Monday 23 September 2019

John Downing: 'Three 'Euro brats' - raised and schooled as part of the Brussels elite - will soon occupy key posts that affect all of our daily lives. So, just what are we in for?'

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

The "Euro brats" have moved to the top table of EU decision-making at a crucial time for Ireland. One of the trio is on the wrong side. But will the other two help Ireland's Brexit case?

Last Monday, the carve-up of the EU's "big jobs" was unveiled with results which surprised many people. There were a hatful of "firsts" - but one crucial factor was overlooked.

It is that when the new EU leaders face each other in renewed Brexit tangling with the UK from the end of this month, three of the principals will have one key element of background in common. They are "Euro brats" raised and educated as the children of the Brussels Eurocrat elite.

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Two of the newcomers, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel, are by definition very much on the European side. The third person, the expected new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, on the side of Brexit come what may.

The surprise nomination of Ms Von der Leyen came with a series of firsts.

She is the first woman to head the policy-guiding Brussels executive and her appointment, along with that of Christine Lagarde as head of the European Central Bank, sees two women at the heart of European power.

But Ms Von der Leyen is also the first German to take the post since the trail-blazing Walter Hallstein ended his term way back in 1967.

Hallstein's appointment in 1958, the year the new incumbent was born, was seen at the time as a major part of post-war German international rehabilitation.

Ms Von der Leyen (60), often described as a lookalike of the actress Charlotte Rampling, was actually born in Brussels, where her father Ernst Albrecht was then a senior EU official. At school there until 1971, she became fluent in French and English along with her native German.

This polymath economist turned medical doctor is the mother of seven children. She began in politics in her early 40s and became a steadfast ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As Germany's first woman defence minister, she got very mixed reviews and faced criticisms for contract awards at a time of retrenchment in the armed forces.

But she is known as a steely political force, with honed survival instincts, and she is likely to pass the final hurdle of her appointment, which is a vote by fractious European Parliament members expected after July 16.

The outgoing Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, who will steer all EU leaders' summits, has a patent on being the first, and especially the youngest, in his achievements during a glittering career.

He was the youngest local councillor at age 18, the youngest parliament member aged 22; the youngest government minister aged 25; and the youngest prime minister at age of 38.

Like Ms Von der Leyen, his education was nothing if not European. His father Louis Michel was an MEP, Belgian foreign minister and an EU commissioner.

Mr Michel is a native French speaker, who also speaks fluent Dutch, which helped him span Belgium's deep linguistic divide, as well as excellent English.

At first glance, he ap pears made for the job of preparing and chairing EU leaders' summits.

In 2014, he put together the most diverse Belgian coalition government, including the anti-immigrant Flemish nationalists, who want Flanders to split from the French-speaking Walloons, and kept it together for four years.

The strange one in the pack is Boris Johnson, for this writer still inevitably the next UK prime minister.

Mr Johnson's controversial career as Brussels correspondent for the anti-EU 'Daily Telegraph' from 1989 to 1994 is well known. His ability in those years to invariably find an anti-EU angle to most every report is well rehearsed.

But it is less well known that he spent a chunk of his formative years in Brussels, where his father, Stanley, was a senior EU official and later a Conservative MEP. In the introduction to one of his many books, Boris Johnson later wrote:

"Between the ages of eight and 11, I was educated at a marvellous place in Brussels called the European School. It is one of the few schools in the world that is avowedly political, rather than religious, in its core dogma.

"It has a message for its pupils. Somewhere in the grounds is a plaque bearing the words of Jean Monnet, founder of the European Community, in which he speaks of his hopes for the little children who gambol around, screaming and yelling in the umpteen official languages of the EU. 'May they become in mind European,' he says, and drones on about how he hopes they will come out of the school resolved to build a common European fatherland."

In that same piece, he went on to castigate this concept of integrated learning, suggesting the school encouraged cliques and ghettos. He argued integration was in fact a myth and in reality "a form principle of apartheid". But the opening lines about "a marvellous place" are striking.

Over a decade living and working in Brussels, this writer heard various accounts of the European schools, both positive and negative.

Let's move swiftly on, simply noting that the milieu produced three accomplished but very different people - and now they meet again.

How the mercurial Mr Johnson will impact on the Brexit outcome, and by extension the people of these islands, is a matter of big speculation.

His noisy candidature to head the British Conservatives has increased the risk of a disastrous no-deal.

But there is a strong school of thought that he could in fact sell a Brexit compromise to his party much like Theresa May's ill-fated deal.

For the remaining duo of Eurobrats a number of obvious things spring to mind. They each have publicly said the EU-UK divorce deal - which includes the Irish Border backstop - cannot be reopened despite what any new UK leader might say. That remains credible.

Each has been sharply critical of the UK government's management of Brexit.

Ms Von der Leyen spoke of "hollow promises" and Mr Michel expressed his EU colleagues' frustration at a leaders' summit last March.

"Good grief, could they tell us what they want?" Mr Michel asked at the time. He also spoke of the importance of the Irish backstop to the entire EU project.

We may look to Mr Michel - given his record of quiet diplomacy and daring outreach to rivals in the fractured world of Belgian politics - to help deliver a good Brexit outcome.

He could well be the one to find an escape hatch for Mr Johnson.

Brexit will become a good deal noisier before we get a clearer read on how the endgame will play out. By September we may know more but some rocky weeks still lie ahead thereafter.

Irish Independent

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