Representing the European Commission in London is not the easiest task, given widespread Euro-scepticism in Britain and the outright hostility to Brussels evinced by much of the press. That might explain why some previous heads of the European Commission’s UK Representation have kept a relatively low profile in the capital. But such a trend is unlikely to be followed by the new incumbent, Jonathan Scheele, who took up the post in August.
‘I would like to arouse a more substantial debate on EU matters here,’ he says. ‘That means taking a proactive approach, not just towards politicians – in both Houses of Parliament – but to the public and the media too.’
Mr Scheele is the complete opposite of that perennial caricature, much loved by the British tabloids, of the ‘faceless Brussels bureaucrat’. This despite having already spent 36 years in the Commission’s employ, much of that time focused on transport issues. He positively buzzes with enthusiasm, and is clearly up for the challenge ahead. ‘One of the biggest aspects of that challenge will be how to deal with England,’ he says. ‘The separate representations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast do a great job, but I must make sure I don’t just get stuck in London.’
He might have a ‘European’ surname, but Mr Scheele is actually an Essex boy, having been born in Brentwood. He was educated at Cambridge and spent a few years in industry before joining the Commission’s staff in Brussels in March 1974 – by coincidence, exactly the same time I went over there, to work for the Reuters news agency. Britain had joined what was then known as the European Economic Community (EEC) only the year before, and so Mr Scheele was among one of the earliest intakes of British staff.
‘There are still far too few Brits working in the Commission headquarters,’ he observes, ‘so one of my tasks will be to promote the idea of working in Brussels to educational establishments here. Actually, a very interesting debate was provoked by [Foreign Secretary] William Hague’s speech on foreign policy a while back, as it touched on Commission staffing.’
In 1974, French was very much the dominant language in all three major European institutions – the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament (or Assembly, as it was generally referred to then). But these days English has firmly taken over, thanks to the continued enlargement of the EU to take in countries whose second language of choice is English. ‘But that absolutely doesn’t mean that young Brits should think they don’t need to learn another European language,’ Mr Scheele warns. ‘To work in Brussels, they absolutely must.’
He got his own inside view on EU enlargement while working as the Commission’s representative in Bucharest for five years, during the run-up to Romania’s 2007 accession. He loved both living in Romania and the experience of being involved in its preparations for membership, and although he was no longer a resident at the time of the country’s actual entry, on 1 January 2007, he made a point of returning ‘to watch the celebratory fireworks!’
Between 1982 and 1988 Mr Scheele was seconded to Geneva to work on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). During the 1990s, up until the beginning of the next decade, he gained much additional experience in global trade negotiations as well as in dealing with South East Asia (ASEAN being an important partner of the EU). And for the past year, prior to taking up his London post, he was the European Union Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where he undertook research on transport issues relating to the EU’s ‘neighbourhood’ – ie, non-member states to the East.
He does not anticipate spending much time savouring the endless round of National Day celebrations in London, as his very firm focus will be on Great Britain. ‘We have a double role in the Representation,’ he explains. ‘One is to explain the EU to the British – politicians and people – and the other is to explain the UK to Brussels.’
Surprisingly, given the Euro-sceptic murmurings of William Hague and some other Conservative politicians, such tasks might actually be easier under the present British government than they were under its predecessor, Mr Scheele feels. He starts his new job at a time when there is a fresh Commission – with Baroness Ashton taking on the newly-enhanced External Affairs role – where ‘many of the…goals are very close to those of the new Coalition government here.’
Another positive development, he feels, has been the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. ‘Under Lisbon, national parliaments have a much more important role in scrutinising European legislation than before, so I will be working closely with both the Commons and the Lords on this, though I doubt we’ll ever get such close national parliamentary involvement as there is in Denmark, for example.’
Of course, for much of the British media – and not a few MPs – the very term ‘Lisbon Treaty’ is toxic. Mr Scheele realises that he is going to have his work cut out in persuading the British press to take a more level-headed view of the EU and of the Commission in particular: ‘I hope at least to establish a relationship with editorial staff so that they check stories with us before publication, rather than after! But the biggest challenge for us on the press front will be to work with the way that the media has changed: the 24-hour news agenda, new media, and so on.’
Much of London’s media and political establishment will get a chance to discuss the EU’s presence in the UK when the curtain is raised on the new headquarters that are being prepared not just for the European Commission’s Representation (situated at present in Storey’s Gate, Westminster) and its splendid little 12 Star Gallery, but also for the local headquarters of the European Parliament, currently only a short walk away on Queen Anne’s Gate.
The new Europe House, which will be formally opened on 6 December, is at 32 Smith Square, SW1 – an address that might sound familiar, as it used to be the Conservative Party headquarters, where Mrs Thatcher notably celebrated her 1979 Election victory. I think there is a delicious irony in that, but Mr Scheele, with typical diplomacy, says that he could not possibly comment.