Political Editor at POLITICO Europe, leading European elections coverage
July 1st, 2019, 8 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
The second part of the interview with Ryan Heath sheds light on diversity in Brussels and how the outcome of the European elections will affect gender equality in the institutions. Ryan also becomes personal and shares what makes him happy and motivates him in life.
So, let’s move on and talk Brussels. You are very known in Brussels as an advocate for diversity, arguing that the decision-makers are not representing the diversity of Europe. Why is this the case?
Well, there is the literal fact that women and ethnic minorities are heavily underrepresented. There is extraordinary diversity in Brussels in the sense that it is a meeting place for people not only from the 28 EU Member States but from 200 countries. Now, basically, everyone has accepted that we need to do more on women. But while all the parties said we have to do this, doesn't mean it's going to happen. I still think we need to prepare for it being 12 out of 28 women Commissioners or so. But we are definitely going to get beyond 10. And that's a really good thing. I just think with all these discussions you have to push it. No one is going to give you something for free.
"I just think with all these discussions you have to push it. No one is going to give you something for free."
Do you think the age of old white men in Brussels is over?
I was really thinking this when I was coming to the interview this morning. I had to run off to the bank and there were a couple of Eurocrats. You could just tell these were men that had lived good lives, in a system where one is recruited and paid, and can never get fired. For the first decades, it was basically all men with women as secretaries. I have heard amazing women talk and just thought “Wow if you were joining the Commission now, you would not have been the Director General's assistant, you would've been the director or the director general yourself”.
We have many women's initiatives like the Brussels Binder and various women's networks. Do you think this is sufficient or can we do something else to promote change?
I think you now need the more senior people at the top and that's why I always keep talking about the Commissioners. You've got this bottom-up push that's clearly happening now. But you also need a bit of a crush from the top to make sure that it really happens. And I've been really pleased that so many of the male candidates are openly talking about it, like Manfred Weber, whatever his flaws and his faults are. He's being decent in this discussion and he's always engaged. And if he ends up becoming Commission president he's on record plenty of times, including an interview with me in April, that he will support 50 percent women - a big change. That is not something you heard in the past.
"It's really hard to demonstrate a structural disadvantage if you're blind to race. People here don’t talk about it."
You have argued in the past that the UK and the US have a more sophisticated discussion on diversity. How can continental Europe learn from Anglo-Saxon countries?
It's really hard to demonstrate a structural disadvantage if you're blind to race. People here don’t talk about it. At Politico, we did a series called ‘Brussels so white’ and wanted to do something where we basically measured how many non-white employees and Cabinet members there were. Our lawyer said we were not even allowed to ask the question. You cannot email people and ask them to identify as one race or another because, in the past, people who did that were probably trying to target the minority. The law is set up to protect the minority, but it makes it invisible at the same time. No one can truly understand the nature of the problems they might face if you don't recognize them as a community. You just say ‘Oh you're all French’ or ‘you're all Belgian’ and ‘Oh that's great if you live in Cologne’ but ‘it's not great if you live in Molenbeek’. We need to somehow face that reality.
"We make a lot of assumptions in our society about how people think and feel."
How do we teach people to coexist?
I think you have to have actual interactions with people. I would criticize myself here where I was involved in helping reunite a Syrian family in Brussels. I was really proud to do that. And then I didn't really follow up enough. I didn't become that personal support network or friend. It's just about trying to be respectful of people who are different to you for whatever reason but actually engage with them, talk to someone in a shop or at your office. Make an effort if you see someone is just so obviously different from everyone else. You don't have to talk about it directly but you can just be a nice person to them. I would say make sure that you have a coffee with them once. Make sure that you know if you notice they're not invited to things like the after-work drinks, make sure they know they are invited. Don't assume. We make a lot of assumptions in our society about how people think and feel. So don't assume that they know everyone goes for drinks on a Thursday after work or something like that.
Let’s talk a bit more about yourself. What motivates you in life?
That's a tricky one. I think I'm motivated by happiness, fun, and excellence. So, other people might think I'm obsessed about work and things like that. And I definitely care about doing a good job. But I think as you get older you also become more conscious of what you've sacrificed in order to achieve something at work and you realize, at the end of the day, no one is going to remember that you stayed at the office till 10:00 p.m. Sometimes you just have to get things done and that's an important part of your identity for keeping a roof over your head.
But 20% extra effort gives you 2% extra recognition. And you ask yourself: What did I miss out on for that? I used to write this column called “The Brussels playbook” and basically I would get up at 2.30 every morning writing it. I sacrificed a lot of quality in my friendships, definitely caused disruption in my home. I wouldn't delete those three years that were really valuable but I wouldn't sign up for another three years of that because it's too much. In the end, you forget how to live. You forget how to be a friend and all these other elements of your humanity. I think it's important to try to be excellent but you should understand there's lots of parts of life where you should try to be excellent.
"I think as you get older you also become more conscious of what you've sacrificed in order to achieve something at work and you realize, at the end of the day, no one is going to remember that you stayed at the office till 10:00 p.m."
How do you think about happiness?
I want to do things that make me feel free and happy. You want other people to be like that as well. And then fun. I get very bored by boring people if that makes sense. I want to have a joke and be real. And I don't want to live in a very sensitive segmented life where you have to be this person at work and that person at home. It's just too much effort. There's no time to have all these multiple sort of ways of being.
"It’s like 20% extra effort give you 2% extra recognition. And you ask yourself: What did I miss out on for that?"
Do you have any specific routines or habits that help you go through life?
I think I should be more structured in some of the things I do like I should say “I'm going to swim or to the gym at this hour every day”. I should do it and I don't do it. If I'm running late for some reason, the thing I sacrifice each day is the exercise. When I think about the times when I've been happy it was when I had some of those rhythms. Rhythm is important for the balance in life.
So, I think you have got to figure out what is the one thing in your life that you can't live without and then make sure you have time in your day to do it. May it be that you go to the gym or have a bath every day, or sit down with your kids. Whatever is that hour that is gonna mean the most to you.
Everyone's a bit different. For some, autism spectrum routine is super important, while other people are so carefree that it's selfish because then no one else can rely on them because they are not sticking to any schedule.
"I think you have got to figure out what is the one thing in your life that you can't live without and then make sure you have time in your day to do it."
Is there any specific book that you would recommend on anything off to topics that we have discussed today?
I am currently reading the book "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone" by Lori Gottlieb. It's the story of a therapist talking anonymously about what she learnt from her patients about how to have a better life. So, she's talking about how her job is supposed to try and help people reveal their better selves or fix their lives. And then she's talking about all the mistakes she made herself and what she learned from the patients.
The podcast I listen to most at the moment is called "Pivot" and it's by a tech journalist called Couch Swisher and this guy who wrote a book called “The Algebra of happiness”. One thing they talk about is the value systems behind tech or the lack of values in a lot of tech companies now.
I always like to leave our readers and listeners with a call to action.
Look around you. When you noticed something where you think I wish my organization worked better, then say something to someone about it. Whether that is speaking up to your boss or the person who runs your organization. And be like “we can improve this in this way” or if someone does something to you that you don't like then say “hey I don't like that”.
I think I have a reputation for just saying yes to anything. I've got to learn to be better at saying 'no’. I realize people don't hate you for it. I constantly have to remind myself of that.
Ryan is a political editor at POLITICO Europe, with particular responsibility for shaping POLITICO’s 2019 European elections coverage. Ryan served for three years as the original author of our Brussels Playbook column.
He began writing for national newspapers in his native Australia in 1999 and is the author of two books including the cult classic “Please Just F* Off, It’s Our Turn Now,” an account of how the Baby Boomers / 68er generation are viewed by the Millenial generation. After working as a speechwriter for the British civil service, he joined the European Commission working for President Jose Manuel Barroso and Vice President Neelie Kroes as a spokesperson. Ryan is a regular policy commentator on outlets such as BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and Deutsche Welle. He has reported from major events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, G7 summits and US political conventions.