Jackie Minor arrived as the new Head of the European Commission’s Representation in London at a time when Britain’s continued membership of the European Commission is in question more than ever. But she believes that the associated debate is a healthy thing, as she tells Jonathan Fryer.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Britain’s membership of what is now called the European Union, but far from being a cause of nationwide celebration it has seen an outpouring of anti-EU sentiment, not least from the ascendant United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage. More seriously, in January the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised British voters an ‘In-Out’ Referendum, theoretically to be held in 2017, which could lead to the UK heading for the exit door if the public is unconvinced about the benefits of staying in.
Small wonder then that some Brussels friends and colleagues of long-standing European Commission official Jackie Minor thought she was accepting a poisoned chalice when she agreed to be the new Head of the Commission’s Representation in the UK. But she says she relishes the challenge and welcomes the fact that more Brits are talking about the EU now than ever before. ‘In many ways, our life in this office has been made easier because one of our main purposes is to promote dialogue,’ she says. ‘Moreover, we strongly believe UK membership of the Union has contributed positively to the European project, as well as benefitting Britain.’
Nonetheless, she believes it is the job of British political parties to ‘sell’ the benefits of EU membership. ‘What we do is provide accurate information and offer a platform, either here at Europe House or elsewhere.’ As she pointed out at a Global Policy debate on Britain and the EU in London in May, the debate about British membership of the EU tends to be based on emotions and feelings rather than on reason. It is not for the European Commission to make the case for staying in, however; it should just provide the facts and let pro-European politicians in the main national political parties do the rest.
Next year’s European elections will obviously provide an opportunity for a lively European debate, and Jackie welcomes the fact that this time they are likely to focus on European rather than national issues, which has not always been the case in the past. She recalls that when she was studying at university at the time of the 1975 Referendum to ratify Britain’s membership of the Common Market, many people walked around with badges saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and she hopes there will be a similar level of enthusiasm – especially among young people – if there is indeed a future referendum.
Europe House itself is an imposing building located in one corner of London’s Smith Square, just a short stroll from the Houses of Parliament. Previously it was the Conservative Party’s Central Office, and Margaret Thatcher famously waved to the crowd from one of its windows on the night of her historic election victory in May 1979. The facade remains familiar, but inside the place has been gutted and refashioned in a functional but attractive style. Jackie Minor’s own office is large, bright and airy, in soothing shades of blue and grey.
Her background was in Law rather than politics or diplomacy; indeed, she states emphatically, ‘We are not diplomats. We are representing an institution, and can’t respond to things in the same way a politician can either. We are trained to tell the truth.’
Charming and precise, Jackie began her career as a lecturer in Law at Leicester University. She was then offered the opportunity of a year’s secondment to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg – the highest court relating to matters of European law (and nothing whatsoever to do with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights). ‘I went, but I never came back!’ she laughs. ‘After a couple of years I transferred to the European Commission in Brussels, though I did later have a second stint at the Court, working with the British judges Gordon Slynn and David Edward.’
Her longest continual professional activity was the 17 years she spent working on aspects of the EU’s Internal Market on matters such as professional qualifications and intellectual property. But in 2008 she moved to health and consumer issues as Director for Consumer Policy. It was under her watch that the banning of animal testing for cosmetics was promoted, under intense lobbying from interest groups on both sides of the argument.
‘It’s important for people to realise that Europe is much more than just the euro’s difficulties or bailouts,’ she argues. ‘We can give people another perspective on the EU. And consumer issues in particular are a way of making the EU more accessible to ordinary people.’
She accepts that the press has an important potential role in educating Britons about what the EU actually is and does. ‘We try and maintain a relationship with all sections of the media, to provide facts and rebut errors and myths. A lot of this activity is under the radar. Although the editorial line of several newspapers is not very positive to the EU, our relationship with journalists is amicable.’
Largely for economic reasons, the UK press corps in Brussels has shrunk dramatically in recent years, so the Commission’s London representation now has a greater responsibility to alert the British media to interesting stories. ‘Take the example of the revised Package Travel directive, aimed at strengthening consumers’ rights if they have second thoughts about a holiday or companies go bust,’ Jackie mentions.
Between 10 and 15 per cent of her time is spent dealing with politicians, including appearing before parliamentary select committees, as appropriate, for instance discussing horsemeat contamination of chilled lasagne and other foods, with the Environment Committee. Occasionally individual MPs will contact her office, but often it is a case of the Commission approaching them with an offer to help. Both Houses of Parliament do scrutinise EU legislation, but Jackie feels it would be helpful if this happened earlier in the cycle, before proposals are actually tabled. She is not alone in citing Denmark as an example of best practice in this.
The European Commission representation, with a total staff of 38, shares Europe House with the London office of the European Parliament, as well as offices designated for the use of British MEPs. That includes UKIP’s contingent, who make far more use of the facility than the other parties which have their own substantial national headquarters.
The ground floor of Europe House is a flexible space which is provided free of charge to a wide range of organisations wanting to debate European issues, such as the Association of European Journalists, the European Movement and the Federal Trust. It also hosts a very active cultural programme, with more or less fortnightly exhibitions, sometimes sponsored by the embassies of particular EU member states, as well as music and other performances. ‘One of the nice surprises of the job for me has been the cultural dimensions,’ Jackie enthuses. ‘It’s really refreshing and it brings into Europe House a completely different group of people. Otherwise there is a danger of being stuck in a Westminster bubble.’
She is also relishing living in London for the first time. Brought up in Northampton, in the English Midlands, she then spent more than half her life on the Continent at the heart of the European project – where she and her colleagues would clearly also like Britain to be.