The UK presidency of the EC: Men in suits who master their briefs

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The Independent Online
WHEN asked to give his views on the top diplomats who will be stoking the engine-room of the presidency, a senior French EC diplomat said: 'Extremely professional. Know their dossiers well. Very British, and actually very like our own enarques - a bit pretentious, lacking in humour, dry.'

The comparison to graduates of Paris' elite Ecole normale superieure d'administration is not far-fetched - they dominate the French contingent in Brussels. The man who dominates ours is Sir John Kerr, the UK Permanent Representative. Sir John (Glasgow Academy and Pembroke College, Oxford) has a slight Scottish accent, chainsmokes, is very bright, discreet, but has a wicked sense of humour. His middle name is Olav (his grandfather's name, though his office denies any Norwegian blood). A wizard on detail, he briefs ministers with superb confidence. At Lisbon he was spotted escorting Norman Lamont down a flight of stairs while spelling out to the Chancellor the UK position on the EC budget.

During six years at the Treasury, Sir John was private secretary to both Howe and Lawson. Today he assumes the chairmanship of Coreper, the Committee of Permanent Representatives of the Twelve responsible for preparing all finance and foreign affairs councils. This makes him chief fixer on the spot.

Sir John has just had his residence upgraded to the splendid hotel particulier that previously housed HM ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium. The swap took place during a gap between ambassadors; the new envoy is relegated to Sir John's nice, but suburban, former residence.

Sir John's twin horse in London is Michael Jay, the Assistant Under-Secretary of State for EC affairs. The AUSS's are crucial in driving policy at the FCO. Tall, thin and pinstriped, Mr Jay (Winchester and Magdalen) is considered sensible and well-briefed by EC officials who would otherwise love to scorn him. He is largely responsible for co-ordinating the positions of various London departments into a coherent view. Many of the other 11 show internal differences, with one department playing off Brussels against another; Britain is unrivalled in presenting a united front.

'The exception to the Britishness,' added the French diplomat, 'is Tristan Garel-Jones. Now him, he's a bit Latin.' The speaker did not even know that the Minister of State for Europe (King's Canterbury) did not go to university, spent 10 years running a language school in Madrid, has a Spanish wife, and speaks Spanish at home.

Mr Garel-Jones, the Conservative MP for Watford, is living proof that there need be no contradiction in being a good Member of Parliament and a good European. 'Ministers should arrive in Brussels with the views of their own parliaments and people ringing in their ears,' he once said. To that end, he is an excellent liaison man. During the night of horse- trading at Maastricht, he master- minded the link-up with the Chief Whip back home.

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