Matthew Rycroft, who heads up EU policy at the foreign office, hopes to move the union on from a decade of institutional wrangling to tackle strategic issues. He tells Matthew O’Toole why it’s time to focus on the big picture
Matthew Rycroft (pictured above) is the kind of diplomat routinely described as ‘high-flying’. He certainly merits the moniker. By the time he was 36, he was already an ambassador (to Bosnia), having spent the previous few years as Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser inside Number 10. At the time he was appointed to the job of EU director at the foreign office (FCO), his glittering CV lacked much direct experience of the notoriously byzantine process of EU relations. But Rycroft doesn’t see that as a handicap, and says that his relative inexperience of Brussels has helped him maintain a “perspective on the bigger issues”. So what are those bigger issues? And, as the institutions created by the controversial Lisbon Treaty begin to bed in, how is the UK’s (and Rycroft’s) approach changing as a result?
The EU team at the FCO is one part of the department’s broader Europe Directorate, which Rycroft jointly heads with a colleague who leads on issues affecting “non-EU Europe”. Most of his diplomatic career has been spent on more conventional bilateral diplomacy, and Rycroft admits that EU work is “very, very different”; success here, he argues, depends on maintaining a balance between people with intimate knowledge and others with broader experience. “We have some people in this directorate who are steeped in the EU. I’m not one of them – this is my first proper EU job,” he says. “Getting that blend right between people who really know the EU and other people, like me, who know about foreign affairs more broadly, is what we are trying to achieve.”
Rycroft is refreshingly frank about not needing to be on top of every minute detail emanating from the corridors of Brussels. “For people outside it, there’s something scary about the EU,” he admits. “It can come across as very technical, very bureaucratic, full of processes and red tape, and therefore quite intimidating for someone who’s not really on top of all the jargon and the acronyms. I have tried to demonstrate that it’s not necessary to know all that stuff before you come in. You can pick what you need and rely on the other people who really are steeped in it.”
Jargon and acronyms, though, were certainly important in the process that led to the Lisbon Treaty, which attempted to simplify EU structures and finally, if controversially, came into force in December last year. Rycroft himself took over the EU directorate just as the UK Parliament was ratifying the treaty, which was itself a replacement for the more ambitious EU constitution drafted by former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing and rejected in referenda by French and Dutch voters. Irish voters subsequently said ‘no’ to the revised treaty – but, 16 months and a financial crisis later, eventually approved the deal.
Rycroft depicts the wrangling over EU reform – which took up the bulk of a decade – as a “long period of introspection; of institutional navel-gazing”. If he has a central mission in the job, it’s to push the union away from obsessing about processes and structures and towards advancing common interests in big, strategic subjects. “Thinking about how we can make the mechanics of Europe work has inevitably used up a lot of oxygen in the years gone by; [time] which could have been spent in a more outward-facing way. It’s important to now move on,” he says.
Advocates of Lisbon feel that many of the provisions of the treaty – such as extended qualified majority voting, and the creation of an EU president and a foreign affairs high representative – are practical ways of managing an enlarged EU. But surely Rycroft can’t ignore the backdrop of widespread scepticism and, frequently, hostility to the treaty – indeed, to the EU in general – that exists in Britain among the media and the public at large? To use a classic FCO metaphor, he responds with a decidedly straight bat. “In any Whitehall job you need to know about the political backdrop in the UK, about the issues that are sensitive. In the end, the job of any civil servant is to advise ministers on how to implement their policies – and the British government’s policies are pro-Lisbon,” he says. “There was a big debate within the UK on the Lisbon Treaty and about whether to sign, whether to ratify, but we’ve now moved on to [an agenda] which is much more about using the institutions.”
The first opportunity to use those institutions was in securing one of the top jobs for a British politician. There was lengthy and occasionally frenetic speculation that Rycroft’s old boss Tony Blair would be nominated as the first EU president, and separate moves to install his current boss, foreign secretary David Miliband, in the high representative job. In the end, to the surprise of many, Britain’s serving commissioner Baroness Cathy Ashton emerged with the high representative job alongside the new president, former Belgian prime minister Herman van Rompuy. Given Rycroft’s closeness to the former PM – his office mantelpiece holds a signed photo of the two of them playing football on a beach – was he keen that Blair should hold the job? The members of the council – the leaders of the member states – decided that the inevitably high-profile Blair was not the kind of president they wanted, Rycroft says diplomatically; but he also seems to reveal his own preference.
“If the members of the European Council had wanted a particular type of figure, someone who would really transform the EU’s impact globally, then Tony Blair could have been a candidate for that job. But that isn’t what they wanted,” he says. “The UK and other member states were arguing for a big job, for a transformative job that would really change the nature of how the EU engages at that top level… and clearly the members of the European Council chose a figure who would be more focused on preparing the European Councils and chairing them effectively.”
The day after our interview, UK Independence Party MEP Nigel Farage caused a furore in the European Parliament by dismissing President van Rompuy as possessing the “charisma of a damp rag”. Yet while Farage’s incendiary outburst may have been par for the course for such a devout Eurosceptic, by backing Blair’s candidacy the UK government did express its preference for a better-known figure. Does Rycroft think that van Rompuy is too anonymous. “No”, he says, pointing to his experience running the ethno-political cauldron that is Belgium. “A lot of the skills he needed [as Belgian PM] are instantly transferable into his new role.” That may be so, but it hardly solves the potential problem of his anonymity.
Similar criticisms have been made of Cathy Ashton, a former leader of the Lords who, critics complain, has never held elected office. Her democratic legitimacy comes from the governments of the Council and her recent endorsement by the European Parliament, Rycroft says, stressing that placing a UK politician in one of the two EU top jobs was a “success for Britain”.
It’s the kind of success in Brussels negotiations that the foreign office feels it’s been having for years, with only limited recognition at home. Former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd complained recently that the FCO was suspected at home of cravenly sacrificing British interests at the EU, while in Brussels other member states tend to see UK ministers and officials as the best briefed and most ruthless in pursuit of their own national interests. Is it a description Rycroft recognises? “It does largely ring true,” he smiles. “Other member states think that we are incredibly influential within the EU; that we’ve got people in key places, that we pull the strings behind everyone’s backs. In the UK that is not a common view; most people see the EU as something that is done to them.”
Matthew Rycroft: CV Highlights
1989 Joins the foreign office, after graduating from Oxford University with a degree in Philosophy and Mathematics
1995 Appointed head of the FCO’s Eastern Adriatic department
1998 Moves to the British embassy in Washington DC
2002 Enters Downing Street as private secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair
2005 Becomes ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina
2010 Returns to London to become EU director at the foreign office