Geoffrey Harris: A European career between two UK referendums

Geoffrey Harris

Geoffrey Harris, an old hand in the European Parliament, started his career just after the European Communities membership referendum, and will retire days after the Brexit referendum. In a wide-ranging interview, he tells of people and events that made EU history.

Geoffrey Harris will retire as Deputy Head of Office of the European Parliament in Washington DC. Before that he has served as Head of Unit of the Human Rights subcommittee secretariat of the EP, as Head of Unit for Enlargement inter-parliamentary relations, in the office of the Parliament President and in the EP’s Socialists and Democrats group.

Harris spoke to’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.

You joined the European Parliament on 1 May 1976, 40 years ago, and I first met you 20 years ago. I would like to ask you about the 1975 referendum, which almost coincided with the beginning of your career. In what way was this parliament different from the present one?

The referendum in June 1975 preceded my arrival in the European Parliament. The UK joined what used to be called the Common Market on 1 January 1973, when I was still a student at the College of Europe in Bruges. When I finished there I got a job as a research assistant to the pro-Europe faction of the British Labour Party – the so-called “Jenkinsites” –who had voted with the Conservatives to get a majority in parliament so the UK could join. Labour was deeply split on the whole issue; it was a very divisive issue among party members in Parliament and around the country.

There was a pro-Europe campaign to try and change the Labour Party’s mind, but the Conservatives were still in power until February 1974. Then Labour got in with Harold Wilson as the leader, and he had committed himself to holding a referendum. His aim was to keep the party as united as possible. I would say he carried out a short, sharp and fairly sweet operation in full cooperation with Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. There was a renegotiation, and in June 1975 we had our first ever national referendum, and voted by 67% in favour of staying in.

Looking back, it certainly was very strange that we voted on being in the EC after we had joined. In order to avoid a row, one of the internal party compromises was that the Labour Party, which had refused its places in the nominated European Parliament then decided once the referendum was over, to take up its places. That meant that there were some posts to be filled in the secretariat of what was then the largest group in the European Parliament; the Socialist group.

And this was a job opportunity for you?

It was indeed perfect for me, yes! It was a nominated assembly, some people even refused to call it the European Parliament. After the referendum the Labour party sent 18 members, some from the House of Commons and some from the House of Lords, but they were all national parliamentarians. Then in 1977 the governments decided to hold the first European Parliament elections and the whole thing started to change after the first Euro-elections of June 1979, just a few weeks after Labour had been swept from power by Mrs. Thatcher.

When I started it, wasn’t an elected parliament, it was officially an assembly, it was much smaller, with only about 200 members altogether, and it had much less power, the only concrete power being to accept or reject the budget. So all the powers we take for granted now – co-decision, ratification of treaties, election of the President of the Commission – that’s all developed over time. The other thing that is obviously very different is that there were only nine member states. Slowly but surely we have gone from the nine countries after 1973 to 28 countries after the recent accession of Croatia, and obviously the enlargement process may continue, but the size of the whole structure is also a big difference.

Whether you like it or not, the Parliament is now certainly a powerful institution. The Commission and the Council can’t do much without the agreement of the Parliament. If we talk about TTIP, or other big policy decisions, the European Parliament is in a powerful position to make or break them. And of course since the last elections, this whole arrangement of electing the President of the Commission has taken on another transformative role. I would say my 40 years have been fairly fruitful in terms of the Parliament and the integration process. That does not, in any way, minimise the current challenges, not at all.

This year’s referendum is conducted against a backdrop of the refugee crisis with Europe just emerging, or struggling to emerge, from the economic crisis. Were there any comparable issues in 1975?

Not really. In 1973, there had been the first oil crisis, which was the backdrop to the 1974 election, when the Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath got into a big fight with the coal miners and then lost the election. So the energy crisis of the early 1970s and the issues of the dollar within the international monetary system were in the background, and in Britain there was a developing economic crisis, but it hadn’t really exploded until a year or so later.

In Britain itself there was a financial crisis, which was comparable to the euro crisis, except that of course there was no single currency. It was a national crisis, as opposed to a global or European crisis, so it was more stable. We were in the heart of the Cold War, which was an East-West confrontation, but there was no major crisis in that year. The atmosphere of crisis that eventually led to the election of Margret Thatcher was building up and it eventually split the Labour party very profoundly.

You joined the European Parliament as a young Labour activist. Over the years, were you able to keep your ties with the party or did you become apolitical?

From 1976 to 1989, I was a member of the staff of the Socialist group, which has now become the Socialists & Democrats group. Over that period, Labour sank into a very anti-European position, and then by 1989, inspired by Jacques Delors and led by Neil Kinnock, it became much more accepting of Europe, and then under Tony Blair became quite a pro-European party, and indeed this survives under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, although his leadership is quite different to that of Tony Blair.

Although I was already working for a political group when I arrived in Luxembourg, I realised that it wasn’t unusual for colleagues in the Parliament to be up front as members of a particular political party even if they became  a civil servant. Indeed, I find it rather healthy. Whoever your colleagues might be, they may be a member of the Conservative party or the Labour party, but as long as they are doing their job it is considered satisfactory. In Britain, I don’t mean that civil servants don’t do an equally good job, as I am sure they do, but they are not really allowed to be involved in party politics or that sort of thing.

So yes, over the years I have remained a member of the Labour Party and I have held onto my views, although the party itself has changed considerably. I did once stand for election, in 1989, although I knew in advance that there was no chance of Labour winning in the particular seat where I was nominated. I thought it was a good way to advance the pro-European cause in the Labour party. I had a reasonable result, but I felt I was happy doing my job in Brussels and Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Being an MEP is a great job, but it is a personal choice, and I felt happier to continue in different functions within the secretariat.

In 1989 to 1992, I was very lucky that the President of the European Parliament, Spanish Socialist Enrique Barόn Crespo, appointed me as one of his advisors, and we worked together very closely on what was essentially the total transformation of Europe: the end of the Cold War and German unification. This was a particularly exciting time. After that, and this was when we met, Georgi, I took over the organisation of the Parliament’s work on the enlargement process.

We will speak about enlargement. But first, in 1993 you wrote a book about the extreme right. That’s a good starting point for telling us what you think about the present situation.

I noticed various things at that time. My book had to be approved by the secretary general of the Parliament before it could be published, as by then I had become a civil servant. My book, The Dark Side of Europe: the extreme right in Europe Today, came out in 1993 and looked at the changing political landscape, in France in particular. The party that was described as extreme right at the time, the National Front, had done rather well, and there were pockets of support for such parties around Europe. There were also examples of right wing terrorism in Italy and Germany, as well as day-to-day issues of xenophobia, which was part of European society.

What was also striking, and which I feel was rather overlooked at the time, was the whole idea of European integration, which benefitted from a sort of benevolent consensus. Nobody really challenged the basic idea; there would be attacks on the Brussels bureaucracy, big fights even, between De Gaulle and the other members in the 1960s and within the British Labour party, but by and large the process could continue, with such steps as the exchange rate mechanism, the holding of the first European elections. Then, after 1989, the political context changed and the idea of the euro, which had always been there, was pushed forward. It wasn’t a personal project of Jacques Delors, it was agreed by the governments. In 1992, there was a referendum in France, where only a narrow majority approved the treaty of Maastricht.

In my book, I brought these issues together: the rise of the extreme right, issues of identity politics, which are now taken for granted as part of contemporary politics and elections, and the European integration process itself as a kind of platform in which right-wing or xenophobic parties could actually base a fairly coherent political message, saying “we believe in the nation rather than Europe”. This doesn’t mean that only people on the right have such a view, but I concluded my book with the question of whether the integration process of Europe might actually provide a new opportunity for the extreme right, and I consider that still a reasonable question, especially if the process is going to continue in the future.

With respect to enlargement, do you think the process could have been done better?

Enlargement also benefitted from a kind of benevolent consensus; there was never any major opposition. Even in France they had had a referendum in the late 1960s, as to whether Britain should join, but nobody had a referendum as to whether Hungary or Bulgaria should join. Under the surface there were a lot of questions. There were issues in France over agricultural policy, Britain and Germany, Spain and Italy strongly supported the principle of enlargement. The European Parliament was, shall we say, more enthusiastic for the ‘big bang’ enlargement than people in the European Commission, who may have been worried that it would destabilise the whole structure. But that was a question of nuance, rather than principle.

But in the countries joining the European Union, as it became, what always struck me as remarkable was that there wasn’t much opposition. There is the particular case of Slovakia, but nothing like what we see in Hungary today, where there is clearly a certain amount of scepticism towards Brussels, and where the prime minister quite legitimately but also controversially expresses these views.

At the time, there wasn’t much debate about what the EU really would mean for the new members in the long term. As a Brit I find that quite funny, because I continued to watch the news and listen to the radio and follow what was going on in my country where Europe has always been quite a hot issue in our national politics, yet in Hungary, Bulgaria or Lithuania, it wasn’t very much, any more than it was in Spain, Greece or Portugal. The mentality was “we are joining Europe, we are stabilising our democracy and normalising our position in the world”. So I don’t think you can say the process itself was mistaken. Some people would say that it was all too quick and we shouldn’t have done it, but it is all very well to be wise after the event.

And there was a different Russia at that time…

Indeed, one very important political difference between now and then is of course that Russia, the Russian Federation that has emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not in a position to influence its Western neighbours very much, and certainly there were no echoes coming out of Moscow of hostility to the European project, whereas now relations have deteriorated between the EU and Russia.

So I don’t think you can say the process was wrong. I was an official and my job was to organise the so-called ‘parliamentary dimension’. We had regular meetings with national MPs and MEPs, dealing with each country’s enlargement process. Then we also had meetings with the President of the parliament with all the presidents of the parliaments of the countries involved in the enlargement process, and that gave us a strategic overview and involved parliaments, which are the ones that had to ratify the accession for each country. I don’t think the process itself could be seriously faulted.

There may be those around who say “we should never have let all these people in, they are taking our jobs”, but that is contemporary politics. Institutionally it was a very transparent process. Turkey is a special case of course, and negotiations have been on and off over the years. There were also some doubts over Slovakia and whether democracy was really working in the country, and the European Parliament supported the Commission in saying that unless they sorted out certain issues, Slovakia would be left out. And that had a profound influence on domestic politics, leading to a change of government, and then Slovakia joined in the first wave in 2004.

I remember those times as well. Hungary was like a front-runner, very different from the Hungary of today. Who could ever have imagined that several countries that joined the European Union would then drop in their press freedom rankings; Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria. Is there something wrong with the process?

Well, the views of the European Parliament on these issues are well known and they are in line with what you say. There are certainly concerns, but there have been concerns in Italy over the years as well, and people in Britain complaining that Rupert Murdoch has too much power, and that sort of thing.

What is important is that we don’t have Gulags, we don’t have political prisoners or political assassinations. So while these are critical issues, we should keep a sense of proportion.

Most recently, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Poland, which was also very widely reported in the US media. But I don’t think you can blame the enlargement process. In politics you never know what is around the corner, and as I say the whole process of European integration naturally creates counter forces, and as people like Viktor Orbán have got to know the European Union better, there are things they don’t like.

As for the functioning of democracy and the rule of law, the European Parliament has expressed its views on these issues. But the problem, rather than the process, is how to monitor the do-called ‘Copenhagen criteria’, the criteria for accession to the EU, once a country has actually joined. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, with Article 7, there is a mechanism for that. But how it actually works in practice we still have to find out. The real question is how much integration does the EU actually want. It is perfectly legitimate for the EU to ask the sort of questions that the European Parliament has asked about Poland, and this is an on-going controversy in Poland itself, which will no doubt continue, but to take action to kick a country out of the EU, or suspend its voting rights, would be a very very big step. It may happen in the future, I can’t judge, but I wouldn’t blame the enlargement process for the current, unexpected situation.

Today, sensitive discussions are going on. President Juncker, in his friendly way, has spoken quite frankly about Hungary, and Mr. Timmermans is dealing with the Poland dossier, so this is something the EU is learning how to deal with, slowly but surely. One of the reasons I very much hope that the UK will stay in the EU is that even if my compatriots often sceptical views of different aspects of EU policy and structure, nobody has ever questioned that Britain itself is a democratic country with strong basis of the rule of law.

And a strange press.

Well I don’t think it is unique, if you look at what goes on in other countries. Newspaper owners have to sell copies. People now may discuss the role of Jacques Delors and the history of the euro, but when he spoke in Britain at a trade union meeting, The Sun newspaper made a big intervention. Being a very conservative paper, it produced a very famous and rude headline. But that didn’t destroy Delors, it didn’t prevent the Labour party from becoming pro-European.

Maybe it bounced Margaret Thatcher into becoming more doubtful about European integration, I couldn’t say. She was a very intelligent woman and I don’t think she took her views from The Sun. Indeed, she did take a very strong position, but then she got voted out by her own MPs.

So the media may be very important, but they do not decide elections or referendums for that matter. My observation of democracy in my own country and others is that you should not under-estimate the voters. They can be entertained by the media, and the key thing is not whether one particular newspaper is nasty or whatever, but whether there is a pluralistic media available so that people can make their own choice.

Who are the most interesting political figures you have met in your 40 years as an official?

I have certainly been lucky. I would say among my most inspiring aspects of my work was  in relation to human rights and the Sakharov prize, welcoming revolutionary figures in the early 1990s, like Alexander Dubček, Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, who came to the European Parliament for the first time. It was a fascinating experience and I had a chance to observe them all quite well, and to be involved in such a moment in European, and indeed world history, was very positive.

One particularly exciting adventure was the time when Boris Yeltsin came to the European Parliament in the run-up to his first election as Russian president. But among the people I have worked with closely and got to know much better, I would pick out two, one from the left and one from the right. One is Altiero Spinelli, who set up the whole process that led to the foundation of the European Union. The European Parliament, finding it was rather powerless after the first elections, decided to launch an initiative in favour of a Treaty on European Union, which got the blessing of François Mitterrand and many others.

Slowly but surely, the ‘Spinelli project’ had a huge impact and most of the things that were voted by  parliament in the 1984 Draft Treaty on European Union have come about. Cooperating with someone like Spinelli, who had  originally been a Communist, but then a democratic socialist, having been in prison under Mussolini, a highly intelligent and experienced professor, a Commissioner, working with somebody like that was extremely interesting, especially at the time when my own party wanted to leave Europe completely, was quite fascinating. I even accompanied him to London a couple of times, so that was interesting too.

On the other side, a historic figure whose role I believe has been overlooked, but who was fundamentally important, particularly for the enlargement process, was Otto von Habsburg, a more conservative figure obviously, and a man who embodied history. He was very active on the first committee into the rise of racism and xenophobia in Europe, and that’s when I realised that any snap ideological judgement on my part was inappropriate because Otto von Habsburg of course had been extremely courageous in standing up to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and he was observing the whole issue of Europe in the 1980s with so much experience.

I got to know him mostly in the 1990s, because he was very active in the joint parliamentary committee between the EU and Hungary, and indeed on the foreign affairs committee on a number of issues. Most notably he had tabled a resolution in 1983 insisting that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were not part of the Soviet Union.

Again, the European Parliament may have been ahead of its time, but it was were prepared to say what others were not. Neither of these people were actually in the political group I originally worked for, but they were people who had a real sense of the historic purpose of European integration. Otto von Habsburg of course knew very well Hungary, but he also knew Austria, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, and he also had a wide vision of the European enlargement process. He also helped contribute to the ‘big bang’, by making sure that the countries of the former Habsburg empire were part of it.

I also had a lot of fun with a lady called Barbara Castle, who was the leader of the Labour MPs after 1979. She was a very intelligent woman and great to work with, despite the fact that she was very much against the idea of European integration, because she just wanted to know the facts and understand what was going on. So she and I had a very fruitful cooperation, even though in private we would have discussions as to who was right and who was wrong, regarding the basic direction of events.

You once accompanied Barόn Crespo in a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. What was your impression of Gorbachev?

Left: Enrique Barόn Crespo and Geoffrey Harris. Right: Mikhail Gorbachev and collaborator [personal archive]

Left: Enrique Barόn Crespo and Geoffrey Harris. Right: Mikhail Gorbachev and collaborator [personal archive]

It so happened that at university, I had studied Communist systems, and so I observed the perestroika process with sympathy and with hopes that it would produce success. But personally, I didn’t consider Communism a reformable system, as it was based on the Leninist concept of the leading role of one party and a dictatorship of the proletariat. The basic structure was still there after 1985. Although clearly perestroika and glasnost were transformative processes, I always wondered where this would all end. Yeltsin came and visited the Parliament in 1990, and then in 1991 Barón Crespo said we should go to the Soviet Union and meet the President, Mihail Gorbachev, and we did meet him in the Kremlin.

The meeting took place in a crisis atmosphere concerning the whole federal structure of the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet was losing power to the Soviets of the component parts of the Union; the Lithuania crisis was obviously still a factor. Whether by chance or in a moment of desperation I don’t know, but when we arrived in Moscow, Gorbachev chose to announce that he would change the statutes of the Communist party of the Soviet Union to abolish the leading role of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

In private, I pointed out to our group that this could be the beginning of the end, since the whole idea of the Soviet Union was based on the leading role of the Communist party. It was not that Gorbachev was anything like Stalin or Lenin, certainly not, but the idea of transforming the Soviet system into a multi-party democracy seemed to me unlikely. And indeed, the other members of the Communist party didn’t like it. I came home from Moscow and went on holiday, and two weeks later, there was the August coup, and that was the end of the Soviet Union.

I finished working with Baròn Crespo at the end of 1991, just around the time that the Soviet flag went down over the Kremlin and was replaced with the Russian flag. So that was a remarkable experience, and looking back I think it was fascinating to be there at such a historic moment.

In a month or so you will retire. What will you miss the most?

Well, I will gain freedom in how I use my time. What I miss already, in a way, is the forward-looking, optimistic atmosphere that has been there throughout most of my career. Since Britain joined I have seen the introduction of direct elections, the growing powers of the Parliament, the enlargement process, the emergence of European political parties, the strengthening of the way the Parliament works as co-legislator. I think whether I was inside or outside, I would miss the sense of being part of a positive historical process. Obama himself confirmed my view this week when he said the EU’s stable democracy makes a huge contribution to world peace.

Obviously I will miss some of my friends and colleagues. I won’t miss running up and down to Strasbourg once a month, but from a human point of view it has been quite fascinating. I have enjoyed setting up and creating teams of colleagues and seeing the people I knew as interns  or even students become leading officials or members of the European Parliament. I would say it has been a positive personal experience.

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