I was all of six when I first went abroad to Switzerland. The following year was able to accompany my parents again, this time to Norway. France inevitably was next and, year by year, came holidays to Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands – always by surface transport, of course – so as a teenager I had a boastful variety of passport stamps, including one from Sweden acquired by winning a travel scholarship to that country.
The drab details of post-war Europe were still plentifully across the continent, as were the weed-covered bomb sites of London and Manchester. They all shouted “Never Again” with the power of simplification that helped inspire a young, would-be reporter who was – much later – to join the Olivetti Generation of journalism.
Maybe there was something to be said for the signing of the Rome Treaty or, then again, maybe not. I wasn’t attentive enough in 1957. Certainly the government of the UK was superlatively sniffy about it rather as the still-insular British have patronised “Europe” in Brexit times and will continue to do so as the English Channel gets wider and wider.
The novelist Ian McEwan wrote of Britain’s voluntary withdrawal from the bloc in a recent Guardian essay: “Brexit, the most pointless masochistic ambition in the country’s history” adding “damage and diminishment lie ahead.”
Well, yes. A thunderous approval from all Remainers.
Like such-minded folks, however, and perhaps as an expatriate, I didn’t see it coming. The Brussels press corps, especially those who are British & Irish, tut-tutted about any flare-up of “Mad Brexit Disease”, but confidence and complacency was the order of the day in our lunchtime exchanges.
This view was boosted by the hacks’ conviction that Boris Johnson was a jolly good bloke, etc, though buffoonish and untrustworthy. High office hasn’t changed his character, we have daily observed.
Earlier, to make a bit of pocket money, one of the more senior corps members recalled babysitting Boris during his parents’ frequent absences. What a hoot, colleagues laughed, proof that Johnson should never be taken seriously, it was claimed.
In my 80th year, memories are like trying to scrape ice from a rear view mirror: some reflections are clear, some parts will remain smudged. It’s funny to be reminded by recent events the British Associated of European Journalists is older than the UK’s EU membership.
Fleet Street was far-sighted
Joining the AEJ was, I suppose, a bit like being accepted by a freemasonry. It was convivial, yet serious, and replete with common interests and references. The Reform and the Travellers were the clubs of choice, while the AEJ members represented a wide spectrum of the media.
Money was helpfully accessible – not brown envelope sponsorship – but rather an urbane Whitehall equivalent, offered with a nod and a bureaucratic wink.
The worthies of the time didn’t overlook the annual general meetings. EEC President Jean Rey was delighted to cruise/booze down the Rhine with us; the French foreign minister enchanted to stop off in Bordeaux for our benefit; the Greek president made a Palace available. The then-Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands didn’t quite do that, but enjoyed a beery night n Scheveningen with the AEJ fraternity while Jacques Chirac gave a graceful demonstration of “le long lunch” to all AGM attendees when he was Mayor of Paris.
After Prime Minister Edward Heath had signed the EEC membership treaty – he was the exclusive guest of the UK Section for a champagne reception in the Metropole Hotel’s basement flanked by The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the BBC, and myself, from The Observer.
Such events were news. Local hacks interviewed visiting scribes — like neighbours bringing in each other’s laundry. We ate for Europe, alright, believing food was always the best diplomacy when mere language faltered or failed.
That is still the case, we can assume, if we can afford it or, perhaps, find that elusive sponsorship. Would-be donors discovered during the 2008 financial crisis that it didn’t matter a damn whether they entertained the media or not, business would be much the same.
There were AEJ shouting matches too: nothing “doctrinal” or emotional like Brexit, no nationalism. I won’t detail the long-standing German AEJ President who threatened assault in the lobby of Helsinki’s Grand Marina; must have been something I’d said.
Across all sections members are earnest professionals who have smoothly surfed European issues year-by-year in a spirit of optimism, curiosity and, mostly, good humour, convinced we were the future – and still are – while accepting debate henceforward will be spiked by a Pre-Brexit, Post-Brexit, continuum.
As a former President of the UK Section, it’s both ironic and, Brexit-ly speaking, a surprise to see it has never been in better shape. Look at the new programme – a template and example for other sections – which will surely boost British members’ morale though the ache of disappointment that will linger.
A long goodbye then, that’s for certain, followed by a new phenomenon: a permanent political autumn.