The curious tale of Julian, the last King of Brussels

Anadolu Agency / Getty Images / WIRED

Julian King has no time. Weeks away from the end of his mandate as the EU commissioner for the Security Union, his days are as crammed as ever. A printout of King’s diary says that in half an hour he’ll scoot to Brussels Airport, en-route to London. There, while everyone will be gulping antacids ahead of Boris Johnson’s last-ditch attempt to clinch a Brexit deal, King will be attending a meeting of European intelligence agencies. Intelligence is one area in which – “as you know,” King flatters me – cooperation is expected to go on, whatever happens with Brexit.

Think of a hot-button technology issue: online radicalisation; counterterrorism; fake news; cybersecurity; 5G networks safety. There is a good chance that Julian King is the EU official in charge of that issue. And yet King is a man running out of time. He’s already survived two Brexit extensions – maybe three? – but King, the most powerful Briton in Brussels, could soon be swept away by Brexit.

We are sitting in King’s Berlaymont office, decorated with unthreatening Cool Britannia gusto – plush Union Jack cushions, Queen and corgi pictures, a poster of the Berlin Wall. King, 55, bespectacled, silver-haired, in a periwinkle shirt, rattles off a summary of his last three years in the post. A young assistant conveniently called Julian takes notes as King talks.

“It was a privilege to be asked to work here. It was a challenge to be asked by the president [Jean-Claude Juncker] to work on the security issues. They were clearly very pressing issues,” King says. He speaks at a fast clip, but with all the fluency and fastidiousness of an expert diplomat. He rarely pauses. He brooks no interruption.

“I’m not saying all the stuff we’ve done, by any stretch of imagination, is perfect. But I do think we’ve made real progress both in the counterterrorism work and perhaps in particular the cyber work,” he says. I take notes for follow-up questions, but my brain starts wandering. It goes back to a sentence from a talk King gave at Cardiff University, in 2017: “My gran used to tell me that if there’s an elephant in the room, it’s a good idea to address it at some stage, otherwise you’ll get trampled,” he had said, with an affable smile. I cannot stop myself from grabbing the beast by the tusks: How hard, I ask, has it been to be the last British EU commissioner – possibly ever?

“None of the things I just discussed are relevant to being the last – potentially the last – British commissioner,” King says, his tone ever-so-slightly brusque. “I don’t sit here thinking: ‘What did potentially the last British commissioner contribute as the last British commissioner?’ I don’t think like that.” He yanks the conversation back from the unavoidable spectre of Brexit.

The Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP via Getty Images

It is hard not to think about Brexit, in general; it is even harder on the day I meet King. It is October 16. In about 24 hours, prime minister Johnson will attend an EU Council summit to finally decide whether a Brexit deal can be agreed, thus averting the UK’s crashing out on October 31. A copious, stubborn rain pours down on Brussels when I stroll near the European Parliament’s whalish glass edifice. People stream in and out of the building, amongst them a platoon of pro-second referendum British MPs, in town for meetings on the eve of what could be the conclusion of a three-year-plus rigmarole. Outside, metres away from a garden decorated with statues of ostriches drilling their heads underground, a dozen Catalan activists, some dressed up as inmates, are protesting against the prison terms slapped upon pro-independence politicians by a court in Madrid. Nothing, short of a few reporters delivering their pieces to camera, suggests that Brussels is bracing for some momentous breakthrough.

That changes when I make my way to the Berlaymont, the seat of the European Commission: in front of the entrance, two men wrapped in EU flags are shouting anti-Brexit slogans. One of them says that they are from the UK, and they are here to urge European leaders to derail Brexit. I tell him I am about to meet Julian King. He says he doesn’t know who that is. I tell him. He hands me a leaflet depicting a blue dove garlanded with the EU’s stars. “Give it to him,” the man says.

But you’ve probably never heard of Julian King either. Fact is, not many people have. King’s ascension took place when everyone was too busy to care. Following Leave’s victory on June 23, 2016, over in Brussels, Jonathan Hill, the British EU commissioner for financial services, announced his resignation. That was partly down to diplomatic courtesy – having a commissioner from a Brexiting Britain in charge of such a sensitive portfolio as finance looked iffy – and partly to convictions: Hill, a Eurosceptic Remainer, would go on to found pro-Brexit organisation Prosperity UK.

That left outgoing prime minister David Cameron in need of a new commissioner, which every member state is obliged to nominate regardless of their long-term plans to leave or remain in the club. On July 6, 2016, Cameron announced his nominee: a seasoned civil servant, who at the time was serving as ambassador to France, and whose CV included past stints in Brussels, an ambassadorship to Ireland, and the directorship of the Northern Ireland Office. His name was Julian King. King was assigned the Security Union portfolio, a brand new role whose loosely defined mission was to help member states collaborate more effectively on countering international crime, terrorism and other security threats.

He took office in September, following a hearing in which he promised MEPs, in faintly accented but perfect French, that he would “serve the general interest of the Union, and only the general interest of the Union.” (Independence from the home government is required of every EU commissioner.) In some way, King was the living punchline of Britain’s travailed relationship with the EU. The UK’s politicos and media had spent decades railing against unelected bureaucrats in Brussels ensnaring Britain in something that amounted to much more than the economic project the country had bargained for. Now that the country was poised to exit the group, the most influential Brit in the EU was a French-speaking unelected civil servant with no political affiliation, lots of experience on Northern Irish affairs, and a heartfelt enthusiasm for the European project, who would spend the next three years weaving member states’ security networks closer together.

“Julian King is the Security Union, and the Security Union is Julian King,” says Camino Mortera-Martinéz, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER). The syllogism means that King, as the first Security Union commissioner ever, has profoundly shaped his portfolio; it also means that, without Brexit and King’s surprise takeover, the Security Union’s portfolio would have never existed, and its multiple components would have been managed by several commissioners, rather than unified under King’s umbrella. “Without Brexit, the Security Union would have remained a nice sentence in official documents,” Mortera Martinéz says.

But in retrospect, Juncker’s decision made a lot of sense in 2016: security was one of Britain’s strong suits, and one in which the country was interested to forge some kind of partnership with the EU post-Brexit – perfect for the last British commissioner to oversee. More importantly, recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels – both orchestrated by members of the same Brussels-based Daesh cell – had painfully exposed the lack of counterterrorism cooperation and information-sharing within the EU.

“The European Union had been designed as essentially an economic project, and security issues remained the job of individual countries,” says Guntram B. Wolff, director of Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. “What was being done under the label of Security Union was an attempt to improve information exchange, improve databases, improve coordination on counter-terrorism matters,” he continues. This kind of cooperation has been historically hard, as some security services do not necessarily trust other member states with their data. “There is skepticism that that data will be well-treated, will not be used for improper purposes, that it won’t not be – can I even dare say – sold to the Russians,” Wolff says.

Whatever the challenges, “improving information and intelligence sharing” was the top item of King’s to-do list, and his first few months in office were chiefly devoted to that task. His team pushed for a strengthened Schengen Information System, allowing EU border guards enhanced screening tools; they proposed to “close the information gap”, with the creation of a single European search portal pulling information from across various EU security databases; they made sure – “through a mixture of hand-holding, helping, funding, cajoling and just occasionally twisting people’s arms,” King says – that nearly all member states implement the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive, an EU law aimed at aiding the identification of dangerous individuals flying from Europe.

“King took over a very complex portfolio at a very difficult time for EU-UK relations, but instead of keeping a low profile, he stayed laser-focused on his portfolio,” Mortera-Martinéz says. “He put in a lot of work in understanding every detail.”

That’s not to say that there were no misgivings. Shortly after King’s appointment, Guy Verhofstadt, a Liberal Belgian MEP famous for his anti-Brexit tweet-taunts, spoke to Politico questioning the wisdom of entrusting the Union’s security to a British person, given the UK’s tepid attitude towards deeper integration. In the same article, an anonymous EU official suggested that King’s “direct line with London” was the reason why he was not energetic enough in pushing for bolder, faster-paced reforms. (“Bof,” is King’s response. “I have never taken any particular instructions from the UK government.”) Another piece of criticism was that King’s portfolio had no real purpose other than keeping the British commissioner busy, with the side effect of interfering with the work of other commissioners, and of other figures such as the head of Europol or the EU Council’s counterterrorism coordinator.

“There were two main concerns, initially. One, plainly, was that he was British, and Brexit had just happened. The second was that there seemed to be many overlaps with the work of [Dimitri] Avramopoulos [the Greek commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship],” says Laura Ferrara, an Italian MEP for the Five Star Movement, who worked with King as a member of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties (aka Libe) Committee. “Over time, however, he convinced even the most sceptical among us.”

Yet King, apparently a quick study, swiftly found his footing. And as time went by, new threats emerged that allowed King to carve out a new his role for himself: as the world was waking up to the darker side of the internet, King became the EU’s chief moderator. “People initially misunderstood what security was about,” says Claude Moraes, a Labour MEP who chairs the Libe Committee. “There was a sense that this would be all about British security assets, intelligence, policing. But the reality was King stumbled into an area that was actually about digital.”

In a January 2017 interview with the Financial Times, King warned that the EU had been the target of a slew of cyber attacks. He wasn’t only talking about hacking attempts against the EU institutions’s servers, but also of online attacks aimed to “undermine the trust in our democracies”. In other words: fake news.

The world was two weeks away from Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, and the full scale of Russia’s influence campaign during the US presidential election of 2016 was just starting to emerge. US special prosecutor Robert Mueller would later confirm that Moscow-backed propaganda accounts had spread false and inflammatory content on social media in a bid to favour Trump and damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Many in Europe feared that something similar might happen across the continent. King and other commissioners dealing with digital matters, started working out a plan to counter disinformation and misinformation – Kremlin-originated or otherwise.

The plan, unveiled in mid-2018, adopted a multi-pronged approach – combining the coordinated exposure and rebuttal of disinformation campaigns, media literacy and fact-checking initiatives, and pushing internet platforms for action. In September 2018, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Mozilla and others signed a voluntary Code of Practice committing them to standards of integrity and transparency about political ads, to tackling inauthentic accounts and reducing the visibility of misleading content, and to periodically reporting on their progress.

The EU parliament election in May 2019 was the first big test of the plan’s effectiveness. Internet giants made great fanfare of abiding by the code – Facebook even set up a “war-room” in Dublin – even if behind the scenes it had been trying to soften such guidelines. All in all, according to King, the elections went well. “There wasn’t a big, major attack. I can’t prove a negative, but I think that we did make the elections a much harder target for a big coordinated attack,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean that the European parliamentary elections were a totally disinformation-free zone: far from it. There was lots of disinformation, which we’ve reported on, which we’re going to report on again. We need to maintain the momentum in our work with the social media platforms, because they’re the vectors, the carriers [of disinformation].”

In a post-election analysis, the London-based think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue concluded that “the Code of Practice was only partially and poorly enforced by the tech companies that signed up to the commitments. As such, it didn’t succeed in protecting the elections from disinformation activities,” Chloe Colliver, the ISD’s digital research lead wrote in a statement. “The EU should move towards more stringent regulation of tech platforms to protect against these kinds of threats.”

Of course elections were always going to be tricky: organising them is a prerogative of individual member states, which limits EU institutions’ room for intervention. King had to stick to moral suasion, strategic communication and a lot of ex-post tech-bashing. More aggressive action against specific types of political content would likely have elicited objections from European governments and political parties – some of which make abundant use of the techniques first pioneered by Russian trolls. “We have never set ourselves up here as the judges of whether a particular piece of political speech is good or bad or indeed true or false. That is a form of censorship,” King says. “So we focused on shining a light on these activities, boosting transparency around it.”

In other, less politically touchy domains, King has not shied away from energetic action, even at the cost of controversy. He was the driving force behind an EU law proposal that would require online platforms to remove terrorist content within one hour of being notified by the authorities, under penalty of fines of up to four per cent of their global turnover if they do not comply.

The proposal, first floated in late 2018, followed a troubled and drawn-out process. Some MEPs worried that the rule might threaten freedom of speech and hurt smaller platforms which for staffing reasons could be unable to respond within the one-hour limit – and might turn to automated filters to stave off the fines.

“My impression was that DG Home [the EU department in charge of home affairs, also backing the proposal] and Julian King weren’t really interested in having a discussion about fundamental rights. It was all very sort of law and order,” says Julia Reda, a former German MEP for the Pirate Party, who opposed the regulation. “And my impression was that King was also using his position as specifically the British commissioner to put pressure on the parliament rapporteur who at the time was [British Conservative] Dan Dalton.”

In March, after months of to and fro – and shortly after a terrorist in Christchurch had live-streamed his murderous spree on Facebook – King had publicly accused MEPs of trying to “delay and time-out” the regulation. Dalton, who as the rapporteur was in charge of shepherding the proposal through parliament, retorted that the Commission was prone to dismissing any scrutiny of its proposals as “wasting time”. In April, the parliament approved the proposal (308 votes in favour, 204 against and 70 abstentions), which now will have to go through further negotiations before being officially adopted. King says that not having reached a final agreement on the one-hour-rule before the end of his term is one of the regrets of his mandate, although he is confident it might happen later this year. If the regulation goes past all the hoops before the end of the presumed Brexit transition period, in December 2020, it might become part of British law.

King holds a Security Union press conference in July 2017

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

A great deal of experts from research institutions and think-tanks focused on EU security and cybersecurity declined to comment for this story, on the grounds that they did not know enough about King or the Security Union. That is bemusing.

King himself obliquely addressed the matter in his 2017 interview with Politico, saying that he preferred to work behind the scenes and did not care for headlines. Claude Moraes, Libe’s Chair, agrees that it might be a matter of personal style – “Julian is a trained diplomat” – besides the fact that King joined the Commission two years after the others, and that the name of his portfolio isn’t particularly catchy. Another reason might be that King is a glitch. His is a one off portfolio that didn’t exist in 2016, and is destined to disappear once he finishes his mandate. Exhibit A: Ursula von der Leyen’s upcoming Commission won’t have a Security Union commissioner.

Then, of course, there’s Brexit: in the UK, it seems – maybe rightly – to be the only lens through which the public takes notice of whatever happens in the EU; in the EU, Brexit has – maybe rightly – resulted in a British loss of cachet. “I think a lot of this has to do with the decline of the UK in the EU,” says Wolff, the Bruegel director. “Had Julian King been appointed as Security Union commissioner while the UK stayed in the EU, I’m sure things would have been very different.”

Moraes concurs. “Our image in Brussels has been dominated by the kind of opposition [to the EU] embodied by Nigel Farage, as the British representative,” he says. “In different circumstances, Julian would have been constantly lauded.” (Of course, without Brexit, Julian King would now be sauntering on the perfectly manicured lawn of the British embassy in Paris.)

The few Kingologists I could get a hold of all concur that his relative obscurity is not a sign of irrelevance – quite the contrary. Of the 22 Security Union laws proposed under King’s stewardship, 15 have been passed and one was in the final stages of approval at the time of writing. Lucinda Creighton, a senior adviser from the Counter Extremism Project NGO says that King has “grasped the nettle”, often tapping into his diplomatic skills to build consensus among all the EU institutions around new regulation. “He came in as somebody who really wanted to put his mark on the commissioner job and to make it relevant,” Creighton says. “He wanted to create something of a legacy, and I think that that with at least two, three [measures he sponsored] he’s come very close to having done that.”

CER Researcher Mortera-Martinéz underlines that King himself played a key role in spurring the EU to confront the cybersecurity dossier much more decisively. “He was the person who first put cyber at the top of the agenda,” she says. “He spent a lot of time going around telling people about cybersecurity, disinformation, 5G security.”

If anything, King was sometimes criticised for trying to be too consequential, pursuing too much, too quickly: in a recent report for CER, Mortera-Martinéz notes how some civil society organisations lamented that the sense of urgency to act on matters like migration or terrorism had led to the approval of measures whose impact on areas like EU budget or human rights was not fully assessed.

I often found myself wondering why King is putting so much time and energy into this, given that the UK is presumably going to leave the EU in the near future. Industriousness and a good salary only go so far as explanations. Moraes suggests that “a great sense of service” is another reason; he also says, as nearly everyone who knows King, that King is a committed Europhile.

Several have indulged in quirky details about King’s preparedness for leaving, once – if – the UK finally manages to extricate itself from the EU, musing about King stashing his personal effects in a cardboard box, and marching through the Berlaymont’s doors at the midnight hour of Brexit day, whenever that is. But this image of King as the last Raj official folding a Union Jack to the sound of “The Last Post” fails to consider that once King leaves the Commission, he will probably just hail a taxi home. After a recent Twitter dig at Boris Johnson, it is hard to see King going back to working for the Foreign Office. His Danish wife, Lotte Knudsen, is a high-ranking EU official, and while King is not a dual national, he has had a home in Brussels for the last 30 years, and does not anticipate that changing anytime soon. In a way, the answer to my question is that he has also been building the Security Union for his family.

Of course, there is a further wrinkle in the story – and that is that the UK might actually benefit from the Security Union in some way. As things stand, both May’s and Johnson’s Brexit deals would result in the UK’s losing access to some crucial security cooperation tools, such as the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System, and the European Criminal Record Information System, while remaining a member of the PNR system. But much of the future security partnership will be decided in further negotiations during the withdrawal period.

Mortera-Martinéz says that finding new solutions is going to be tough, given that most security arrangements hinge on all the partners being members of either the EU or Schenghen (such as Norway) – and the UK would be out of both systems unless it softens its Brexit position considerably.

That said, some kind of partnership could be thrashed out – as long as the UK leaves with a deal. “One of the reasons why I sincerely hope that, if Brexit is proceeding, it takes place on the basis of a deal is because that would allow us to then work on the future relationship – and that is an economic but also a security relationship,” King tells me, shortly after I mention a recent anonymous memo suggesting that Number 10 plans to threaten member states who back an extension with retaliations on security cooperation. (King refuses to comment on anonymous memos.)
“The people who are trying to do us harm aren’t actually particularly targeting one country or another country. They’re targeting our way of life, how we live together in our communities, and our values. Those are shared values between the United Kingdom and the other members of the European Union.”

When I ask King what he will be doing in some five weeks, he has no doubt. “I will be an ex-commissioner,” he says.

That might not come to pass. Boris Johnson refused to nominate a new commissioner for the von der Leyen Commission, which starts its mandate on December 1. But following another Brexit extension is granted, he might be forced to do so – and in that case, just reappointing King would be the easiest solution.

Of course, the alternative would be the UK leaving before it needs to appoint a commissioner. The day after I meet King, for some long hours, it looks like that might be the case. As I walk by the Berlaymont ahead of the EU Council meeting – reporters perched on curbs and traffic islands, armed policemen pacing near barbed wire barriers and cement cubes – the news breaks that Johnson and the EU might have reached a deal that would allow Brexit to go through before October 31. Eleven days of parliamentary wrangling later, a new three-months Brexit delay is all but a certainty. Will King ever be allowed to stuff his cushions and picture frames in that cardboard box? Or will he be forever stuck, the most powerful Brit in Brussels, in his airy Berlaymont office?

More great stories from WIRED

😰 Say hello to the huge climate problem no one is talking about

🏙️ Inside the sinking megacity that can’t be saved

💰 Meet the economist with a brilliant plan to fix capitalism

🎮 Long Read: Inside Google Stadia

🎧 Expand your mind with the WIRED guide to the best podcasts

📧 Get the best tech deals and gadget news in your inbox

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkdin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment