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Conference and Dinner with David Harley, CMG, 21 March 2023

On 21 March, 2023 sixty members of the Cambridge Society, the Oxford Society of Luxembourg, the British-Luxembourg Society, LSE Alumni and the EU pensioners’ association AIACE met at the Golf Club Grand-Ducal for a talk by David Harley, CMG, followed by a dinner.

David Harley, a University of Cambridge alumnus from Queens’ College, worked for the European Parliament from 1975 until his retirement in 2010. Starting as a translator, he rose through the organization, his final position being Deputy Secretary-General. He recently published his memoirs “Matters of Record: Inside European Politics (Diaries 1992-2010)” and a book co-written and edited with Dianne Hayter called “The Forgotten Tribe – British MEPs 1979-2020”.

During the period covered by his memoirs David was Adviser to Secretary-General Enrico Vinci 1989-1994, Deputy Secretary-General of the Socialist Group 1997-1999, Director of Press and Media, Parliamentary Spokesman 1999-2002, Spokesman for President Pat Cox 2002-2004, Secretary-General of the Socialist Group 2004-2007, and becoming Deputy Secretary-General in 2007. He was, therefore, someone who was “in the room“ with leaders and policymakers in Brussels and around the world during a momentous period for the EU internally and externally, as well as for the UK as the first flush of enthusiasm of New Labour for the EU began to lose its bloom and Euroscepticism started to develop, creating deep divisions that finally led to Brexit. He has unparalleled insights into what went on which he shared with participants during his entertaining and interesting talk.

Over three decades David kept detailed diaries, totalling finally 62 little red books which are now housed in the European University Institute in Florence. They constitute a unique record of modern European history and of working life in the European institutions. In his talk David recalled some of the most significant European leaders that he met and worked with, notably John Hulme the Northern Ireland politician who worked tirelessly to promote peace between the communities in Northern Ireland, Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair. He was interested in the often contradictory nature of their characters, their strengths and weaknesses, illustrating his observations with interesting and often amusing anecdotes.

David spoke about how the EU staggers from crisis to crisis, and yet has had some golden periods which he witnessed, such as the introduction of the single market and the Euro. And through all the hard periods, the EU is ‘characterised by resilience’. His overall judgement is a positive one, that the EU, despite its inevitable shortcomings, has many significant achievements. Currently, its considerable support for Ukraine in combatting the dreadful invasion by Russia, shows how the EU continues to wield significant influence in world affairs.

During the question and answer session after the talk, David agreed that during the period of UK membership of the EU, British MEPs, politicians and officials significantly influenced the agenda and how the EU developed, something which is not sufficiently recognized in the UK. After all, it was Margaret Thatcher and the Commissioner that she nominated, Lord Cockfield, who were responsible for the initial creation of the single market. At the same time, he noted that the extent of ignorance of how the EU and its institutions actually worked, at the highest levels of government, was sometimes remarkable. This ultimately was a contributory factor leading to Brexit. He said, though, that during his period in the European Parliament, which ended in 2010, it was unthinkable that the UK would leave the EU. 

The dinner which the participants enjoyed after the talk was excellent, Mme Josette Schmit and her team in the kitchen and front-of-house deserve the highest praise for their contribution to the evening.

All in all this was a most successful event. The participants appreciated the most enjoyable and interesting talk by David Harley, and it was a pleasure to see so many of them renewing acquaintances with people and former colleagues they had not seen in some cases for many years. The setting of the Golf Club with its excellent restaurant was perfect.

Lisa Burke of RTL Today Radio and a member of the Cambridge Society interviewed David Harley the following day. The interview is available as a podcast in The Lisa Burke Show at all times on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . The interview is highly recommended as an excellent complement to David’s talk.