Whatever happens regarding the UK’s future relationship with Europe, the British are not leaving the EU’s institutions. A dwindling band of UK civil servants will continue working for the bloc for many years to come.
But since 24 June 2016, nothing has been the same for this small group. Tears were shed on that overcast morning in Brussels by British and non-British officials alike.
“I remember people’s voices trembling, I remember the feeling of holding it together,” says one senior British official. “It was really like someone had died. I was consciously reminding myself that worse things happen all the time. People lose their jobs, factories go out of business … On the other hand it felt like a kick in the guts.”
Another British official says she could see the leave result coming, but it was still a “horrible shock” that shook her in a similar way to the terrorist attacks in Brussels earlier that year. “It was 100% personal … I was really quite surprised at how shocked I was. It went to the core of what we believe in.”
The day after the Brexit referendum, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, sought to reassure British staff. “You left your national hats at the door … and that door is not closing on you now.” But some feel the sand slipping under their feet and sense non-British colleagues eyeing their jobs.
“Almost everyone has been saying that the senior level [British] officials are for the chop,” says the mid-ranking official. “These are very highly prized positions.”
The plight of the small band of highly paid elite civil servants, who pay lower taxes than the Belgian rate, was never going to generate much public sympathy. Nor are they looking for it. While the pay and perks are generous, this was not their main motivation. “The Berlin wall had come down,” says the senior official, recalling his decision to apply after 1989. “Exciting things were happening … I was just drawn towards this big project.”
For many years, getting British nationals into EU jobs was a priority for Conservative-led governments. It was part of the subtle game of exercising power and influence. As foreign secretary in 2010, William Hague criticised the previous Labour government for failing to ensure British officials were well represented in the EU institutions. MPs on the foreign affairs select committee said in 2013 they were “seriously concerned” about the UK having fewer officials than similar-sized countries, such as France, while voicing alarm about the falling pass rate for the EU’s exacting entrance exam.
Plans to boost British representation in the EU institutions came to nothing. Since 2016, the number of British officials working at the commission has fallen by 21% to 917 people. This reflects British officials who have taken other nationalities, as well as those who have left.
“There is a way of operating, of weighing arguments, of submitting arguments to political leadership, which is distinct,” says Sir Jonathan Faull, who was one of the longest-serving British officials at the time of his retirement in 2017. “The commission traditionally was very French, set up very much on the model of the French civil service, and the British changed that quite considerably.
“Trade and competition policy would be very different if Britain had never joined. The EU would not have been the force it became in the world for free trade.”
Another former British official, Sir Michael Leigh, recalls “a golden era” of British influence from the mid-80s to the early 2000s, when “Britain was really making its mark on the institution”, from the single market to EU enlargement, shifting EU funds from agriculture into research and creating a regional policy that piped money into north-east England, Wales and Cornwall.
“British officials played a major role,” says Leigh, who also credits the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock with overhauling a “jobs for the boys” culture when he was a commission vice-president between 1999 and 2004. “I do have some concern that – with Britain probably leaving – that there will be and there has been a decline in this approach,” Leigh says.
Nor is it just British nostalgia. “The philosophy of the single market, trade policy, of competition and also enlargement were part of the British agenda,” says the French former EU ambassador Pierre Sellal. “I wouldn’t say there was nothing remaining from the Franco-German heritage, but nevertheless for the UK it was the best possible world. The union was inspired by many ideas coming from and supported by the British and on difficult issues, [they had] either opt-outs or unanimity [a veto].”
For the officials who remain, the mood varies. One person says nothing has changed, which she puts down to the ésprit de corps: “You really do leave your passport at the door.”
Others worry for the future: “If the UK leaves then we are just tolerated as an anachronism that will slowly fade and die away.”
Exit Brussels? The UK civil servants under a fog of uncertainty – The Guardian