I represent the views of British farmers at the EU level. This involves working closely with the European Commission, Parliament and Council. A large proportion of regulation affecting agriculture comes from Brussels and it is my job to get the best possible deal for British farmers.
How did you get into public affairs? What was your first job and what did you learn most from this role?
My interest was initially sparked during my degree course when I realised that if the headline projections on climate change come to pass, British agriculture will, in many ways, be ideally placed to contribute to feeding the world. I wanted to be part of convincing others that this is the case and so my first role was in the NFU’s environment policy team. In this role I was responsible for policy relating to nutrient management. I learnt very quickly how to make this an interesting topic of conversation; introducing myself as being ‘in charge of manure’. I was coordinating a partnership project and the most important thing I learnt was about managing relationships with different stakeholders and to accept differences of opinion in a positive way.
What does your current role entail on a day to day basis?
My role is to be the political expert on the European decision making process and to act as the eyes, ears and voice of our policy experts based in the UK. This involves lobbying the 3 main institutions and working with farming organisations from the other members states as well as other stakeholders.
The policy areas I am responsible for include farm assurance, food labelling, pigs, poultry, environment, climate change, bees and organic farming. As well as knowing the detail the detail of the policies in these areas it is my job to know the key personalities and the political situation. Networking and diplomacy are very important.
A typical day includes talking to policy experts back in the UK to brief them on the latest news from Brussels, and to find out what issues are of most concern. Most days will see visitors to our Brussels office from the UK, staff as well as farmers. I help to arrange their trips and set-up meetings with influential decision makers. When we are campaigning on a particular issue it helps for MEPs and Commission officials to meet farmers to better understand the practicalities and challenges of farming in ‘real life’ and to see how farm businesses are affected by legislation.
It’s great to have a role that combines policy and politics.
How important in EU affairs is forging alliances with like-minded organisations?
Aliances are essential. There are 15,000 registered lobbyists in Brussels and countless unregistered ones. Alone we are just one of those voices so when we join up with other organisations it is much easier to be heard.
You’ve worked for NFU in London and in Brussels: what are the greatest differences between representing the British farming industry in each political environment?
In the UK it’s much easier to get our issues on the agenda because all decision makers have a vested interest. In Brussels the UK is just one of 28 member states. We recently lost a vote on an issue even though we managed to persuade all labour, conservative, liberal and green UK MEPs to support it. But the main beneficiary was the UK so it was hard to convince politicians from other member states, especially as we don’t have any UK MEPs in the European People’s Party – which is the largest party in parliament.
Which campaign/issue are you most proud to have been involved in?
I also represent the British bee farmers – bee keepers and honey producers. The plight of honeybees and other pollinators has received a lot of attention lately and rightly so. I recently worked with the bee keepers to ensure that honey was legally considered as natural product with no ingredients. This is a classic example of EU-gobbledygook as there was strong opposition campaigning for the ingredients of honey to be labelled which would have been burdensome and expensive for producers not to mention confusing for consumers.
What do you enjoy about working in European public affairs?
One of the best things about my job is that it makes for excellent dinner party conversation. I get lots more invitations than friends who are accountants!
How important is social media in an EU engagement strategy?
#very. The opposing voice is on Twitter so it’s as important to balance the scales as tip them in our favor. And it’s a great way to talk to MEPs and Commissioners about the headline issues. MEPs have never had so much power or been so visible and with Twitter it’s so easy to communicate with them.
What’s been the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
People will want to help you if they like you.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in EU public affairs?
It’s important to be culturally aware. If a German colleague asks you for dinner don’t show up late. If an Italian colleague asks you for dinner don’t worry about being on time. And remember that the British sense of humor takes some time to get used to so you might need to let people know if you’ve made a joke.
Your MSc is directly relevant to the work you do: how relevant is Degree subject for a public affairs career?
I feel very proud to be working in an area related in some way to my studies but it’s certainly not essential. In public affairs, skills are more important than knowledge; particularly communication and the softer interpersonal skills. Having an interesting degree does give you something to talk about if the conversation runs dry though, as ‘what did you study’ is an easy conversation filler.
How does euro-skepticism impact upon your work?
It is important to remember that all member states, and not just the UK, have their euro-skeptics. Something the British media often forgets. It’s another useful topic to get the conversation started – I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve had that have begun with a joke along the lines of ‘Thank you for joining us UK, but don’t you have to leave soon?’
What’s your prediction for the European Parliament Election result in May?
Twice as many female representatives (as a proportion) abroad than at home. Currently only 20% of MP are female compared to 33% of MEPs. I think this gap will grow and expect 40% of UK MEPs to be female after the election. Sadly this is as much a poor reflection of Westminster as a positive one of Brussels. Oh, and UKIP might do rather well.