Minor regrets, major changes: the EU’s former UK rep on a tumultuous four years

By on 14/02/2019
Jackie Minor: some UK politicians haven’t yet understood the trade-offs demanded by Brexit

Until 2017, Jackie Minor was the European Commission’s Head of Representation in the UK. As Brexit negotiations enter a dangerous and painful endgame, she reviews her time at the Commission – and considers how clashing cultures have derailed Britain’s relationship with the EU

Ever since Brexit negotiations got underway, many British politicians have been constantly surprised by the EU’s stance – particularly its refusal to compromise the Single Market’s core principles, and its wholehearted support for Ireland over avoiding a hard border with Northern Ireland. But Jackie Minor, the EU’s Head of Representation in the UK from 2013 to 2017, says the EU’s inflexibility on these points was entirely predictable. Many in the UK, she believes, have simply never understood the drivers at the core of the EU project.

For British leaders and commentators, she explains, the country’s relationship with the EU has long been seen as largely transactional – a simple matter of finding common interests. As former Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg noted, Britons have typically adopted a “detached, objective weighing-up of the benefits and costs: ‘What do I have to put in? What do I get out?’,” she notes. From this perspective, it would make complete sense for the EU to permit – for example – the UK to enjoy tariff-free trade whilst ending freedom of movement, in order to maintain Continental exports to Britain.

But that, says Minor, is to ignore Europeans’ widespread commitment to EU unity and the core principles underpinning the Single Market. “When there’s an external risk, solidarity comes into play,” she says. “There is a recognition that smaller member states might be over-ridden in the internal legislative process of qualified majority voting. But when it comes to something as important as Brexit, everyone will line up to protect and support a smaller country. The Baltics will really want to know that the EU would protect them from any threat from the East, for example.”

Similarly, on the trade relationship, leaders across the EU are agreed that nations must obey all of the Single Market’s rules in order to participate. “The way I used to explain it was that EU membership is a complex bundle of rights and obligations, and you can’t extract from that bundle one thread without unravelling the whole thing,” she says. “The Brexit process has demonstrated that leaving the EU is very difficult: there are trade-offs that some British politicians are still to face up to.”

High-risk strategy

Unable to secure her own party’s acceptance of those trade-offs, UK prime minister Theresa May is pushing the UK ever closer to a disorderly, No Deal exit – something that Minor calls “an incredibly high-risk strategy.” So far, the EU shows no signs of granting further concessions along the lines demanded by the Tories’ hard Brexiteers; and tensions are rising on both sides. “Europe is getting immensely frustrated with this kicking the can down the road,” Minor comments.

Even if May does get her deal through Parliament, Minor adds, this will only represent “the end of the beginning” of the Brexit story. “One way or another, the manner of withdrawal will be determined in the near-ish future,” she says. “But that still leaves the negotiation of the future relationship which, even leaving aside the differing views in the UK as to what it should be, will be complex and highly technical.”

And all of this was, for those who knew and understood the EU – like Britain’s former civil service legal chief Sir Paul Jenkins, now tragically deceased – entirely predictable. “During the final six months or so that I was Head of the Representation, I spent a lot of time explaining to people how Article 50 [of the Lisbon Treaty] would work. And if there’s an element of schadenfreude in me, it’s because the way I explained it, is the way it has largely worked.”

“I don’t pretend to have spotted – at that stage – the importance of the Irish border,” she adds. “But the rest of it, I think, was fairly predictable from a European perspective: the sequencing, and the unity and solidarity.”

“You could make the European Union more democratic, but that would take more power away from sovereign states”

A revived EU

Paradoxically, the shock of Britain’s Brexit vote and the subsequent negotiations have, Minor believes, left the EU stronger. It “might be more obvious now to other populations” how difficult it would be to leave the union; and some of the union’s other difficulties have faded. “In 2016 people were talking about the perfect storm: Brexit, the instability of the Euro, the migration crisis. But, for the moment, some of the other issues have ebbed away,” she comments

The EU is also, Minor argues, slowly addressing its ‘democratic deficit’. “It’s probably true that the Commission has more powers – perhaps significantly more powers – than most national administrations,” she says; but this is a consequence of the Council of Ministers’ hoarding of democratic legitimacy. “The only way you could enhance the parallel with what goes on in individual countries is to have European Commissioners directly elected somehow,” she comments. “But that would give them the kind of democratic mandate that most national governments – and perhaps most national electorates – would find unacceptable.”  

In recent years, she’s witnessed a shift in power from the Commission towards both the European Parliament and the Council: “There has been increased democratic legitimacy for the Parliament, and they have seized and exploited all the powers [offered] them cleverly and with enthusiasm. So the Commission now listens very much to the Parliament – some people would say too much – and I think the Council, which didn’t formally exist as a body until quite recently, has also seized power in terms of creating a direction and setting policy objectives, in a way that it didn’t in the early years of the European Community. So I think you have to admit that a ‘democratic deficit’ does exist but the issue is somewhat addressed in practice.”

“You could make the European Union more democratic, but that would take more power away from sovereign states,” she concludes; the current “uneasy compromise” is likely to persist for a while.

Don’t blow that trumpet

Some argue that the EU should have done more to shout about its own achievements, making people aware of the contribution it has made to infrastructure and economic development across its poorer regions. But again, Minor challenges the narrative: “Spending by government bodies – whether at European, national or local government level – on promoting the merits of what they are doing always strikes me as somewhat suspect, and it’s rightly regarded as somewhat suspect by voters: ‘This is our money being spent by you to tell us how well you are doing!’.”

And communicating through multiple languages and cultures is challenging, she argues: “What plays well in Finland might go down like a lead balloon in Italy”.

Minor’s four-year stint as head of the EU’s UK representation ended in February 2017. It had not been a straightforward four years: just one month after she relocated to London to take up the job, David Cameron promised to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership. Two years on, she’s coming to the end of her mandatory two-year ‘cooling-off’ period, during which time she has to notify her former employer of her professional activity.

“They are very concerned that I shouldn’t be writing anything – opinions, recommendations, etcetera – that might assist the British government. Basically, they don’t want me to be helping directly the British negotiating team,” she explains. But she is allowed to provide training on EU issues; and nowadays works part-time for the Centre for Political and Diplomatic Studies (CDPS), which has a training contract with the British civil service.

Will the deal fly?

Minor is also a member of UK regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)’s Consumer Panel – a role that gives her insights into how the chronic uncertainty around Brexit is affecting a key industry. “Like everybody else, [the CAA] are awaiting direction from the top to some degree,” she says. “They can contingency plan, of course, and they are doing so. But my sense is that, like everyone else, they are waiting – and so are their interlocutors in other countries – to see what the situation is on 30 March”.

If a No Deal exit was certain, then aviation bodies would be working overtime to plug the huge regulatory gaps it would create. But British and overseas agencies can’t be expected to plough vast resources into an outcome that almost nobody is advocating. “If the Withdrawal Agreement – or a Withdrawal Agreement – goes through with a transition period, then that gives everybody time to breathe, and certainty for the length of the transition,” she says. “But if it doesn’t go through, there will be a scramble to put in place these new arrangements.

“In the case of arrangements with the EU, there has already been a notice, I think, to say this is what the EU will do unilaterally to ensure that planes can still take off and land. But it’s a short-term measure that will then still need to be subject to further negotiation.”

Consumer power

Prior to returning to the UK in 2013, Minor was Director for Consumer Policy at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco).

She took up that role in 2008, when EU consumer policy first gained a dedicated Commissioner: Bulgaria’s Meglena Kuneva. “This really made a difference,” she recalls. “To have an advocate within the College [of Commissioners] who could spend her entire time promoting our policies was quite different to having a Commissioner who has considerable other responsibilities.”

But this positive structural change was not to last: “After [Kuneva] left, it got folded back into the whole Sanco portfolio and it has now moved to Justice,” says Minor. “Since Kuneva, the person responsible for consumer policy has had a lot of other things on their plate. This may be entirely justifiable, but inevitably it means that consumer policy isn’t as much front and centre as it was under Kuneva.”

Challenges that she recalls at Sanco include battling what she describes as “misconceptions” that her department was aiming to “tie businesses down with red-tape”; and the struggle to integrate consumer interests into all fields of EU policy. But the Commissioner did make an impact: she points to the EU’s well-known initiatives on delayed flight compensation and mobile-phone roaming charges, as well as Sanco’s co-operative work with the EU’s energy department to make it easier to change energy provider.

And how much of a difference did DG Sanco make? “I think we made some progress,” she replies carefully – though she accepts that “consumer bodies might be a little wary of the ‘fig-leaf’ approach to taking the consumer interest into account.

“What I mean is that on a consultative body they would have 10 business representatives and one consumer representative, and say: ‘Well, we do have a consumer representative’. So there was a bit of that: cosmetic changes. But there was some recognition that if you wanted to get public subscription to economic policy, you couldn’t just listen to business.”

Painful lessons

As Minor exits her EU cooling-off period, the UK is about – apparently – to exit the EU. And we choose a bittersweet location for interview photographs: she’s been moderating an event in Westminster’s Europe House, where she ran the European Commission’s team for four years.

“It’s discombobulating to be back – being here as just a transitory user,” she reflects, as the gathering wraps up. And does she have any thoughts for former UK PM David Cameron, whose referendum prompted Brexit?

“I’d remind him of something [ex-Commission president José Manuel] Barroso used to say,” she replies. “And that is: ‘You can’t decry the EU six days a week, and expect the public to admire it on Sunday’.

“His chosen strategy – renegotiate and then swiftly put the deal to the referendum – reinforced the antagonistic narrative, and left very little time to persuade voters of the merits of continuing membership.”

Then our chat draws to an end, and the lights go out for the night in Europe House.

About Ian Hall

Ian Hall is a former Editor of Public Affairs News, who has most recently worked as UK Director for the pan-European media network Euractiv. He is also a former News Editor of PR Week. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo.

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