Donald Trump says that without Twitter, he would not be president. It’s a medium that allows him to set the agenda, then watch his critics rise to the bait. He gets up at 5am, has a shower, starts watching the TV at 6am and then tweets what he sees – like a report saying UK crime is rising ‘amid’ rising Islamism. He might retweet something he agrees with, or take issue with a critic. In this way, the universe bends towards him. But this raises a dilemma for other politicians: if Twitter is so powerful a medium, what’s the correct protocol?
The consensus, outside of Trumpworld, is that Twitter should be used sparingly. Twitter is effective at getting things out, but very ineffective as a means of conducting debate. It tends to lure people to extremes, and encourages a series of spats and insults which are seldom edifying. For Trump’s style of politics, this works. But for other democracies, not so much. So most politicians tend to use it to broadcast: to draw attention to speeches and announcements. Perhaps make a statement after a tragedy, or use Twitter to convey a summary of an announcement they’re making. But most would avoid entering a Twitter spat.
So it’s striking to see the European Commission use the same tactics at Trump. Its officials are seemingly unable to stay off Twitter. This morning Martin Selmayr, chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker, has taken issue with Nick Timothy, a Telegraph columnists and Theresa May’s former chief of staff, to say that he did not leak the contents of the dinner between May and Juncker. For his part, M Juncker has said he is shocked -shocked! – to find out that a version of the conversation damaging to Mrs May and flattering to him was leaked to the German press.
— The Spectator (@spectator) October 23, 2017
Set aside the leaking, which is now becoming a trademark EU tactic. What’s striking is to see Selmayr engage in a Twitter spat with a Daily Telegrah columnist: it’s very unusual behaviour in a democracy. No chief of staff in Britain would tweet, and quite right: they exist to serve democratically-elected ministers, not pose as personalities in their own right. When Timothy was serving Theresa May, he didn’t tweet. Not even Steve Bannon tweeted when he was at the White House. There’s a kind of unspoken decorum: if you’re working for the principal, you stay quiet. Your boss does the talking. And if provoked (as spin chiefs always are) never respond directly because that makes you the story.
But in the EU, no one is elected – not even its various presidents – so this decorum is ignored. David Davis has tweeted only once since he got the Brexit job, but his EU counterparts tweet more often than Trump. We have seen Michel Barnier trolling Davis over Brexit negotiations – for whose benefit it’s unclear. Even Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, regularly comments about articles in Britain and will retweet comments by journalists and politicians which also troll the UK. She once tweeted out an academic paper saying that Brexit could be reversed.
Reality bites: the Brexit negotiations seen from the other side of the Channel by Fabian Zuleeg https://t.co/lAE40EZ3aL
— Sabine Weyand (@WeyandSabine) July 24, 2017
It would be unthinkable that any civil servant on the Brexit negotiating team would give running commentaries about their thoughts via Twitter. They exist to serve the elected politicians, who do the talking. The EU exists to enact the will of its member states, but here’s the difference: it longs for a diplomatic personality of its own. This is part of its federalist ambitions, a constant mission-creep. Twitter gives EU officials the chance to insert themselves, Trump-style, into the public debate. Unelected chiefs-of-staff like Selmayr and civil servants like Weyand actively seek to be seen as political players. That's why they tweet.
At the start of last year, when I was supporting Remain, I hoped that Juncker et al would stay quiet in the campaign. If the referendum was about ties with Europe and its people, I thought, it would be an easy win. But if we started to hear from Juncker, Donald Tusk, then shadowy figures like Selmayr - well, that would be a different issue. It would be a referendum on the EU apparatus. It would invite questions like: who are these people? Who elected them? Why do they behave in this way? How did they get their powers? The more they Tweet, the higher their profile - and, I suspect, the less popular the EU project will become. The EU's institutional problems certainly ended up deciding it for me.
And meanwhile, might the digital habits of EU staff undermine the EU itself? As Warwick's Meghan Dee has observed:-
Diplomacy is best achieved where trust is developed quietly and away from the public eye. Twitter can provide the medium for removing that trust between diplomats as any statement, off-hand comment, or 'red-line' presented can be tweeted and showcased to the world. Worse still, it raises serious concerns where diplomats' own politicians can broadcast statements which either contradict or undermine the position they are presenting or even attack the other party with whom the diplomats are seeking to build rapport and trust.
Right now, there are only two governments who routinely discard the above advice: Trump's White House and the European Commission.
My hunch is that this is all going a bit too far. To Angela Merkel, the tone of the Brexit negotiations is important – I doubt she’ll be impressed at Selmayr's running commentaries, or the trolling conducted by Barnier and his deputy. Their behaviour will be helpful to Brexiteers, remind voters why we’re leaving. But is it really helpful to the EU member states, in whose name (and from whose taxes) all of these people work?