UK

Jacqueline Minor: The EU's Woman In The UK On Referendums, Ukip, Immigration And Britain's Future In The Euro

27/04/2013 08:06 BST | Updated 20/05/2013 09:59 BST

After Jacqueline Minor accepted the job as the European Union's "woman in the UK", she was thrown a bit of a curveball.

Just a month later, David Cameron announced he would seek to renegotiate Britain's membership of the European Union and pledged to hold an "in-or-out" referendum in 2017.

Suddenly, Minor became the woman with the hardest job in Britain.

jacqueline minor

Jacqueline Minor, the European Commission's Head of Representation in the United Kingdom

She arrived at Westminster's Europe House in in February to take up the position of Head of Representation, bedding down next to somewhat difficult neighbours. Ukip are based in the same building.

Her spokesman smiles when he mentions it. "Yes, these are the offices for the European Parliament, so this is where they have been based."

Doesn't that make it awkward in the lift? "We're very polite. I do believe they are moving out soon, to bigger premises."

Minor herself says that she got more than a few raised eyebrows when her appointment was announced. "Back in Brussels, people looked quizzically at me, they said: "Oh congratulations, what an interesting challenging job."

"At the back of their eyes, you could see that they thought 'What did she do to deserve this?' But the truth is I volunteered. It is fascinating, challenging," she says.

The referendum speech by Cameron in January was "pored over" by officials in Brussels she says. "It was a game changer by any definition.

"But one of the ways it changes the game is that there will be more discussion of the European Union. It is in the spotlight, the British relationship with Europe, the impact of Europe. And there is much more serious debate, actually, rather than an exchange of assertions. That's a good thing, it makes our life easier.

"In recent years, those who are sceptical have been more vocal and I think the prospect of a referendum will mean we start to hear both points of view.

"So that changes the game too. It is still very difficult, because the issues are actually pretty complex. It is hard to communicate them simply to the wider public."

Scrutinising the speech in December, Minor admits that she and others found "a great deal to agree with".

But her job is not to campaign, the pro-Europe voice has to come from political parties like the Lib Dems, she insists. "It is not up to us to campaign for a side."

So there won't be "Vote Yes" billboards in blue and yellow, next to Ukip's purple and yellow banners? She laughs. "No, we won't be buying advertising space, I can assure you."

She continues: "It's funny actually, because first time I ever voted was in the '75 referendum. And it energised the entire nation. Everybody was walking around with a 'Yes' or 'No' sticker on. And this referendum will do it again, probably, whether it's Mr Farage, or the Lib Dems or whoever.

"It will certainly be interesting to watch. And busy, very busy."

nigel farage

Nigel Farage, an MEP and leader of the UK Independence Party

One of the issues the EU has repeatedly faced is its image as a fat cat-dominated bureaucracy. Anyone without a doctorate in European Studies can find it difficult to navigate the difference between the Court, the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.

Minor admits that the charge of being overly complex and bureaucratic is a common one, and that it is hard to combat.

"There's this refrain about unelected bureaucrats. They think vast numbers of people - and it's always overestimated - unilaterally, undemocratically imposes rules on the UK. Brussels is actually a pretty complex organisation.

"Proposals are made, they are scrutinised by the Council of Ministers, the UK is involved in that, and the European Parliament, with British MEPs scrutinising what is put before them.

"So it's not unelected bureaucrats. It's similar to most Western democracies. I think that gets lost. People think there's someone behind a desk in Brussels putting a stamp on things at whim, and the British have to obey. People also think it costs us a lot more than it actually does."

Minor sees the European Parliament elections in 2014 as an opportunity to try and communicate that better, but knows she is up against the elections being used as a battleground for domestic issues, and a time when the spotlight will be firmly on Nigel Farage's party.

"These elections are often not fought on European issues at all, it's used as a vote of confidence, or not, in the government of the day.

"I hope it can be a way for current MEPs to talk about what the European Parliament does. It would be good to get that message into schools."

Minor says she believes that it is difficult for people to understand that there is not a "government" elected, with one party in power, with a manifesto, which people can choose to get behind, in the European Parliament.

But that might be something that happens in the "mid to distant" future. "There are moves a-foot for each political grouping to put forward their candidate for the next Commission President. That may help the electorate to relate to the system."

david cameron europe referendum

David Cameron makes a speech where he promised an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, if the Conservatives win the next general election

The other unpopular issue is immigration, and it's another area where Minor may struggle to get her voice heard. Her department has a "myths and facts" blog, as new member states Bulgaria and Romania prepare to have the restrictions on their freedom of movement lifted.

There are three myths, she says, first that there is an unconditional right to reside freely in the UK, that anyone can claim benefits, and the existence of benefit tourism.

She says: "There's always this argument about benefit tourism, but immigrants from European Union are far less likely to claim benefits than the local population.

"Who is entitled to benefits is a matter for the United Kingdom, they can change how benefits are structured, amending rules about contributions, employment. I think the onus is on those who talk about benefit tourism to demonstrate that it actually exists."

She points to the Department of Work and Pensions figure that of the 1.44m people claiming Jobseekers Allowance in Feb 2011, under 38,000 were from other EU countries, around 2.6%.

But does she understand concerns about the other pressures that a huge influx of people from Bulgaria and Romania could cause?

Minor says there are "legitimate" worries about "pressure on public services and rapidly changing populations. They have to be addressed. But there is facts, and there is comment.

"We can't stop people commenting, we can only correct them if it is obviously erroneous."

Minor was involved, in her capacity as director for consumer affairs, in one of the EU's most popular endeavours in recent times - the ban on animal testing.

It meant, she says, fighting her way through protesters dress as rabbits on the steps of her offices as the campaign raged. "It was a very courageous decision, there will be impacts on the industry and it will be interesting to see just how great they are. The industry argued that if you eliminate animal testing, that will limit innovation.

"My own view is that innovation is dealing with the challenges presented - to find alternative tests. Europe is a world leader in this, creating artificial skin for example. I am sure we won't see an end to new cosmetic products. Public sentiment did play a part in the EU's decision, it was a popular move."

Getting young people engaged in European issues is much easier, she says, identifying a clear "generation gap."

"We feel it very much. Two-thirds of those under 24 identify as being European, and are more positive about the EU.

"Europe's a fact of life for them, they travel, they don't see national borders, they sit next to other European students at university lectures. For most young people, it's part of their personal identities. For older people it is not quite the same."

So perhaps the outrage needs to be to retirees, not students. That's something the EU has actually tried, she says.

"We did actually, we did a year dedicated to active and healthy ageing. The EU has a lot to offer to older people, there is now a generation of retired people who are very healthy, very engaged.

"One of the things Europe can do is share what is working in other countries, on social care for example. If it works in Germany, it might not work here, but it's worth looking at."

And Minor pours cold water on any Euro-sceptics claims that Britain could be forced to join the Euro, and claims Brussels is devoting no energy at all to persuading Britain of the benefits of the single currency.

"There is a lot of other things to do before they'd worry about that. They have no spare time to dedicated to persuading Britain to join the Euro, there's plenty else on the agenda.

"Most other member states have said they are committed when the time is right, to joining the Euro. For some of the member states that might be five to ten years hence. No such commitment exists in Britain.

She pauses. "But never say never. The UK may change its position. Who can say, 15 or 20 years hence?"