Europhobes squared off with the embodiment of a europhile Wednesday in an encounter that failed to persuade doubters to love the European Union.
In one corner, metaphorically if not physically, was U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a decades-long hater of all things EU. In the other, Jonathan Faull, an EU civil servant for more than 30 years who heads the European Commission’s efforts to keep the U.K. in the bloc.
“Thank you Jonathan for entering what you may well be considering the lion’s den,” said UKIP lawmaker Paul Nuttall, striking a biblical overtone as he kicked off the parliamentary grilling in Brussels.
Faull — who also happens to be British — was there to answer questions from members of the legislative body who are pushing for the U.K. to leave the 28-member alliance, effectively putting themselves out of work.
Led by Farage, they questioned Faull on how, why, and whether the commission will try to stop ‘Brexit’ — the U.K. leaving the EU — and what would happen if, as they hope, those efforts fail. They weren’t satisfied with many of the responses.
With a referendum on Britain’s place in the EU possibly taking place as soon as June, the intensity of diplomacy is increasing. Cameron’s office announced on Wednesday that the prime minister would be canceling a trip to Sweden and Denmark later this week to meet Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. In three weeks’ time Cameron is seeking to get a deal on changes to the U.K.’s terms of EU membership at a summit with fellow government leaders.
Topics during Wednesday’s meeting ranged from the EU’s planned use of “propaganda” during the referendum campaign, the bloc’s supposed “militarization” and whether, if the U.K. chooses to leave, the EU would demand another go in the hope of getting the result it wanted.
The questioners didn’t get many of the answers they wanted. Sometimes they didn’t get any answer at all. “I literally cannot speculate on what happens if ‘Brexit’ occurs,” Faull — officially the European Commission’s chairman of the “Task Force for Strategic Issues Related to the U.K. Referendum” — said on more than one occasion.
The commission “will not spend a penny on propaganda in the referendum campaign,” Faull said, and the questioners made it clear they thought he wasn’t telling the truth.
“I simply don’t believe his answer,” Roger Helmer, a UKIP lawmaker, tweeted shortly after posing the question.
Faull said he didn’t know exactly how the EU might be able to give the U.K. an “emergency brake” to allow it to withhold benefits from migrants in extraordinary circumstances, adding this issue was not the only sticking point in getting other governments to accede to Cameron’s demands. He said EU lawyers haven’t yet finished “figuring out” how to make the U.K.’s requests comply with EU law. He didn’t know what would happen at the all-important summit on Feb. 18-19.
His interrogators, mainly from Britain but also from euroskeptic parties in other countries including Italy and the Netherlands, didn’t hide their dissatisfaction.
“I’m trying to be as helpful and as courteous as I can,” Faull insisted.
Within an hour it was all over. “Thank you for being a terrific sport,” a smiling Farage told Faull as the debate wrapped up. The microphones didn’t pick up the EU man’s response.