Outnumbered on the Western Front

Susannah Savage, Columnist @Swizz677

One of the many joys of being a trainee in the European Commission is being able to socialise in the international melting pot of the European bubble, to gluttonously gorge on a feast of cultures and languages, to take the notion of ‘nationality’ and throw it off like a duvet on a sweaty summer night such as we have rarely experienced in the UK.

That said I hunt down other Brits with the agility and zeal of a pedigree beagle. When I come across one – which sometimes in the EU institutions feels akin to stumbling across a unicorn – I cling onto them like a long lost twin (or limb).

In this way from time to time I end up huddled, some might say ironically, in an Irish bar with a group of Brits from my Directorate. An eclectic mix of important and unimportant (me) we drink Guinness and cider and discuss issues of national importance; The Great British Bake-Off, Scottish Independence, Kate Middleton’s hair, the flaws in the British education system, the weather, the latest rumour about a British politician that has made its way along the grape vine from Westminster to Brussels (usually involving closest homosexuality or the price of milk) and finally Brexit.

The last topic is spoken about like ‘Voldemort’ in Harry Potter; That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, but of which we are all terrified because “it means not only will we all lose our jobs but we’ll have to suffer an eternity of smugness from the French and Germans and cosy up, even further, to the Americans who are simply AWFUL”.


I delight in these evenings, during which I can eat twiglets unabashed and escape the other pitfalls of living in an international melting pot, namely the scalding reproof; ‘it’s always the British who drink just that bit too much’.

Most importantly I don’t risk accidentally descending into an embarrassing red-faced patriotic explosion about some absurdity such as the mesmerising and awe-inspiring quality of bread in British supermarkets. My Swedish flatmate who previously lived in York once claimed that in no supermarket or bakery had she ever found British bread to match Swedish bread, with disastrous consequences for our friendship.

Sadly though, the majority of my drinking compatriots are crossing off the days until they can return from exile for a life of luxury cruises, Sudoku and writing complaints to the BBC; otherwise known as retirement.

Fabulous as this is for them, it seems that soon enough there’ll be scarcely any Brits left in Brussels to taunt the Continentals with drunken lunacy and twiglets. And the lack of British representation in the EU institutions poses a threat graver even than this:

Whilst the defence of British baking is obviously vital – if for no other reason than to honour Mary Berry – it seems safe to assume that the battle of national perspectives, and interests, in the EU institutions is fought over more important matters than bread.

At the top level the pursuit of national interest is obvious and no doubt Westminster can send fresh envoys to fill some of those positions when the current holders have departed for the golf course. There’s more, however, to influence in the EU than flexing a bit of high-ranking muscle. We also need to have the odd regular¬†fonctionnaire roaming around the Berlaymont singing ‘Rule Britannia!’

And yet there are no reinforcements coming up the rear to relieve the dwindling British rank and file in Brussels.

Whether it’s because of the (increasing) possibility that any EU career would come to an abrupt end in two years’ time – bizarrely deemed irrelevant by the Foreign Office -, the nation’s collective linguistic ineptitude, or Belgium’s reputation as one of the world’s most boring countries, dismally few bright young Brits are jumping aboard the Eurostar ‘destination: eurobubble’, no matter how much coaxing, pushing or shoving the Foreign Office does.

In the last 3 years just 2.4% of candidates for the entry exams (the concours) were British – the Belgians are definitely not that boring – and of them only 2.6% passed. Better still, no one from the Government’s EU Fast Stream, since its 2010 re-launch, has actually been hired by the Commission.

As for those Brits left in Brussels not nearing retirement age; some among them are even, in the event of That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, ready to defect to the Belgians, citizenship papers ready and waiting in their desks. The UK Government will no doubt report with satisfaction ‘it cannot be said that Brexit has deterred any British nationals from a career in Brussels’.


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