16. Helping straighten the bananas
As the date of our final exam approaches, we are increasingly exposed to “real life” meetings, in what is called the “dummy booth”. Here we are dropped in at the deep end, as if we were already professionals, but do not switch on the microphone. We are listened to by more experienced collegues and given some final tips. A group of us are so alarmed by what “reality” means that we send a delegation to the course director to say that we are more afraid of passing than we are of failing. We think that we could scrape through if we are lucky with the carefully calibrated speeches that fellow interpreters give us in the test, but that it would be utterly irresponsible for the authorities to let us loose on the kind of weird shit real human beings seem to be going on about.
He tells us, diplomatically, that our reaction is a good sign- it is impossible to do a perfect job, and the fact that we realise the scale of the challenge shows that we are better prepared to meet it than those who think the whole thing’s a breeze. This predates Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” by almost a decade, and anyway, he is more of an Oscar Wilde figure. He is basically telling us that we are all lying in the gutter, with the saving grace in our case that we have calculated the exact distance to the stars.
Then the day comes, and I am finished by midday- but they cannot announce the results until 5pm, when all the other candidates have finished. My future boss winks at me though, and tells me to “have a good lunch”. I go for a massive curry, and return to find that I have been assimilated to the status of European civil servant, as a full-time staff interpreter, for at least two years.
Working full-time makes it harder to do my comedy shows, but I am told that there are hardly any meetings in August. My colleagues are vigorously encouraged to take their annual leave then, and I may be able to request some unpaid leave, a mini-sabbatical, to do London previews, and attend the whole Fringe.
I sign the EU equivalent of the Official Secrets Act, so here I’ll just be talking about meetings in the public domain, many of which in recent years have been streamed online.
I am a convinced European, starry-eyed and idealistic about the meetings I assist, whether they are of the Commission itself (consulting experts from member states before drafting legislation) or of the Council of Ministers (at which national representatives debate and amend the proposals before they are approved). It not only seems transparent and democratic (the UK is almost always the “awkward squad”, blocking what seem like enlightened and progressive proposals), but fundamentally good news for the people of Europe, whatever your political leanings. If you’d asked me whether my modest Eurocrat’s salary, coming, in a tiny proportion, from the UK taxpayer, was justified, I would have pointed out that at multilingual meetings the UK (and every other member state) could send its best people on agriculture, technology, or whatever it might be, without requiring them to speak foreign languages. If harmonised rules on trade, environmental protection, and so on, were agreed, then that was good news for British consumers (often saving them money, and ensuring they received quality imports), and for British producers (eliminating barriers to exports to Europe). You’re glazing over already, aren’t you? It’s really boring. Suffice it to say major progress was made with completing the single market (a capitalist’s dream, fervently supported by Margaret Thatcher), and with labour rights, equality, and environmental standards (music to the ears of socialists and Greens). But people in Britain appeared not to be hearing about any of these positive developments that were having a direct impact on their lives. UK politicians would take credit for anything positive, and blame “Brussels” for anything negative, and there were no curious journalists to explain the bigger picture.
I was developing a new kind of non-identity. Whenever I went back to the UK, nobody had a clue what my job was, or what I meant with my bizarre foreign-sounding words like “European Commission”. The occasional EU news story in the British press was about as exciting as what you read in the last paragraph (thanks for still being here!)- our beaches will probably be cleaner, but local councils will have to follow a new procedure. Woohoo! Fascinating!
But then came a British journalist who was determined to see the funny side, and post some more entertaining, provocative copy to explain what was happening in those arcane corridors of sprout-land’s power. One of my favourite meetings to work in was the daily press briefing, at which I would occasionally be the English voice of French officials, commissioners, ministers and journalists. I got to know the regulars in this slightly obscure demi-monde, like a maverick, dishevelled Telegraph correspondent who’d been sacked by The Times for inventing a quote. He himself was the son of a Eurocrat, and had been to the Brussels European School. The other Brits all dreamed of being posted to Tokyo or Washington, and were just killing time here, but he seemed to relish the challenge.
He had fun with stories like “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. I had been at most of the press briefings and couldn’t quite see where the stories came from. A French journalist told me he’d challenged him once in the bar, and got the reply “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He was describing what increasingly sounded like a fundamental threat to the British way of life.
Here he is, in his own words to the BBC, a few years later: “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power”. Soon he was fuelling conspiracy theories, and when the Commission tried to set the record straight at the daily briefings, the British press would treat their earnest denials with some caution. Surely there was no smoke without fire? And as people began to prefer this wittily sinister version of reality, so the demand for it grew. Other correspondents of the period have testified, on the record, to the fact that news editors were now demanding similar fare. Only 3 types of EU story were permissible: 1. Faceless Brussels bureaucrats are imposing absurd rules 2. Scheming foreigners have ganged up on us 3. The plucky British PM has triumphed against a hostile continent.
When I visited the UK in the late 90s, I gave up on trying to explain what I did for a living. “Yes, yes, I’m helping straighten the bananas, that’s right.” A new agenda had been set by a playful, ever-so-slightly narcissistic journalist, Brussels-educated and son of a Eurocrat, whose name was Boris.