Britain's last EU commissioner: 'There isn't any pomp, but it is a moment'
The cardboard boxes were packed and the photograph of the Queen is in bubble wrap. After a slight delay to Julian King’s scheduled departure day on 29 March, the 15th British commissioner to take a seat in the EU’s executive branch, and most likely the last, walked out out of the European commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels at midday with his belongings under his arm – including a couple of EU-branded cushions given by an impish Jean-Claude Juncker.
The commission president had them delivered to King’s office after being unimpressed to learn of the union jack soft furnishings scattered on the Briton’s office sofa. “He is a good man,” King says fondly of Juncker. “I shall miss being hugged by my boss and even getting the occasional kiss.”
Should Boris Johnson win a parliamentary majority in the early hours of 13 December, King’s exit will mark the end of a chapter in Britain’s relationship with the institutions of the European Union that began on the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 and the dispatch of Winston Churchill’s son-in-law to sit at Brussels’ top table.
The former Labour chancellor Roy Jenkins went on to lead the commission between 1977 and 1981. The Conservative cabinet minister Arthur Cockfield laid the foundations of today’s single market in the late 1980s and major political figures, including Leon Brittan, Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Chris Patten, played their roles through the decades as the UK shifted its focus from the old empire to a European partnership. The Labour peer Cathy Ashton was the first leader of the EU’s foreign affairs wing.
But there is a new commission from this weekend, and the UK has not put forward a representative. The country’s place in the project is in its denouement.
“And let’s be honest, it is not quite the pomp and ceremony of [Chris Patten] leaving Hong Kong,” King admitted, shortly before departing his bare office. “It is a lot more Saigon than Hong Kong, it really is. But it is a moment.”
A career diplomat rather than a politician, King was not dealt an easy hand when strong-armed into leaving his post as ambassador to France in September 2016.
He took over from Jonathan Hill, who had resigned as the commission’s financial services chief, at a time of high emotion and even anger in EU capitals in the immediate wake of the Brexit referendum.
“[Juncker] said: ‘This is going to be difficult,’” King explained. “He said: ‘Look, there are quite a few people who are saying: “Why are we having a Brit? And if we have got to have a Brit, put them in a cupboard.” But I am not going to do that. We are going to do this properly.’”
King was given the security brief, a new but increasingly significant portfolio following terror attacks in Paris and in the Belgian capital.
The rise of cybercrime and the need to defend Europe’s future 5G network kept him occupied through the UK’s three Brexit extensions. “The last thing you wanted to be was hanging around like the ghost at the feast.”
He also made one eye-catching intervention in British politics when Johnson dismissed as “humbug” the claims of female politicians that they were endangered by a hardening of the political rhetoric. “Crass and dangerous,” King had tweeted. “If you think extreme language doesn’t fuel political violence across Europe, including UK, then you’re not paying attention.”
“I think you have to say if something is causing a problem,” King said. “So my observation was just that there is a link between the nature of mainstream political discourse and some of the ways that can be used and abused by more extreme opinion, and I stand by that. I always did my job.”
King, previously ambassador to Ireland and one-time director general of the Northern Ireland Office, had no role to play in Brexit negotiations. But his advice was privately sought by Juncker during the commissioners’ discussions with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, as to “what was behind a particular position and how different things were going to land if the commission took particular positions”.
“Maybe that was helpful. I don’t know,” King said. “The historians will no doubt trawl all over this.”
He certainly has views and concerns about the next chapter. The danger is that fundamental issues such as security and police cooperation could be left by the wayside in the rush for the political prize of a trade deal, he suggests.
“Clearly, there is a very strong political impulse in the next stage as set out by the prime minister to move quickly, very quickly, in discussions on goods, especially. There is a certain amount of discussion about whether you can do a trade deal in 12 months – of course you can do something in 12 months. The question is what is it?”
However those coming negotiations play out, the UK will not be leading in the EU’s decision-making bodies. King’s suite of offices is to be taken over by Thierry Breton, the French businessman chosen by Emmanuel Macron to oversee the internal market. Different political cultures are in the ascendancy.
“He came round the other day for a look – I wasn’t here but some of the others were – and the first thing he said was: ‘I am not having all that glass,’” King said of the clear wall that had once allowed visitors a view of his offices from the corridor. “He said: ‘Oh, no, no. We are not having that. That’s far too much transparency.’ I came back this morning and there is a wall.”
As for King, he is going to have that holiday he booked for 29 March. “You don’t have regrets – you move on.”