This morning, Donald Tusk had an unusually provocative line in his speech. “I have been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it safely,” he said. Any politician knows that the image of Brexiteers going to hell cannot be dropped into a speech without huge controversy. Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach who had been standing next to him, spotted it instantly and was caught on mic joking to Tusk about the outrage it was intended to cause in the UK. Tusk nodded and laughed. Then for good measure, he tweeted out the incendiary point.
I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted #Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) February 6, 2019
All this is an unusual way to conduct diplomacy, but this trolling fits a trend. When Theresa May went to Salzburg to sell her Brexit plan, Tusk released an Instagram picture of him offering her some cake. “Sorry, no cherries” was his punchline – a way of trolling the British. He thinks her Chequers plan “cherry picks” the single market, so chooses instagram to mock her with this point. Some of the fuss over this was misplaced: it’s safe to assume that Tusk and his aides did not know that the Prime Minister says she avoids cake on account of her diabetes (a dietary decision which is, for some, deeply controversial). But the bigger question is whether Tusk taunting Prime Ministers over social media is puerile, or a new diplomatic tool.
For those who do not have a democratic apparatus underneath them (ie, party leaders) Twitter can be a powerful alternative as a tool to reach voters. 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 – every time. 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, he makes the universe bend 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, bring out the worst in people, encourages a cycle of spats and insults which are seldom edifying for anyone involved. 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 trolling, or entering a Twitter spat.
Yet the European Commission has been using the same tactics at Trump. When Martin Selmayr was chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker, he used Twitter to take issue with Nick Timothy, a Telegraph columnist 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 said he was shocked – shocked! – to find out that the German press had been leaked a version of the conversation that was damaging to Mrs May and flattering to him.
Set aside the leaking, which is now a trademark EU tactic. What’s striking is to see Selmayr engage in a Twitter spat with a Daily Telegraph columnist: it’s very unusual behaviour in a democracy. A chief of staff exists to serve democratically-elected ministers, not pose as a personality in their own right and pick fights. 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 an elected 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 rule is ignored. David Davis tweeted only once since he got the Brexit job, but his EU counterparts tweet more often than Trump. We saw Michel Barnier troll Davis over Brexit negotiations – for whose benefit it’s unclear. They once asked Davis in for a photocall, then the EU side brought large stacks of papers when the Brits had none (understandably, as it was just a photocall). But it made for a trolling picture: look how prepared we are! And you aren’t! This is how they operate.
Even Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, regularly comments about articles in Britain and will retweet comments by journalists and politicians by means of trolling the UK. She once tweeted, with approval, 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 the profile of political players. That’s why they tweet. Unelected ‘presidents’ like Tusk might imagine Twitter gives them a connection with voters.
At the start of 2016, 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 university’s Megan 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?
This was originally a 2017 blog, updated to factor in Tusk’s behaviour. Sadly, Gavin Barwell – an ex-MP now Theresa May’s chief of staff – does Tweet. Although he refrains from Selmayr-style political confrontation and Tusk-style trolling, it’s not a good look.