My appointment to the office of Minister of State for Europe happened in somewhat unorthodox circumstances. It was not, I have to say, an office for which I had ever cherished any great ambition. I had always taken my place squarely on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, convinced that Britain would enjoy a happier and more prosperous future outside the European Union. My greatest wish, in fact, was that the office of Europe Minister should cease to be. I was consequently delighted when David Cameron announced that there was to be a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU, threw myself into the campaign and was equally delighted with the outcome.
I was at home in my North Wales constituency on the morning of 16th July 2016 when my mobile phone rang. It was the Downing Street switchboard: “Mr Jones, I have the Prime Minister for you.”
I was still absorbing the words when I heard Theresa May’s voice: “Good morning, David.”
“Good morning, Theresa… er, Prime Minister.”
There was no reply, just stony silence. Had my inadvertent over-familiarity, I wondered, caused mortal offence to the woman I had supported in the recent leadership process, from which she had emerged triumphant, her opponents metaphorically strewn like ninepins across the pavements of Westminster?
The truth was, fortunately, less perturbing. She had simply lost her telephone connection in the notorious mobile black spot that is 10 Downing Street.
I waited. I was reconnected. Once again, the call failed.
The phone rang for a third time.
“Sorry, Mr Jones, but the PM’s taken another call. She will get back to you. It’ll probably be a while.”
I took the dog for a walk. Quite a long walk.
I was heading back up the garden path when the mobile rang again. This time the connection held up. “David, I’d like to offer you the position of Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union.”
I accepted without hesitation. The new Department had been created specifically to undertake the function of extricating Britain from the EU, a task that I was more than happy to help complete. What’s more, I would be working with David Davis, a colleague I had liked and respected ever since I had supported his candidacy for the party leadership in 2005. I could want nothing more.
The significance of my title did not become apparent to me until, shortly after I had been installed in my new office at 9 Downing Street, I was asked to sign a routine piece of ministerial correspondence. There was a space for my signature and underneath it the words: “Minister of State for Europe”.
“Surely that’s not right,” I said to the official who was waiting for me to sign the document. “Minister of State for Europe is an FCO role. I’m here to help take us out.”
“No, it’s quite correct, Minister,” he replied. “The FCO functions in relation to the EU have been transferred to this Department. For those purposes, you are Minister of State for Europe.”
“What about Sir Alan Duncan?” I enquired.
“Ah, he’s Minister of State for Europe and the Americas,” he answered. “That’s quite a different thing.”
A big part of the duties of the Europe Minister is to attend the EU General Affairs Councils (GACs). These are monthly events, usually held in Brussels, but occasionally in Luxembourg. Twice a year, however, informal Councils are also held in the capital city of whichever member state has taken over the rotating presidency of the Union.
Thus it was that, one morning, barely a week after my appointment, I woke up in a hotel room in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which had just assumed the presidency at one of the most critical moments in the history of the European Union. It was, in the circumstances, a role that would have been challenging for even one of the larger Member States, but was particularly so for the small central European country, which had itself been a member of the EU for only 12 years.
The event was to be my first encounter with EU ministers and representatives of the Commission. I wondered what sort of reception I would have. I did feel a certain amount of nagging guilt that, by voting the way we had, we Brits had rather rained on the Slovaks’ parade. This was, after all, their big moment. It was the first time they had held the presidency of the Union, which, as a consequence of our vote, was just about to start shrinking. The other EU ministers too, I felt, were likely to be less than overjoyed.
Nevertheless, the Slovaks were apparently determined to put up a good show. Parked up outside the hotel was a fleet of black BMW 7 series. In turn, each of the EU ministers stepped into one of the cars and glided away.
As I sat in the back of my limo, I couldn’t help reflecting that my experience so far vindicated my assessment of the EU. Here were these middle-ranking ministers, most of whom, back home, would have been lucky to have the shared use of a Mondeo, being conveyed like satraps on the leather-upholstered rear seats of top-of-the-range Beemers. It confirmed my suspicions of incontinent euro-waste.
The car drew up outside the Reduta concert hall, an extravagant white wedding cake of a building, where the Council was being held. I emerged from the car and was startled to receive a smart salute from a police officer. I walked up the red-carpeted stairs, where I was greeted by my Slovak opposite number. We shook hands and posed for the press photographers. So far, the reception was relatively cordial.
The Slovak minister then introduced me to a gentleman standing to his left. He was a senior EU Commissioner, who extended his hand. We turned toward the cameras, and as we waited for the flashes to subside, he enquired through the gritted teeth of his well-practised smile: “How long, Mr Jones, does the UK intend to remain shackled to this corpse?”
It seemed fairly clear to me that he was a bit upset.
The Commissioner was not the only person to be experiencing angst over the UK’s decision to leave.
Some time shortly after my Bratislava visit, I was told that a very senior Scandinavian former minister had made an urgent request to meet me. I agreed to do so, and arranged to have coffee with him in the Pugin Room in the House of Commons.
He was a distinguished man, who spoke impeccable English. He sipped his coffee and said: “I have come to see you for reassurance. Please tell me that the UK will not really be leaving the EU.”
I was astounded.
“We are certainly leaving,” l assured him. “The country has just voted to do so.”
The Scandinavian replied: “But surely you are not serious. The referendum was advisory, no more. You are not bound by it. You must see that for the UK to leave would be disastrous for Europe.”
Once again, I told him that we would certainly be leaving. I explained that the Government had given a commitment to comply with the outcome of the referendum and that it would be politically impossible to go back on that commitment. I pointed out that my Department had been created specifically to achieve our withdrawal from the EU.
“But you can still stop it,” he replied. “Have a second referendum. The people must understand what damage this would do to the whole of Europe. The smaller member states need the UK as a counterbalance to Germany. You simply can’t leave.”
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “That’s not the way things work in this country. We made it clear that would abide by the referendum. We are leaving, and there is no going back.”
The gentleman was palpably saddened. He finished his coffee, shook hands with me and left. It was clear to me that, despite his distinguished service to democracy in his own country, he simply could not understand why the British Government should feel so perversely obliged to fulfil the referendum mandate. It was, after all, only advisory; and why should politicians listen to the electorate’s advice?
My meeting with the Scandinavian was my first introduction to the EU way of doing things. More was to come.
The General Affairs Councils were very different, both in feel and procedure, from the UK Cabinet committees upon which I sat. Cabinet committees tended to be meaty events, chaired by a senior minister, in which there was extensive and detailed discussion of the matters under consideration. They were not, generally, time-limited. They were meetings at which things tended to get done.
The GACs, however, were wholly different, both in terms of substance and style. For a start, the positions of the various Member States had already been substantially agreed in principle by officials before the meetings commenced. There were infrequently any matters of significant dispute or, to be frank, of substantive discussion.
Not, however, that this deterred any of the EU ministers present at the Council from expressing an opinion. Everyone took his or her turn. Because there were so many ministers present, the person chairing the discussion would usually impose a time limit of two or three minutes for each contribution. Most of the ministers tended to adhere to the limit, though there were exceptions. One female minister from a southern European country invariably exceeded her allotted time very substantially. Oblivious to the sighs and rolling eyes around the table, she would drone on interminably, thereby reducing the time available to other ministers. She never appeared abashed and her colleagues were always too polite to complain.
I had half anticipated that the meetings would be a sort of Babel, with everyone plugged into delayed translations over their headphones. That, in fact, turned out not to be the case. The French, of course, invariably spoke French. They did so, I felt, as a matter of principle, simply because almost everybody else spoke English. Otherwise, the headphones were rarely used.
I felt a certain degree of disappointment at this, since I had assumed that lurking in the Council were officials with such rarefied language skills they they could, for example, translate from Maltese to Estonian. Maybe those super-linguists did exist, but if there were any, I saw no evidence of them. Everyone spoke English.
What, I wondered, would happen when the UK finally left the EU? Would English cease to be an official language? After all, only the Irish would remain as first-language English speakers. My suspicion was that everyone would continue to use English, simply because it is so convenient.
Everyone, of course, except the French.
The GACs, by and large, were conducted reasonably efficiently and without controversy. The one exception was the occasion when the Council was considering its approval of CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada.
The meeting was being held in the vast and largely deserted EU building in Luxembourg. It had been anticipated that there would be little difficulty in approving the agreement, which had been some seven years in the negotiation. Indeed, arrangements had already been made for the reception of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to sign the document.
At the last moment, however, there was a hiccup. The regional government of Wallonia was withholding its approval, apparently concerned about the potential impact of CETA upon agriculture.
The Belgian Foreign Minister, who was in attendance, made clear that he could not give his approval for so long as consent was being withheld by the Walloons. He kept disappearing to make telephone calls, while the rest of us chatted abstractedly, consuming huge quantities of coffee.
After a full three hours, the Belgian returned from his umpteenth telephone call, to announce that there had been no significant progress. The rest of us decided it was time to go home.
As I exited the conference room, I overheard one of my colleagues say to another: “Where exactly is Wallonia?”
This article will be included in a forthcoming paper from the Red Cell which will be published in due course on its website.