK to be part of the EU anymore. It always seemed to act as a brake on closer integration. As I explained before, it’s always been a bit of an outlier. On top of that, I really don’t have much fondness left for the UK. I wouldn’t be too upset if it ceased to exist, really: I’m in favour of a united Ireland, and of an independent Scotland. Another great side-effect of Brexit is that for three years now the other 27 Member States have been speaking with one voice on the issue.
However, I’m also aware that the EU doesn’t really want Britain to leave, as it might harm the trade of a lot of European countries, particularly those geographically close to the UK, like Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Ireland. It really angers me, though, that even though it was the UK that asked to leave, a lot of people in Britain seem incensed that the EU is not bending over backwards to give the UK all it is asking for in the Brexit negotiations, even though the EU position was crystal clear and unwavering from the beginning. Part of me really wants to see the EU put the knife in, to punish the UK.
TMN: But surely you don’t want the average person in Britain to suffer?
DS: Of course not. But I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a lot of senior members of the media suffer, as well as most of the politicians.
TMN: But don’t you think that there are, at least, some legitimate reasons for criticising the EU?
DS: If I’m honest, I’ve almost certainly been indoctrinated by the EU just by virtue of working there. The sheer pleasure of working alongside 27 other nationalities is so educational and stimulating. How can anyone ever be racist? But one problem I think the EU has is that it needs to be more open about what it is and what it does, particularly in the UK.
TMN: But how is it supposed to do that, with some of the major UK media outlets being so vehemently anti-EU?
DS: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Take ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) projects for example. Travelling through Greece, Romania, etc. you see huge signs up acknowledging the contributions from the EU. The UK benefits from similar contributions, but they will be mentioned on a small notice board about A4 size – often hidden behind a tree with the EU flag almost invisible!
TMN: What do you think of the criticism of the EU’s handling of the eurozone crisis, particularly in places like Greece?
DS: I have a lot of Greek friends – Greek is one of my languages – and I did feel very bad about that, and very sorry for the Greeks. But I was in Greece for a week recently and the general opinion now seems to be that it was necessary just to restore some kind of order and things are now improving a lot.
TMN: What about the argument that the EU is non- or even anti-democratic?
DS: That’s an argument that a lot of Leavers tend to make: they keep ranting about the EU being an undemocratic organisation run by unelected officials, but it’s not true. The Commission runs the EU in more-or-less the same way that the civil service runs the UK Government – and the civil service is not elected. Furthermore, the main EU decisions are taken by the Council, which is made up of Ministers from the Member States who are themselves elected. The democracy is there, it’s just indirect.
The argument is also deeply hypocritical. The UK has a system of government which is a long way from being democratic. Many people’s votes just do not count if they happen to live in a “safe” Conservative or Labour seat. The current system is weighted heavily in favour of the two major political parties, making it very difficult for smaller parties to get a seat. Just have a look at the last general election. See how many people voted Green, UKIP, Labour and Conservative – and how those votes translated into seats. This is not democracy.
TMN: Would you be in favour of a fully federalised, democratic Europe – a “United States of Europe”?
DS: Yes, I think so, though I in some ways I would prefer to see a Europe of regions, as opposed to a Europe of nation-states. As it stands, I think certain EU member states have too much power relative to others, especially France, Germany, and (formerly) the UK. Having a Europe of regions would go some way toward solving that problem. Although it might be difficult to organise …
Imagine a debate with Flanders, Catalonia, Malta, Yorkshire and Normandy arguing against Sicily, Crete, Westphalia and the Isle of Wight!
TMN: In what ways do you think you hold similar, or dissimilar, views to your son, Alex?
DS: Alex is not as much in favour of the EU as I am. I think in large part he views the EU as an obstacle to third world development, by its imposition of high external tariffs and so on. He’s also been very critical of the way the EU has handled the migrant crisis. He sees the EU as a club of the rich and something of a privileged bubble – and I do sympathise with that view. But I still think that the benefits of the EU far outweigh any cons.
TMN: What, in your view, are the main benefits of the EU?
DS: Well, it’s kept peace in Europe for 70 years. It’s made travel so much easier. It’s allowed products to circulate seamlessly across different countries. It’s allowed people, ideas, and cultures to mingle with and to learn from one another. It has done much to protect the environment, including birds and animals, by designating huge conservation areas . It has cleaned up the seas and the air. And it was a front-runner with action on climate change. And in many areas – chemicals, drugs, foodstuffs, etc. – it makes life easier because authorisation is required only once, rather than in each individual country like in the old days.
I remember that on the 50th anniversary of the of Treaty of Rome the Independent newspaper ran a front page with the title: “50 reasons to thank Europe”. It included things like the improvement of workers’ rights, environmental protection, action on climate change. In short, it’s had loads of benefits.
TMN: Final question: Do you feel British? Or Belgian? Or European?
DS: Well, I certainly feel more European than British. I would like to be able to say that I’m European, though I’m also very happy to say that I’m Belgian: I really feel like I belong here. I speak Dutch and French. I have Belgian friends. I’m active in the community – I’ve even stood in local elections. In short, I definitely don’t feel stateless. I feel very much at home here in Belgium.
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