The unbearable limbo of being a British bureaucrat in Brussels

A employee of the EU Commission arranges the British Union flag and the European Union flag.
A employee of the EU Commission arranges the British Union flag and the European Union flag.
Image: EPA/Julien Warnand
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Brussels, Belgium

London is riddled with anxiety over Brexit. Barely a conversation goes by in the city that doesn’t turn into handwringing over the subject. In Brussels, by contrast, the topic hardly registers. So calm is the EU capital these days that on a recent trip, I could have spent a week without the latest round of Brexit negotiations surfacing in conversation.

But one group there doesn’t share in the bonhomie: the British technocrats who dedicated their careers to Europe’s radical project of fusing sovereign countries into a political and economic union. In interviews that often felt more like informal therapy sessions, a series of British civil servants and other professionals shared the frustration, shock, grief, and anger that for nearly 18 months have been their constant companions.

“It’s just a huge trauma,” says one longtime British official. The EU is “something we actually believe in. I’ve spent my entire career on this. Now, what the hell? It’s just a huge shock. What happens now?”

Existential angst

Brits have long been vastly under-represented in the European Commission, relative to Britain’s size in the EU. The largest group of them are civil servants that Margaret Thatcher’s government encouraged to move over so the UK would have a bigger say in the EU’s sprawling executive arm. Many are just hitting the point in their careers where they were eyeing senior positions. “That’s all been shot to pieces,” the official says.

Over a few beers in the fittingly named London Calling bar, I discover that if Brexit is a recurring topic for people in the UK, it’s utterly all-consuming for Brits in Brussels. My drinking partners say they long to get to the end of a day without discussing it—but they can’t stop themselves relitigating it. Asked how Brexit is affecting them, some begin by critiquing prime minister David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum, way back in 2013.

Those with dual nationality from an EU country cling desperately to their second passports. Brits without a plan B fall into two groups: Those doing everything they can to dig up heritage in Ireland or elsewhere, and those trying to convince themselves that everything will be fine.

“I do that deliberately because it reduces the amount of stress for myself and my family,” says a senior EU official who slots into the latter group. “I actually think that a solution will be found for us. It might not be a good solution but… well, that’s my approach so far.”

Members of both groups have become experts on the residency requirements for Belgian citizenship. There is also a very Anglo-Saxon gallows humor: “I consider myself English, Northern, British, and European,” says one junior European Commission worker. “Now I find myself applying to become Belgian. When you’re a kid at school, do you think, ‘When I grow up, I’ll become Belgian’?”

Even if they can legally remain in Belgium, British employees of Europe’s governing institutions may not have much of a career there. Though commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said that he’ll try to protect them, almost every Brit has a story about a well-qualified compatriot being passed over for promotion.

At the same time, they feel the British government is doing little or nothing to look out for them. “There’s definitely a sense that if anybody’s on our side it’s the commission, but only to a point. We’re pretty much on our own,” says the longtime British official. “Meanwhile there are 27 member states circling and thinking, ‘How the hell are we gonna swallow a [€20 billion] budget reduction [from losing Britain’s contribution]?’ First for the chop will be the Brits.”

There’s a precedent for people spending long careers at the EU despite not having a member state. When Norway began taking steps to join the EU in the early 1990s, it sent some of its civil servants into the commission early in preparation. After Norway’s people voted not to join, however, these “Norwegian ghosts” remained stuck in limbo.

In the kind of tale of bureaucracy run amok that fills Brexiters with glee, it can be difficult to fire such people. Some are reportedly still wandering around the institutions, unable to be removed and unlikely to be promoted.

It’s not exactly an appealing option for Brits who have dedicated decades to the institution and want to keep serving it as best they can. “I don’t want to be a ghost—I want to be recognized,” sighs the senior official, who works in foreign policy, staring grimly at a cup of coffee in a café on the Schuman roundabout.

Their longing to stay in Brussels is hard to square with the immediate surroundings. Much of the city is charming; it’s sprinkled with Art Nouveau gems, and the Grand Place, with its eclectic mix of the baroque and the Gothic, is a match for any square in Europe. But Place Schuman, the heart of the EU’s institutions, is a miserable milieu. Four massive glass buildings bulge clumsily into the cloudy sky, dominating the low-rise landscape. The roads, filled with sluggish yet relentless traffic, make it impossible to get from one monolith to another at more than a dawdle. In the center stands a massive roundabout lacking any monument, benches, or grass, and populated only by harried officials scuttling across the weed-filled concrete.

Shifting loyalties

When you talk to Brits in Brussels about Brexit negotiations, their pronouns become confused. The EU is almost always referred to as “we,” while the UK is sometimes “they.” Asking commission officials about divided loyalties provokes responses veering from the angry to the defiant.

“My loyalties are not remotely divided: I’m absolutely 100% pro-EU. What do you mean by divided loyalties? As a person who loves my country, Britain, and believes in Britain, I see Brexit as a fundamentally anti-British thing and incredibly dangerous for the country,” the longtime official says.

The most difficult thing to reconcile is their treatment by fellow Brits back home. “I don’t tend to admit to people I work in the EU,” says another senior official. The foreign policy official adds: “There’s a significant part of the population who treat us the way you’d treat a convicted pedophile or someone just out of jail for corruption.”

Most of their anger is directed at the British government, its haphazard approach to the negotiations, and prime minister Theresa May’s attempt to cling to power by promoting anti-EU ministers to senior cabinet roles.

“I have colleagues saying, ‘What on earth is going on in your country? This is the UK. We respected it. Your administrative structures were second to none,'” says the senior official. “I don’t have an answer: there is incredible disruption and uncertainty.”

It’s not helped by the apparently weak efforts that the British delegation to the EU, known as UKREP, has made to reassure Brits in the EU institutions that it’s looking out for them, says the longtime official:

“All that’s happened is UKREP have come and told us absolutely nothing except what a marvellous job they’re doing [in negotiations]—as if we care. They speak as if we’re Team Britain. We’re not Team Britain… fuck Team Britain. We’re so angry with the fucking government, with what they’re doing. I’m so, so angry.”

One person is the focus of much of this ire: British foreign secretary and lead Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson. Johnson was a creature of Brussels—a former correspondent there for the Daily Telegraph, who spent part of his childhood in the city when his father worked for the commission. Today, he’d be the front-runner for a most-hated-man-in-Brussels contest. “I used to stand behind him to buy sandwiches in a shop near Charlemagne [an EU building] when he worked for The Telegraph here. How the feeble have risen,” one official says.

The embarrassment isn’t just felt by Brits in the EU, but also those from other industries who live in Brussels. “When I moved to Brussels a few years ago… I had two fundamental positive beliefs about Britain: That we were less racist than most European countries and had a more competent government. Now I don’t think either of those things are true,” says a British PR person.

In a particularly odd position are the civil servants in UKREP. Most of them moved to Brussels because they enjoyed engaging with the commission; they now find themselves negotiating Britain’s departure from it and having to grapple with the chaos coming over from Westminster. One such civil servant guesses 99% of embassy staff voted to remain in the bloc. “The day after the referendum was like a zombie apocalypse—you just had people wandering round the office in a state of shock,” he says. “Definitely there were tears.”

This is the first story in Brussels after Brexit, a four-part series exploring how the EU is preparing for life without Britain. Read part two, Britain rejected the EU and the EU is loving its new life.