If British Prime Minister David Cameron has not always handled himself adroitly in the corridors of power in Brussels, Heard in Europe readers should reflect that this is perhaps to be expected from a man who once managed to get lost on the Grand Place.
European political twitchers nervously awaiting the result of the UK’s “unwinnable” election will be eager to see how any future administration – strongly expected to be be a coalition of parties – will approach the European issue.
Cameron’s Tories are offering a referendum on UK membership before the end of 2017, to be preceded by an attempt to renegotiate the terms of UK membership. The Labour Party want no referendum, but have said they would seek reform of the EU. The Liberal Democrats also oppose a referendum, though they have indicated that they would stomach one if European citizens resident in the UK were included in the poll. Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party want to take the UK out of the EU as soon as they can, and would offer a snap referendum to achieve this.
Europe’s leadership should expect Cameron to lobby them if he wins, as he attempts to get some concessions to offer the electorate in advance of his in/out referendum. They will have his track record as Prime Minister as a guide to how he will go about this, but Cameron had lobbying form in Brussels before he was a politician.
David Cameron spent seven years at the UK television company Carlton Communications, keen to add business experience to his curriculum vitae to impress Conservative selection committees.
At Carlton, he was disliked by a number of journalists who considered him slippery. But Cameron also had a reputation for dealing skilfully with his then-boss, a notoriously combative media executive called Michael Green, who subsequently became a top-flight psychotherapist specialising in addiction and violence issues.
Cameron’s Carlton career, his only job outside politics, began in September 1994. Towards the end of that decade, however, the digitisation of the media sector led Cameron to an early brush with Brussels.
At the time, the BBC was lobbying the UK government for a new form of licence fee payment to accommodate its new digital offerings, a move strongly resisted by the private sector.
Carlton joined forces with other private players to resist it, and they took their campaign to Brussels, arguing that any privileged BBC digital levy would be unlawful under state aid rules.
One colleague who was with him during the trip told Heard in Europe how Cameron got lost from the rest of the party on the Grand Place after having a beer. “How does anyone get lost in the Grand Place?” he asked. But the campaign itself was successful, since the Commission was said to be planning to warn the UK government about any BBC digital fee, and an official was cited as telling the BBC “we think it should try and get the funding from somewhere else”. The BBC never got its digital levy.
Perhaps the experience contributed to Cameron’s confidence that he can get his way in Brussels? Either way it is a formative experience that doubtless colours his approach. Brussels of course has played a more formative part in the lives of the other party leaders. Farage’s career as an MEP has been the bedrock of his party’s success, and he famously does not allow his dislike of the EU institutions to interfere with his enjoyment of the various alcoholic products the continent has to offer. Nick Clegg, who also served a stint as an MEP, lived in the now sought after Rue Americaine in Ixelles, a stone’s throw from the louche Touche D’Ivoire bar, though Heard in Europe cannot attest whether he frequented it.
Meanwhile, Brussels was the making of Labour Leader Ed Miliband, literally, since his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, was born here. His parents were Polish Jews who migrated to Belgium in the aftermath of the First World War, and met in Brussels in 1923. Ralph Miliband grew up in Brussels. In May 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jewish Miliband family fled the anti-semitic Nazi regime. They were all set to go to Paris, but changed their mind at the last minute, and instead caught the last ship to Britain from Ostend.
Photograph courtesy of Flickr/Richard FisherHeard in Europe