James is a longtime journalist who started his career in Cambodia and is now focussing on EU affairs at the bubble’s heart. I contacted him for a coffee and we talked mostly about his latest baby, EU Scream, a progressive politics podcast. Coincidentally, as EU Scream’s next episode would be about diversity and the importance of keeping an open mind, James asked me to participate and to give my personal insights as the *Moroccan in the EU bubble* persona that I am – although not very sure whether I represent this persona.
Last week on an early Friday morning — and I say early as anything before 10:00 is always un ‘chouiya’ too early for me, so perhaps here I do fit an African stereotype of wanting to enjoy my tranquil mornings — we met at his apartment in order to talk about Humans of the EU, about EU Scream, and about our common hope and goals of creating a new narrative around the European project. After the recording, I got to grill James with questions about his career motives, the podcast, his ideals, his childhood and even his relationship with his mother (which I found important to point out for a subjective reason that will follow).
(About his childhood)
– I grew up partly in Beverly Hills, but my parents were not in the film industry; my father was a university professor in California. The values they taught me were so different, than those of kids in my school, who were measuring themselves against film celebrities and such. Needless to say, I felt a bit out of place. Thankfully, every summer I went back to rural England and there the values were rather “Could you repair a bike? Can you climb a haystack?”
-My relationship with my mother? It has always been good. Very good. She became an inspiration to me because she managed to mix being a caring parent with making space for her to go out there and work – which was not always easy. This in itself has indeed been a model for me.
(Hint* I had initially thought about a question that would help demystify the man , and in my admittedly simplistic Freudian thinking, I tend to believe a man who respects his mother is one who respects womankind. I did not even need this question. It appeared organically through the conversation that James is an advocate of gender issues and a proud feminist. “Have you heard of the metoo movement at the European Parliament? They’re doing great!”)
(About his journalistic career)
I was interested in documentary making at first. But I’ve also always been the kind of person who likes to learn new things, all the time.
I started as a print journalist in Cambodia, helping to start a newspaper there, at the time when Hun Sen was prime minister. Funnily enough he is still prime minister today – can you imagine?
When I was out in Cambodia, I had an intense experience, having to live day by day and invent work day by day as well. This involved seemingly mundane things like making sure the Internet modem was working or checking that the print shop we were working with would not be shut down by the government and making sure our staff was safe.
By the time I left, there had been a coup d’État, so a positive outlook would be to say: oh this sounded the end of the Khmer Rouge, the pathway to peace; and so on. On the other hand, you could say that this is one of the moments when Hun Sen used the opportunity to solidify his power, as it now seems he will be pretty much ruling forever! (He laughs)
(About EU Scream)
-Everyone in today’s world is a bit of entrepreneur, so I wanted to be part of that plus. This idea that you have the same job for the rest of your life or that you’re tied to your employer is changing dramatically. The people you hang out with, can also be inspirational for you.
When I first got here I was a competition reporter, focusing on anti trust. But I noticed that many of those reporters did not – at least at first – know anything about monetary policies, or fundamental rights, or the common agricultural policy, or migration – which is another huge area of European competence. So, my point is, if you come to Brussels to just get one beat, you’re never going to get the big picture. Understanding takes time.
I’ve always been a curious person and I always loved being a journalist, but I’ve also come to terms with the fact that one always needs to reinvent oneself.
Tom and I had long talked about as podcast as new digital medium that can shake things up and challenge some stubborn narratives about Europe.
For so long, Brussels has presented itself in this sort of defensive mode. It was almost shameful to be human. This is why EU Scream is trying to have a more relaxed tone and talk about things in the way that people really talk about things, even European politics. For example, you’ll find that in the podcast at times people are swearing a little bit and that is fine! This is how people talk nowadays.
(About his anti-populism stance)
I grew up and spent most of my professional life in places with a multilateralist thinking – the idea that problems cannot be solved nationally but there will always be cross-border / transnational solutions is what you need. In a way – this is my default mechanism and I feel it is being challenged by the rise of these populists, nationalists, the national populists, whatever you want to call them.
They do threaten my ideal, yes, but they also have an internal contradiction, right?
They themselves are working transnationally – these groups talk to each other cross borders, surely some of them take inspiration from leaders across the continent like Donald Trump, so, they’re not that nationalistic after all.
I don’t see this as a confrontation but as a conversation. I wouldn’t hesitate to talk to them, but they shut themselves down! I remember, I was writing this article about the far right at the European Parliament and representatives of the French far right and the Dutch far right simply refused to talk to me. I am always open to talk!
(About Brexit – because Brexit indeed ends up being a topic in every possible conversation)
As a Brit, I now feel like I’m being expropriated, and I don’t use this term lightly! My rights are being yanked away from me, because of Brexit. But I do belong here and I’ve always felt so. That is why I decided to secure the rights that I’ve enjoyed for most of my life, with a Belgian passport. For me this was an emotional moment to have my application accepted, because I felt this was the confirmation that this is my natural home now. My home is not necessarily one place or one nation; it simply is a place where I feel at home. And this place is Brussels.