The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Denis MacShane, the UK’s former minister for Europe. His latest book is Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris).

Recently the London Eurosceptic political weekly, the Spectator, published an article by the most fervent EU federalist to be found in Europe. Jean Quatremer is a Brussels legend. He arrived for the French paper, Libération, just as Boris Johnson was leaving his Daily Telegraph correspondent’s job. Johnson had spent his Brussels years inventing myths about Europe or in plain English, lies, as his colleague in Brussels, James Landale, now the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor described Johnson journalism.

Boris Johnson spent the next quarter century rubbishing Europe at every possibility. Jean Quatremer spent the same period living his dream of an integrated, federal Europe and using his brilliant journalist pen to lambast the nation-firsters and anyone who stood in the way of more, and yet more Europe. His contempt for Brexit knows no bounds.

Quatremer has published several books and often his target has been the Brussels Eurocrats who get in the way of creating a more federal Europe. In fact, his real target should be the national leaders of the EU member states including the four French presidents (before Macron) since he arrived in Brussels who always proclaimed themselves pro-EU but somehow always ensure that French interests are defended often at the price of more integration.

In 2005, Quatremer, published a book on “The Masters of Europe”, with a dark-suited, boring bureaucratic with his back to the camera on the cover. He returned to the theme last year with a book “The Bastards of Europe” – again the network of officials and politicians who in his view prevented his European dream from coming true.

French political journalism specialises in lifting the veil of the networks of power and influence in politics, government, and business and creating a drama out of the clash of personalities working the alcoves of the corridors of power.

In the French worldview, there is no such thing as a neutral civil servant. Every senior official has a political axe to grind and indeed many top French ministers and presidents are technically government officials on leave of absence to take part in the electoral political activity.

In Britain, the press never reports on the head of the civil service or cabinet secretary unless the poor man has to decide the fate of a minister caught doing something inappropriate.

It is the prime minister who signs off on these appointments as well as other top civil service jobs but no one much bothers on who gets what post as they are all Whitehall warriors who maintain the fiction that ministers take the decisions.

In Brussels, Jean Quatremer has no time for the idea of a neutral civil service. He has just blasted the top Eurocrat Martin Selmayr, a German, who is currently chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker and who has just been named as the next Secretary General to the European Commission – roughly the same as the head of the civil service in Whitehall.

Juncker stands down next year and the next Commission President whoever he or she will be can name his or her chief of staff. The job is not easy. The chief of staff has to be the tough cop while the Commission president is the nice, friendly chairman of the board. Juncker excels in back-slapping, hugging, cheek-kissing, jokey asides and an all-around bonhomie that has helped him through decades as one of Europe’s top finance ministers and prime ministers in his native Luxembourg and then since 2014 Commission president.

Selmayr has to do the heavy lifting, rebuke poorly performing Commissioners, shuffle around the top EU civil servants, advise on priorities and do what in the UK a cabinet secretary or PM’s chief of staff would do.

He is a serious German Christian Democrat, a protégé of the legendary Elmar Brok, the German MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a hard-working multi-lingual European civil servant.

He has secured his future by gliding from being Juncker’s chief of staff to getting the post of European Commission Secretary General. This is much more of an administrative post than being the Commission President’s right-hand man daily doing the politics of dealing with national heads of government.

But for Quatremer, the appointment of Selmayr to the administrative job of Commission Secretary-General is further proof of the wickedness of the Eurocrats looking after themselves as if that had never happened in the history of bureaucracies for centuries.

Quatremer seems to think that Selmayr’s appointment should have been open to democratic accountability and there is hidden scandal in his appointment. It is akin to hoping that the next UK cabinet secretary should be the subject of an open competition with candidates making their pitch in public.

From some points of view that might be desirable but on the whole civil servants join government service with a view to deliver what the elected politicians – like Juncker or the elected members of the EU Council and MEPs themselves – decide should be done.

Selmayr is abrasive, a man, and a German who has made enemies. His appointment, while fully within the rules, was rushed and seemed to be about securing a comfortable posting from 2019 onwards.

MEPs have got up on a high horse but are not in a good place given their own lack of transparency on expenses and employing cronies as well of the habit of national parties parachuting failed ministers or MPs who have lost their seats into well-padded MEP posts on the basis of party lists and not in open democratic contests.

Selmayr will have no role in the choice of the next European Commission president who will emerge as a result of the Spitzenkandidat process and the wishes of national heads of government like President Macron.

But for the Spectator and the Europhobe commentariat, it was a gift from heaven to read a long, well-argued attack on Selmayr as proof of how the EU is run by a secret cabal of unelected power-holders who dictate what the EU is and does.

If Quatremer, a fine pro-European journalist, had offered the enthusiastically anti-European Spectator any of his usual articles in favour of more Europe and less national controls they would not be bothered to look at it.

But for one edition of the Spectator, Quatremer was the darling of London salon Europhobes.

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