By Phillip Souta
About 200 Brits and people of other assorted nationalities gathered in the restaurant of the European Parliament to hear what Sir Jon Cunliffe, the new head of UKREP, had to say about Britain and the EU.
In post since January, succeeding Sir Kim Darroch, he was previously David Cameron’s Europe advisor. He is a relatively unknown quantity in Brussels and does not come from Darroch’s smooth Foreign Office background, but from a more hard-nosed Treasury one.
He had the inside track on the UK’s negotiating strategy for the December European Council where the Prime Minister wielded his veto over the fiscal compact, and speculation abounded at the time over his role in that (although no definitive account has yet emerged). As this was his first time addressing a big public meeting of Brits in Brussels, interest was high, and the room was packed.
The event was opened by the host, James Elles, a Tory MEP, with a wide-ranging analysis of Europe’s “relative decline.” The only solution to this, he said, was cooperation, adding that “as individual nations we will be relegated to the ranks of rule takers.”
Norman Lamb MP, Parliamentary under-secretary for employment, consumer and postal affairs followed this by talking about the importance of completing the single market.
Sir Jon Cunliffe started with an oblique reference to the 9th of December saying, “nowadays when you say you want to get a British perspective on something you often get a groan.” He went on to say that on the other hand, “there is a strand of thinking associated with the UK around liberalism,” adding that he believed people wonder “what would happen if it wasn’t here and [would] get a bit worried.”
On the eurozone crisis he observed, “governments can shape and guide economic forces but they can’t suppress them – they come out in one way or another, and what we’re seeing is those forces shaping and guiding changes in the EU. It’s a messy process and it’s a painful process.”
On Brits in the EU’s institutions he said that “we’re going through a bit of a demographic – I’m not sure what the opposite of a bulge is – a contraction, where many of the talented people who joined the institutions at the time we joined the EU are now coming to the end of their careers, and along with many of the older member states there aren’t that many following behind.”
He emphasised that this would be one of his priorities whilst in Brussels, adding “we’ve managed to have breakfasts or dinners or meetings with pretty much all the Brits in the institutions down to head of unit level.”
The reception ended with Sir Jon Cunliffe leading a toast to the Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee – a flash of colour and optimism in what was otherwise an evening of quite sobering reflections.