Laszlo Andor speaks very softly for a man who has just whipped up such a furore that it almost took on the status of a diplomatic incident. Amid all the other European business that needed transacting in Vilnius last week, David Cameron insisted on putting time aside to complain to the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, about what he had described on Twitter as “totally inappropriate language” from Mr Andor, whom he called an “unelected official”.
That language was mild compared with the initial reaction from the office of the Labour MP John Mann, who issued a statement accusing the mild-mannered EU Commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion of being a neo-fascist unfit for office. This was in the mistaken belief that the Commissioner supports Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, and was amended when it was pointed out that he is, in fact, a socialist.
The Daily Mail, with scarcely less fury, accused him of being one of the most left-wing figures ever to be appointed an EU Commissioner, and demanded to know why a Hungarian was lecturing Britain on the treatment of minorities, given the discrimination and violence endured by Hungary’s Roma minority and the alleged revival of anti-Semitism there.
All this was set off by remarks Mr Andor made to the BBC on Wednesday, after Mr Cameron had announced plans to limit migrant workers’ access to welfare as a step towards restricting their numbers. He warned: “It risks presenting the UK as a nasty country.”
Speaking to The Independent, he did not back down from that position, but was at pains to point out that he had not suggested that the UK is actually nasty. “What I said was that there was a danger of a ‘nasty image’ developing,” he said. “There is a distinction.”
Mr Andor learnt to love Britain when he spent a year studying at Manchester University in 1992-93. Later, he worked in London for five years from 2005, as an economist with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. He just wishes that other Europeans knew the country as he does, but he fears that anti-EU rhetoric is making Britain so unpopular on the Continent that if the UK were to vote to quit the EU, many Europeans would be happy to see us go.
Mr Andor declared: “I am an anglophile. I used to study in this country, I also lived in this country, and worked here, so I probably have a stronger connection than the average person from the other 27 member states.
“I know this is a welcoming country, and that’s why it’s very important to care about the image. When people see all the various controversies, and the ‘mixed’ language which is sometimes published in the British tabloid press, I fear people on the Continent might say, ‘OK, if the Brits don’t want to stay, then maybe they should go.’
“That’s not my approach. I think there has to be a fair discussion in the UK about the possibilities of the EU, the individual countries’ position in the EU, the direction the EU is developing in, and how we can all shape it together. People will also say that the UK also benefits a lot from EU membership and that together we are stronger.”
Asked about the complaint Mr Cameron lodged with Mr Barroso, he pauses for a long time. When he eventually replies it is the cautious public official in him speaking, not the left-wing Hungarian politician. “What can I do? If he [Mr Cameron] has views of course this dialogue will continue,” he said.
Dialogue and disagreements between the Commission and the UK over migration are not new, he added, claiming that he was not voicing a personal opinion but speaking for the Commission as whole.
In that case, how does he react to the suggestion that someone from Hungary – where the far-right Jobbik party is the country’s third largest with 17 per cent of the vote – is in no position to criticise Britain? “People go personal when they have got no arguments, and to be honest that is not the first time this has happened,” he says. “The situation in Hungary should not be connected with my role as a commissioner.
“It is also important to ensure that the portrayal of the current situation is fair for Hungary. I don’t think for example that there would be evidence that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Hungary. What is the proof of that?”
There are, he admits, “major problems” about poverty among the Roma and their relations with the majority of the population, but that is a problem, he says, that Hungary shares with Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “This is a difficult question and we have been working for years in the European Commission to ensure the member states involved become more determined to tackle this problem and they get the appropriate support,” he says.
He does not deny that the presence of migrant workers can cause what he calls “local problems and tensions”, but thinks the British are doing themselves no favours if they exaggerate the negatives and forget the benefits that migrant workers bring to the host country.
“It would be an own goal to somehow artificially reduce the number of EU migrant workers coming to this country,” he says. “Overall, they should appreciate the very positive contribution of the migrant workforce to the British economy. I’m sure everybody knows people who give good service, do jobs, repair houses, work on construction, or provide other services. I’m sure those who have to visit hospitals have already met doctors or dentists from the new member states. So overall this should be a positive experience.”
He says all this with the quiet assertiveness of an official taking the official line, suggesting that it would make little difference if he went back to being an economist and someone else took his place as commissioner. In Brussels, the free movement of labour is accepted as a basic condition of EU membership.
There is nothing much that Mr Cameron can do about that: he only give Britain a bad name by trying, Mr Andor fears. It does not bode well for the Prime Minister’s chances of bringing home a treaty change he can sell to the British public as a reason for voting to stay in the EU.
Eurocritics: putting the boot into Britain
Laszlo Andor is not the first EU commissioner to use hard words about the UK Government. It has happened many times before.
Last June, the commission’s vice-president, Viviane Reding, wrote to William Hague protesting about the revelations coming from the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.
“The UK authorities are accessing, collecting and further processing, on a massive and indiscriminate scale, personal data… these programmes could have a serious impact on the fundamental rights of individuals in the EU,” she wrote.
In October 2012, Michael Barnier, the EU commissioner for internal markets, was unimpressed by George Osborne’s claim that any EU plan to cap bankers’ bonuses should not apply in the UK.
“The UK is not a special case in wanting to protect its golden goose,” he said.
In September 2010, the EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski thought it was time to reopen the issue of the UK’s EU budget rebate, for which Margaret Thatcher fought in the early 1980s.
But no EU official has ever provoked a reaction quite like that reserved for the former President, Jacques Delors, who was behind the communique issued just before Margaret Thatcher’s premiership ended, which proclaimed that the EU would go ahead with the creation of a single currency despite her vehement opposition.
“As history accelerates, we have to accelerate along with it,” he said – to which The Sun responded with a blazing front-page headline on 1 November 1990 saying ‘Up Yours, Delors’.