Peter Mandelson’s plan for ‘my member states’
The EU trade commissioner tells David Rennie that life in Brussels is more fun than a Cabinet job and broods on his possible fate under Prime Minister Cameron
Almost the first thing you see, on entering Peter Mandelson’s office at the European Commission, is a bound set of photographs of Siberia resting on the coffee table. Are they a signal, a discreet protest from this most British of politicians at being sent into exile?
Mr Mandelson would insist not. He had, by most accounts, an unhappy start in Brussels in November 2004, unable to hide his impatience with the collegiate, rather plodding ways of the 25-strong Commission. Recently Mr Mandelson has begun visibly to relish his new post, and his extraordinary powers to negotiate world trade on behalf of all 25 member states.
Not that his taste for games has left him entirely. Visitors to the commissioner must still be prepared to be kept waiting in his presence for several long moments, while he scans vital papers, before looking up with polite surprise to welcome them.
Mr Mandelson admits that when he first arrived, ‘I feared at one point that coming to work in the Commission would be like wading through treacle every day.’ But now he says it is more satisfying than the Cabinet. ‘It’s deeper and wider and more technically complex than the issues you deal with as a British secretary of state. You’re dealing with the politics of 25 member states, and reshaping global economic relations.’ It is vintage Mandelson, despite the new Brussels setting — rather like his offices.
The ‘European Quarter’ of Brussels is a soulless sort of place, and the offices of EU commissioners are normally no exception bland boxes filled with EU flags, and glass paperweights from visiting delegations.
Mr Mandelson’s rooms are a shrine to Blair’s — and Mandelson’s — Britain. A photograph of Roy Jenkins hangs near a picture of Mr Mandelson introducing the Queen to his golden retriever, Bobby, at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. There is an image of Mr Mandelson with Tony Blair, flanked by the presidents of Brazil and South Africa, at a progressive governance conference.
One wall is dominated by a painting by the Scottish artist John Bellany, showing a topless woman with a sailor. His growing fascination with China is also on display — a final photograph shows him with his new friend, the Chinese trade minister, Bo Xilai. Mr Bo is worth befriending; he’s a fast-rising ‘Red Prince’ whose father served in Mao’s Politburo and whose son attends public school.
The message is clear. Westminster’s prince of spin has not just turned serious. He has gone global.
That causes only dismay to Mr Mandelson’s critics back home. ‘Open Europe’, the Eurosceptic lobby group, recently denounced him as a pawn of Europe’s most protectionist states. ‘Peter Mandelson has been probably the worst of all the new commissioners. After initially blundering around in Brussels making enemies, Mandelson now travels the world spouting facile anti-globalisation arguments,’ the group declared. The commissioner, and his loyal staff, fiercely deny such charges, and insist on his commitment to free trade.
Tony Blair’s nomination of Peter Mandelson as a European commissioner told some all they needed to know about the Blair government, and about Brussels. Mr Mandelson had, by that point, been forced to resign twice from the Cabinet. His appointment seemed to confirm the Commission’s status as a sort of French Foreign Legion for politicians — a place where ex-ministers are sent to forget scandals, or ex-prime ministers go after losing elections.
But Mr Mandelson says he is a man with two great tasks. One is helping to defend the single market from a wave of dangerous populism that is threatening hard-won freedoms to trade freely across EU borders. The other task is persuading ‘my member states’ — as he refers to the national governments of Europe — that globalisation is an opportunity, not a threat. Some may resent the power of the European Commission, in both those battles. He can live with that.
‘I know people see the Commission as being remote. Well, I’m much more concerned about the uncompetitiveness of Europe’s economy than I am about the remoteness of its institutions,’ he says — a statement, of course, that perfectly illustrates the remoteness in question.
Most successful commissioners earn a second five-year term. Asking if he would like one prompts an attempt at a chuckle. ‘I’ve been here a year. Come back in three years’ time and ask me.’ His re-appointment will be in the hands of whoever is then prime minister. But who would be more likely to keep him in Brussels: Gordon Brown or David Cameron? There is a cautious pause. ‘I’m sure both will be objective judges of my performance.’ A further pause. ‘Should I seek re-appointment.’ It is an open secret inside the Commission that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not addressed a word to Mr Mandelson since the latter left for Brussels. Asking Mr Mandelson about Mr Brown prompts a mixture of waspishness and wistfulness. ‘I think he should recognise, perhaps more than he does, the ally that he has in the Commission for his reformist agenda,’ Mr Mandelson claims. ‘The Commission is overwhelmingly attuned to the liberal economic thinking that he favours.’ The prospect of a Prime Minister Brown alarms many in Brussels, who have suffered lectures from the Chancellor on the superior merits of British economic policy, then watched his attention drift as mere foreigners take the microphone.
‘Gordon has a restless, challenging intellect; he also has strong ideas of his own. When he has made up his mind, he likes to prevail,’ Mr Mandelson says. ‘I think if he spent more time persuading people to see his point of view, he would be pleasantly surprised by those who would align with his viewpoint.’ Is it possible that a Cameron premiership could be better for Mr Mandelson? Some Conservatives hint that it might. The shadow trade secretary, Alan Duncan, is in regular touch on matters of trade policy. ‘I actually think he’s doing rather a good job, given the pressures he is under. I hate to admit it, since he has been a considerable foe to the interests of the Conservative party, but I think he’s the right man in the right place,’ Mr Duncan says.