On the list of things I have been outraged by this week – and I do keep a list, otherwise it gets hard to keep track – I’ve certainly been very grumpy about the awful weather and consequent public transport chaos that ensued, I’ve been mildly irritated by the stupid Euromyth about the ‘EU Porn Ban’ (as if; and anyway, it was a resolution which has no legal or legislative force – most of these get ignored), but neither of these annoyed me as much as the fact that an event I was very much looking forward to got postponed at the last minute. I was invited to a drinks reception for British Officials by the UK Permament Representation to the EU. It’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to an Ambassador’s reception (yes, go on, insert Fererro Rocher gag here) and, since the only other person I know who was invited was my new Director General, I was quite intrigued to see how much I could jeopardise my career in an hour and a half with 3 glasses of champagne on an empty stomach.
Usually I can count on my new colleagues and friends to steer me away from such potential disasters, only it occurred to me that not one of them would be there, because until last week, I hadn’t actually met any other British officials since I arrived in Brussels 9 months ago. Hardly surprising, since although the UK population represents 12% of the population of the EU, we represent less than 5% of the staff in EU institutions. I was always vaguely aware of the figures, but didn’t realise what it looked like until I got here and felt like the only Brit in the village; being pounced on to check every email sent to an outside company, every piece of project documentation or even, as someone asked me the other day, to check a post-it memo they wanted to leave on a colleague’s desk, because I am a native English speaker and everyone wants to know what the ‘correct’ English is. Luckily, I used to be an English teacher, and I’m a moderately nice person so I am happy to help. But I am certainly not a translator; that is a job involving complex skills that I just don’t have.
Another reality is that nobody here knows how to make or drink a proper cup of tea. But I digress.
What I am cross about is the fact that there are so very few of us out here. We like to blame it on the lengthy and arduous selection and recruitment process, but everyone else faces the same obstacles and it doesn’t seem to phase them half as much. The other thing we like to blame it on is the fact that Brits are poor at languages, but this is twaddle as well. The truth is that a career in the EU institutions is simply not on the radar of young talented British graduates. It is clear that the general eurosceptic malaise pervading British society right now is doing nothing to help matters, but I don’t even think this is the real problem. It seems to perhaps reflect a disturbing lack of knowledge about what the EU is, what it does, how it works and how to engage with it.
In many other member states, there are strong political youth movements, in which discussions take place for example about the future of the EU and what they can do to help shape it. A German friend of mine recently organised such an event, involving their MEP, in a cinema in their town on a Saturday afternoon, and 150 people turned up to discuss and debate the issues. I cannot imagine anything like this happening back in my home town in the UK. Similarly, I have a Norwegian friend, whose entire teenage and student years revolved around political activities, but all of his friends were also involved. Mention that you’re in the ‘Young Conservatives’ or something in a UK University and nobody will sleep with you for three years (well ok, that’s fair enough).
Having this discussion with a Danish person made me think that perhaps the problem is actually a lack of representative, participatory democracy in the UK. Politics doesn’t really take place outside of Westminster, and in general we get a choice of 2 parties, whether they represent our views or not. Whether we want either of them or not, we have to vote, and if the party we vote for doesn’t win, our vote was effectively wasted and we have nothing more to say until the next election. In Denmark there are currently 8 parties represented in parliament; under their PR system, all parties who get more than 2% of the vote are entitled to representation. How could that not lead to more people feeling that they have a stake, and a say, in politics? It therefore becomes integral to everyday life, into conversations at the dinner table, into youth groups and University societies. Young people from other member states and aspiring member states grow up with this cultural and political capital that most young people in the UK just don’t have.
So how did I get here? I certainly wasn’t a member of a youth movement, I hadn’t even heard of the EU or ‘Brussels’ until I was in college – hell, I hadn’t even eaten pasta until I was 18. BUT – my parents are northern, and politics was always part of my life, because it affected us. I knew from the age of about five that Margaret Thatcher was a bad lady who took away my grandad’s job (he was a coal miner) and took away my free milk at school. I always knew who my parents voted for, because they talked about it, and I asked them why they made those choices – nightmarish, precocious child that I was! On a Sunday morning, in a northern family, kids are not running around with a sense of entitlement expecting to be entertained the second they wake up. They are expected to shut up until a civilised hour of the morning, so I would sit and read every section of the Sunday papers, whether I understood it or not, until after a while things started to become familiar. In my final year of secondary school when I studied the Arab Israeli conflict in GCSE History I could already identify the leftist leanings of my History teacher (ironically he used to explain the concept of bias every lesson, presumably thinking no-one would spot his). By the time I reached University, Politics was something I was passionate about and to me it seemed like the only way to ever make a real difference in the world, and as I became more familiar with international politics, the ideals behind the project of European integration inspired me to want to become part of that project and help take it further.
So, my theory is, if we want British nationals to be better represented as a proportion of EU staff, we just need to change the UK electoral system, encourage more active engagement in the democratic process and raise more children the northern way. I will mention this 3 stage plan to the Ambassador when I eventually do see him. Unless I can find a fellow British colleague to helpfully steer my champagne-fuelled rant safely towards the Fererro Rocher.