My only meeting with Helle Thorning-Schmidt was not a particularly pleasant experience, writes Justin Stares. I had been sent by a British, Euro-sceptic newspaper to Copenhagen in the hope that she would talk to me about plans for a British referendum on the soon-to-be-defunct European constitution. Helle, leader of the Danish opposition at the time, was of interest in the UK due to her marriage to Stephen Kinnock, who is son of Neil, a former Labour Party opposition leader and former Brussels Commissioner.
Her press handlers had been informed of my arrival, though when I approached her in the Danish parliament she initially didn’t want to talk – perhaps she knew the publication I represented (albeit as a freelancer) was unlikely to give her pro-European views a sympathetic hearing. “You’ll have to wait; I have a lot of people to meet,” she snapped. “She is doing her democratic duty”, shouted an aide, helpfully. It was, I admit, the parliament’s open-house evening: a once-a-year event when Danes are given unrestricted access to the hallowed halls of the Folketing. Muttering something, I stood nearby and chatted to the local photographer who was accompanying me.
When the glad-handing was over (she was hardly mobbed), Helle generously stepped in my direction and made herself available, after which I promptly put my foot in it. We are both graduates of the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium – perhaps the best known post-graduate institution for European affairs – and to break the ice I thought I would let her know. “You are one of the only Bruges graduates to have a successful political career in his or her own member state,” I said (College of Europe graduates mainly work in Brussels). “If you become prime minister you will be the first Bruges graduate to become head of state or government”.
This was true, but my attempt at flattery didn’t go down well. “That’s not true at all,” she said somewhat angrily. “Many Bruges graduates have had successful careers”. Needless to say my interviewee was defensive for the rest of our chat and I left the building with little material of interest to the newspaper’s foreign desk.
After becoming prime minister, Helle took on the rotating European Union presidency when Denmark’s turn came around. Working for an different publication – an EU affairs website with no real political agenda – I therefore returned back to our shared alma mater and looked up her dissertation. She ‘liked’ the article I wrote, which I guess means she read it, though I was not particularly proud of the piece myself, largely because there was once again little of interest in the dissertation itself. If I remember correctly, it was about the supranational nature of the Council of Ministers.
Helle is now, some say, on the verge of her next promotion. She is favourite to succeed Herman Van Rompuy, president (with a small ‘p’) of the European Council. Nothing is certain in Brussels, and she might yet fall foul of some compromise candidate, though the College of Europe alumni network could be set to go all the way to the top.
Presuming, that is, she wants the job. As Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker already knows, the British press will give Helle a hard time throughout her mandate because she is already high profile. Unlike Van Rompuy, who is uncharismatic and if it weren’t for insults from UKIP leader Nigel Farage would even today be totally unknown outside Belgium, Thorning-Schmitt is photogenic, famously wears fancy clothes, and is not adverse to the odd outburst. She also has interesting domestic arrangements.
For years, she and her husband have lived in different countries. I have thought this strange, though one good Kinnock source tells me there is nothing fishy going on – the couple and their daughters evidently meet up regularly as part of a loving family. Indeed, if Helle were to base herself Brussels, she and her husband might almost be within commuting distance. That’s because Stephen, who also attended the College of Europe (where he had a reputation for enjoying the party circuit) looks destined for the British Parliament.
So just who is Helle Thorning-Schmidt? Her career to date suggests she is definitely pro-European, and therefore no doubt a supporter of the status quo. Like Juncker, she has since becoming prime minister of Denmark got to know the inner workings of the Brussels machine. She is an insider.
Unlike sleepy Van Rompuy, we might be treated to some fireworks from the more mercurial Dane. But in terms of policy, there is nothing to suggest she will rock the boat. She might well go down in history as the woman in the Obama selfie.
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