If you doubt the beneficial effects of Brussels, look no further than the Kinnocks - beaten, bedraggled Brits at the start of the Nineties - and see them transformed into happy, confident Europeans, hungry for the millennium.aphs by Jean-Christian Bourcart
"You know what," says Neil Kinnock, leaning back, then pausing to chuckle at what he is about to say. "When I go home nowadays, I get the sort of kindliness normally reserved for dead people."

A thin winter sun filters through the glass of the Transport Commissioner's ninth floor office on Avenue d'Auderghem, and strings murmur in the background. "I'm going through a Tchaikovsky phase," he says, propping a laced black shoe on the coffee table next to The Age of Finnish Art. Down the corridor the "team" - Philip, Jan, Sarah and the rest (a commissioner always calls his cabinet his "team") - are drawing up the week's schedule, and preparing his brief for the regular Wednesday Commission meeting. The road-hauliers have been on to congratulate Mr Kinnock on the deal he brokered for refrigerator truck dimensions. Glenys has called to check on his movements. It's comforting that she is just there, down the road, and "doing so damn well".

In a small room in the European Parliament, Welsh voices are quietly chattering away. A group from the Welsh coalfield community is waiting to meet their MEP. Glenys Kinnock rushes in a little late. She takes her seat at the end of the table, folds her hands, and adjusts an earring. The men are worried the valleys are not getting their share of aid from Brussels and they have come to press Mrs Kinnock to lobby on their behalf. "We are not here to patronise you or tell you your job," they say kindly. She doesn't look patronised as she listens patiently, correcting here and agreeing there. "We just want our money, Glenys," they tease. She laughs loudly. "She's making a great fist of it," they say proudly when she has gone. And Neil? "He feels he's doing something. He has the opportunity which was never given him at home. He was the prime minister Britain needed and never got."

After a year together in Brussels, Neil and Glenys Kinnock appear to be at peace with themselves. But the afterlife is no soft option. The French lessons have already fallen by the wayside ("Neil is better than me," says Glenys), and there is hardly any time together. Their secretaries swap diaries, and Glenys tries to keep Thursday evening spare to cook tortillas with Labour MEP chums at the Kinnocks' house, just a few streets from the Commission. "I think we spent one evening together in the last two weeks," says Neil. "Our lives run on two concentric circles so we hardly ever meet." But the constant movement is good: therapeutic, almost. It leaves them little time to think, to agonise about what might have been. And it sets up a distance between now and then. Listening to Today in Parliament on the BBC as he drives across Brussels late at night, Kinnock says he gets an "eerie" feeling. "For the first time in many, many years, I listen like any ordinary person might listen. When I hear them shouting away, I have a quiet chuckle. I know these people, but I find myself asking, why is a 54-year-old man ranting away like that? I have become an ordinary punter."

When the chance came for Glenys to stand as MEP for South Wales in 1994, Neil was still reeling from the shock of the 1992 election defeat. Glenys still talks about the "void" which opened up before them. In a television interview in 1993, Neil described himself as a "personal and political failure". He was hosting chat shows, dabbling in this and that, while Glenys watched, seeking ways to move life on. They both talk of the strength they found in love and friendship at that difficult time, and of the consolation they found in their children.

"The best news we had then was that Steve got a 2.1 in languages at Cambridge," says Glenys. "It was wonderful. It put things in perspective. Whatever else, we had not done a bad job with them. And Rachel got into Bristol. We were so proud that they were normal youngsters."

But she goes on: "I still have to pinch myself to think we came through it. Neil dealt with it by self-recrimination, which was bruising for him and for anyone around him. I knew he should not have blamed himself as much as he did."

She may be remembered as the woman striding confidently towards Downing Street or campaigning for CND, but Glenys Kinnock's working life had mostly been as a primary school teacher in Wales. "I had never before had to stand up and say: this is what I believe, or: these are my ideas. But I knew I had to do something." She quotes Gloria Steinem. "The only way to survive is to say you will not die."

When she won a massive majority, she was aware that there were those who believed she gained the seat only because of who she was. "I have worked hard to be taken seriously," she says. She believes she has more influence than any backbench MP in Westminster. The European parliament has little legislative power, but it has the power to influence. Millions of pounds of European money have been poured into deprived areas of Wales and the role of Brussels is now appreciated back home, she says. The coalfield leaders she was meeting came straight to Brussels to lobby, bypassing the Welsh Office and Westminster. "They know this is the future," says Glenys.

By 7.30am, she is already heading down the colour-coded walkways and across the double-decker bridges of the labyrinthine parliament complex. Glenys is comfortable here - Brussels is a non-sexist environment where "they don't laugh behind their hands at you." But she wasn't the first Kinnock to make a new life in Brussels. When she arrived, Steve had already made the break, coming to forge his own path in life as a student at the European College in Bruges.

When Neil was offered the post as Britain's second commissioner in Brussels, alongside Leon Brittan, it was, quite simply, his salvation. Offers of numerous other posts had been rumoured. It was even said that he might become President of Welsh Rugby Union. But no serious job had materialised.

His recollections of the dark period after the defeat are blurred now. "My friends were there all the time - not holding my hand as if they were going to a prolonged funeral, but there in real support. Before I knew it, six months had passed," he says, getting up to pace the room. He mentions names: Jan Royale, head of his private office as Labour leader, and now a member of his cabinet, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair - the latter name brings a sudden brightness to his voice. "Friends help, love helps. Not to romanticise, but we both come from families where the trauma of losing a job or having a bad accident - or some appalling family tragedy - has to be got over. You have to deal with it. I am not saying we went on marching to the future or any of that bloody nonsense. Just, we had to deal with it.

"I have thought a lot about whether there was anything I might have done differently as Labour leader that would have changed things. In conversations with myself and others, I can't see there was anything else I could have done. All recent analysis, and the polls, say the same thing." Then he stops himself, and wonders again whether he could have started to modernise the Party earlier. "I suppose that is the deep regret. I knew we had to go faster and make the moves earlier. But the risk was fracturing the Party. Tony Blair is operating today in a different environment."

He had no doubt that he should take the Brussels job, and no doubt that the portfolio he wanted was transport. "It is something people understand. They talk about it - about how bloody awful the traffic was tonight. It's relevant to people's lives. Something I could get stuck into."

Back in Britain, colleagues in the Labour Party seem as relieved as anybody that he has found a new role. For they too can now cast off the pain and angst of his defeat. He is better off out of Westminster, they seem to say. "He was always a very kind and generous person. He didn't enjoy the brutal unpleasantness of it," says Denis McShane, Labour MP. "He's on a pedestal now. He was John the Baptist for Tony Blair. We were never going to win the '92 election anyway..."

Another pleasure of Brussels, at least at first, must have been its political anonymity. No longer could the hopes of a party or a nation be pinned on Neil Kinnock. No longer would he be held personally to account for every thought or deed. As one of 20 commissioners acting as a "college" in the joint interests of 15 member states, he was suddenly a part of a machine much much bigger than him, or any political party.

Brussels policy-making is not about winners or losers; it is not really about personalities at all. Commissioners share responsibility. They don't highlight their differences, but work to minimise them through compromise. "There is no point scoring here. It is not the adversarial politics of Westminster where you get stuck into each other because you really don't like each other. Here nobody would be impressed if there was conflict."

From the start, Kinnock seemed to like his new job and to relish getting to grips with how Brussels works. "He likes widgets. He likes to understand the nuts and bolts. And Brussels is full of widgets," said one colleague. More than that, as he himself admits, he is enjoying the exercise of power. A European commissioner is a hybrid office with power to influence a political agenda and propose legislation, rather than make law. But what matters to Kinnock is that he can get results on important, if mundane, issues, such as ferry safety, air traffic control, public transport. "I was in opposition all those years, with no power at all. Now I have a chance to do something of benefit to people. I have got a few results over the past few months and I'm going to get some more."

He was condemned by British ministers in Westminster last month over his decision to allow the Spanish government to make a capital investment in the ailing national airline, Iberia. But he was secure in the knowledge that his decision had the approval of the Commission.

Kinnock has lost some of his loquaciousness, and his sentences seem to be more to the point these days. "When you sit round the table you speak when you have something to say. I do not try and intervene on everything. On Iberia, I made a 12-minute presentation. That was just what I needed on a complex subject."

The need to toe the Commission line has had its galling - not to say humiliating - moments, such as a public ticking off by Jacques Santer, the dour, colourless Commission president. Mr Santer was none too happy when, in a manner unbecoming to a junior commissioner, Mr Kinnock said, in a speech in Britain, that monetary union might have to be delayed. He has not stepped out of line again.

So are the Kinnocks more European now? Have they gone native? Neither talks in Euro-jargon, and both take a practical and moderate view of Europe's future. "Nobody wants to build a superstate," says Neil. Federalism would be "too damn inconvenient". But both clearly feel that greater integration, while preserving the powers of national parliaments, is inevitable. Neil was asked by a teenager on Radio 5 Live recently when he was going to force Britons to drive on the wrong side of the road. "She said she didn't want to be told what to do by Brussels. I said: 'Wait a minute love, you are a European. Your generation ought to be thinking as Europeans.' But we obviously have a long way to go."

Their enthusiasm about the European future also lies partly in the knowledge that Britain under a Labour government will play a greater role in Brussels. Neil believes there is no doubt that Tony Blair will win the next election, and he says, without a trace of bitterness, that Blair could play the leading role on the European stage over the next decade. Already Labour leaders are spending more and more time in Brussels.

Is the afterlife a better life? "It's a good life, not a better life," says Neil. "A better life would have been to achieve the objective".

The Kinnocks don't look much different, although some say they look younger and reinvigorated. Neil's salary as a commissioner is pounds 130,000, considerably more than he would have earned as prime minister; and as an MEP, Glenys earns the same as a backbencher; but they live in a modest town house in a decidedly unfashionable part of Brussels, deliberately pre-empting press accusations of a lavish Euro lifestyle. They remain bitter about the British press and the mocking stories that still crop up. "They just make it up nowadays," says Neil. "Poor old Kinnock the Welsh windbag - you know the kind of thing," he scoffs. "Why the hell are they still interested?"

Brussels friends are largely Labour MEPs, members of the Kinnock cabinet, and a handful of commissioners whom Neil has known for years on the socialist circuit. They see a lot of Steve, who now works for a Brussels consultancy, and lives close by. But neither Neil nor Glenys would call Brussels "home". They don't have time to make it home. Glenys says she has occasionally gone to a garden centre, but has hardly been round the shops. They are drawn back to Wales, where Glenys returns most Fridays for constituency work. They still have a house in Ealing, and one in Pentllanfraith, the centre of Neil's old constituency of Islwyn. "If you follow the stem down to the root it would take us back to Wales," he says.

But in this disorientating world, it seems that the only sure way the Kinnocks can get their bearings is from each other. Neil describes how he woke up one morning, after visiting nine countries in 11 days, not knowing where he was. "I just couldn't work it out. Then I realised I was in Wales. The only way I knew was because Glenys was on my left-hand side. Everywhere else, she sleeps on the right, but at the house in Wales the telephone only plugs in on the right and the Duchess can't be woken up so she sleeps on the left. I would have to get a compass if Glenys wasn't there."