The EU’s new narrative might be a rather old one

It’s become a sort of Holy Grail for the EU’s communications staff: to invent a new narrative for European integration. The EU has more or less secured its original goal (peace) and is now struggling to explain its continued purpose. What it needs, apparently, is a mobilising new story. Well perhaps the PR people are missing an obvious solution. Here it is. A political allegory for our times.

Our story starts with a plucky young woman being swept up from her small-town life in the real world and plopped down in a fairy-tale land. At first bewildered, she soon builds up her courage and sets about exploring the place. And what a place it is – full of strange sights and sounds. Etc. You get the picture. But do you also get the symbolism?

This fairy-tale country represents the “transformative landscape” of the EU, wrought by a half-century of political cooperation. And our heroine (like France’s Marianne or Britain’s Britannia) will gradually come to symbolise the collective spirit of its people. But for the moment, she’s simply a little bit lost and a little bit out of her depth. For want of a better alternative, let’s call her Angie.

Angie wants to return home, back to the real world. So she sets off in search of whoever’s in charge of this fairy-tale land. Sadly, the natives are pretty unhelpful. They are small squeaky creatures, all rather unimpressive individually (and they of course symbolise you, the EU’s citizens, when you’re not acting collectively). But eventually she meets three larger-than-life characters who want to help her.

This trio consists of: an ineffectual farmer who feels left behind by the world (let’s call him Francois); an old military man suffering a crisis of nerves (Dave, perhaps); and a cranky mechanic who thirsts for oil (probably named something Polish). Together this trio represents a traditional way of life, now threatened by the economic changes and political modernity brought by the EU.

Our trio expresses support for Angie in her mission to turn the clock back and return home. Moreover, they have a plan: they should go and talk to the powerful chap who runs the capital city, that shimmering metropolis on the horizon (let’s call it… Brussels?). And so our gang set off on their journey, the farmer, the mechanic, the cowardly soldier and the maiden.

On the way, they meet some pretty zany people. In the north, a good and pure character (let’s call her Helle) and in the south a dynamic young fellow with a good work-life balance (Matteo). In the east an evil demagogue (Viktor) and in the West another one (Nigel). Angela throws a bucket of cold water over Nigel and he melts away to nothing. Some other stuff happens.

Now prepare yourself for some more clunky symbolism. The path to the capital city is paved with solid gold. But the city itself appears increasingly nebulous the closer they come to it. Our gang, who have rather traditional tastes, grow increasingly mistrustful of this sophisticated place – more so when they hear the city is ruled by some kind of magical wizard (let’s call him Jean-Claude).

But there’s a happy ending: the ruler of the city isn’t a wizard after all. Like Angie, he actually comes from the real world. He too has been swept up from his homeland, and he badly misses the circus where he used to work. He’s small and shy, and ill-at-ease with the big-city machinery. And so we come to see that Brussels and its politicians aren’t so scary or aloof after all.

Even better, our heroine finds that she has the power to return home any time she likes. All she needs to do is to click her heels together and make a wish. Thus she understands the moral of the story (and she’s all too happy to spell this out for the reader too): the EU has not separated her from her home or her past after all – they are all part of the same happy world. Hooray.

So Munchkins, there you have it: a narrative for our times. The Wizard of Oz.

 

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Free movement and Europe’s balance of power

The path of European integration is paved with deceptively bland statements. Here are two such. The first is from a report by euro-pragmatic British MPs on the options for handling immigration from the EU’s East. British ministers, it reports, “have warned [that the option of boosting the role of insurance contributions in the UK’s welfare system] could increase the government’s liabilities to UK citizens retiring abroad”.

The second is from a think-tank report written by a French analyst: “The economic crisis has pushed Eurozone Member States to significantly enhance the coordination of their economic policies,” it states. “From this perspective, the situation in Member States’ labour markets, including the question of labour migration, will increasingly be relevant to the EU level.”

Still awake? Good. Because those two statements might just matter. Both have implications for the free movement of workers in the EU, a field shaping up to be the political battle-ground of the next five years. And both point to a subtle reordering of the continental balance of power.

But first things first. What is the UK’s gripe with free movement? London points to two problems: the disparity between East and West when it comes to wage levels; and the perceived activism of the European Court of Justice when it comes to the right of EU citizens and their families to claim welfare. The UK fears a flood of workers and ‘benefit tourists’ from the East.

Sensibly, it has been reaching out to friends – not just to Switzerland, which is talking about holding a referendum on its relations to the EU in 2017, but to its traditional partners, to Nordic states potentially worried about Poles and Romanians gaining access to their generous welfare systems on similar terms to their own citizens, and to easterners like Poland, Hungary and Romania concerned about brain drain and population loss.

The prospects for resolving these problems should be good. The underlying mechanics of free movement are robust, and the system shouldn’t really be derailed by low eastern wages let alone the Court’s bid to boost female participation in the European labour market by defending welfare rights. Quite the reverse in fact: these factors could actually give the EU a global economic advantage.

But if London wants help in addressing the challenges of east-west migration (perhaps with a new EU migration fund), it also needs to consider painful domestic reforms. One obvious option would be to make welfare access in the UK more dependent on insurance contributions. This would effectively prevent newcomers gaining full access to welfare. Moreover, it would show that the UK is genuinely committed to making free movement work.

As the first quote shows, however, the UK has shied away from this option, and its reasons are partly self-interested: any such reform might leave the UK having to foot the bill for British pensioners living on the Costa del Sol. This example of burden-shifting not only hinders British alliance-building. It strengthens France’s ambitions for Eurozone-only cooperation, hinted at in the second quote.

Free movement is crucial to the functioning of the eurozone because it allows workers in crisis-hit states like Spain to move north to countries like Germany. Eurozone countries thus have a stake in free movement which Britain does not. Indeed, to them, Britain’s focus on east-west rather than north-south migration is increasingly irrelevant. And British efforts to roll back free movement, wholly unacceptable.

For France, this potentially creates an opportunity. Paris has long supported the idea of the EU as a ‘neo-Carolingian’ project, one without the UK, the Nordics or Easterners. Eurozone-only cooperation effectively achieves this by marginalising the periphery, and could be used here to promote deeper wage and employment rules amongst core states. Paris could propose protectionist rules hostile to the UK, and watch as northerners and easterners choose between a British-style opt-out or cooperation on French terms.

Such is the centrality of free movement to current European politics, moreover, that this might herald a subtle reordering of continental power. France has spent years itching to eject the British from the EU in a bid to return integration to its rightful path. But Paris has recently come to see an advantage in keeping the UK in the bloc: reform-minded countries in the North and East are being dragged down by their association with the UK.

Germany may well have noticed this too. After years of reaching out to Britain, it now has a rationale for easing the dysfunctional UK out of the EU. After all, Berlin cannot afford to see reformers in the East and North dragged into a second tier of the EU by London – this would leave Germany trapped in an inner ring of hell. Britain’s stubborn behaviour over free movement may thus have persuaded some in Berlin that Brexit is the lesser evil.

One sign of this possible shift in Berlin’s thinking was the robust message given by Angela Merkel about the UK’s free movement agenda. Another, the way Germany has begun winning Britain’s eastern and northern allies for itself. A 4+1 format between German and Nordic ministers will shortly be rolled out, and a German-Nordic-Baltic format is gaining weight. This weekend there was the 4+1 meeting between Central European and German presidents.

Of, course this is all speculation – and rather over-dramatized too – but it should serve to illustrate a sad truth: When Mr Cameron raised the EU membership question and asked other member states what they would do to keep the UK “in”, he essentially handed over Britain’s European future to Germany and France. Should anyone be surprised if Paris and Berlin are now making up their minds whether Britain will stay or go?

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The EU’s unwritten constitution

Britain’s constitution and its political practices are famously subtle. So subtle, indeed, that the British themselves seem to have forgotten what they’re all about. The UK is all set to dump the conservative tradition of constitutionalism and throw away its unwritten rules, conventions and political theatre. And so it increasingly falls to the rest of Europe to appreciate and understand Britain’s constitutional heritage.

Continentals, accustomed to clunky formal rules, enjoy the nuances of Britain’s institutions. Some have even experienced at first hand the problems that Britain’s strange rules solve. So they instinctively understand, say, that the House of Lords co-opts powerful citizens who might otherwise act against the common good, or that the ritual trading of insults in Prime Minister’s Questions has the exhilarating purpose of bringing the PM down to size.

Why mention this? Because my hunch is that the two officials who will do most to define the EU’s unwritten constitutional practices over the next five years – Jean-Claude Juncker’s chef de cabinet in the Commission and European Council President Donald Tusk’s chief aide – have learnt by heart the tricks of institution-building which Britain’s Conservatives are forgetting. These are Martin Selmayr (alumnus of King’s College London) and Piotr Serafin (Sussex).

“Our Constitution is like our island”, purred Edmund Burke, father of British Conservatism. “It uses and restrains its subject sea — in vain the waves roar”. He was referring to the way the British Constitution responds to ideological conflict – not by creating formal rules that might perpetuate division and mistrust, but by inventing soft new practices and traditions to harness and defuse tension. This approach seems alive and well, in Brussels.

Take for example the setup of the new College of Commissioners, which MEPs will today begin debating. When distributing portfolios, Juncker faced the usual battles between big states and small (small states always worry about big ones taking over the Commission). But there was also the problem of London (make the EU more efficient!) and Paris (make the EU more generous!) and Berlin (unhelpfully quiet about its preferences). Team Juncker’s response seems really very British.

Juncker acceded to Paris’s demand for an economic post, but only after he had given other countries the portfolio where they too have the greatest national interest. (Greece got immigration; the UK got financial services.) As a result all Commissioners, including Pierre Moscovici, will now have to overcome their national interests and behave in a European spirit if there is to be progress. France has thus been neutralised and the new Commission has an ethos.

Juncker also acceded to British demands to focus on ‘efficiency’, but only after anticipating the divisions this would cause. Efficiency reforms are typically a fix between London and Berlin. Deal-making in that field can therefore destabilise a bunch of other relationships – on “fairness” (usually a Franco-German fix on the budget) and “effectiveness” (usually a British-French fix on foreign affairs), as well as triggering broader tensions in the EU between north and south, east and west.

Juncker’s solution was to wave the flag for efficiency by giving the task of ‘Better regulation’ to his deputy. (The Dutch nominee is quite literally between Germany and the UK on reform issues.) But Juncker also created clusters of Commissioners to handle fairness (‘Fairer Eurozone’ and a Commission No.4 for budgetary affairs) and effectiveness (‘global action’), whilst ‘Jobs and growth’ and ‘Climate and energy’ clusters address north-south and east-west tensions respectively.

As for Berlin, it seems to have been deliberately quiet about its preferences: with Martin Selmayr – from Bonn – in charge at the Berlaymont, Berlin presumably did not want to see the new Commission labelled too German. Securing for itself a very minor portfolio (“Digital economy”), Germany can now lead from behind, indeed from all around: in this Commission College, Berlin enjoys small-state allies in positions that cushion French and British influence.

In order to create these compromises, Juncker did admittedly have to resort to a two-tier College, comprising junior and senior Commissioners. This is something long feared by small member states. And yet, unusually, they have not complained too bitterly: not only have their representatives gained some of the top-tier jobs, they also understand that this is not a permanent precedent so much as a British-style ad-hoc fix that may be overturned in five years’ time.

Of course, this may all prove too obscure for MEPs, who like their constitutions served up with a sledgehammer. But Team Juncker can be pleased at least to have fooled the British. London seems ready to believe that Juncker’s willingness to shake up the Commission portfolios shows that he is really a “British-style reformer”. The truth is that this Commission setup is strong precisely because it is not reformist – it is deeply conservative, and in the best sense of the word. As such, it will probably weather the storm.

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Why the EU must learn to think Scottish

Opinions in the EU are split. Some people believe that the Scottish referendum result will turn the UK into a normal EU member (with Britain becoming a continental-style federation replete with written constitution and consensual coalition politics). Others argue that the result will hasten the UK’s exit from the EU (as UKIP is strengthened by a resurgent English nationalism and the Eurosceptic Conservative party is buoyed by the collapse of Labour’s electoral base in Scotland).

Either way, as London’s grip on power weakens ahead of its EU membership talks, most observers would agree that the UK has further lost control of its European destiny. But speak to officials in London and they will tell a different story. For them, the Scottish referendum battle provides a kind of test-run for the upcoming negotiations with the EU. And, when preparing to battle Brussels, these officials might just study the tactics the Scottish Nationalists so deftly employed against them.

So what lessons might your average Whitehall official draw from the Scottish Nationalists, and how might these play out in the talks with Brussels?

First lesson: be ready to drop your friends. The Scottish Nationalists avoided making alliances with like-minded politicians in Wales or Northern Ireland despite a common desire for greater independence from England. This rejection of a common reform agenda meant the Nationalists were able to gain concessions for Scotland alone. These concessions went far deeper than would have been achieved through a more inclusive approach.

EU-watchers who criticise Cameron for alienating his reformist allies in Europe (remember the debacle of Juncker’s appointment, or the way he coupled his reform agenda with an exit threat) may thus be missing the point. If the EU’s status-quo powers are comforted by the UK’s isolation and exceptionalism, British negotiators may be able to secure deeper concessions for Britain than EU-wide reform would bring.

Second, seek common ground with your enemies. The Scottish Nationalists did this quite successfully with their sworn enemies, the backbenchers of the British Conservative party. Officially, the Conservatives support the union with Scotland. But unofficially, they share the nationalists’ interest in Scotland breaking away: the rival Labour party relies heavily on support from north of the border.

Cameron has his own unholy alliance, this time with the French. EU-watchers may have laughed at the PM’s attempts to woo President Hollande, who in January officially rejected British demands for a repatriation of powers as a threat to Europe’s integrity. But unofficially, the French remain wedded to the idea of a two-tier Europe, with France at the centre of the eurozone and Britain consigned to a looser status.

Third, shift responsibility. The international community and global markets won’t thank a country for even thinking about seceding. Scottish Nationalists got round this problem nicely. They hinted that they were being pushed every bit as much as they were jumping: a hostile Conservative clique in London had made further union impossible. Of course, the Nationalists neglected to mention that they had done their bit to create this hostility.

EU-watchers criticise Cameron for allowing a potentially hostile Eurozone core to form in Europe. (Remember his self-defeating “veto” of the Fiscal Compact). But if the PM’s aim is to create a looser membership settlement rather than to make the status quo work, his approach makes sense. He can now point to the existence of an implacable eurozone caucus as justification for loosening Britain’s ties to the EU.

Fourth, ensure that every result is a winning result. Scottish Nationalists may have lost the referendum but they still secured a drastic devolution of powers. This shows that the real art of a referendum is to keep your options open and to expand your means of realising them. The Nationalists used the referendum to achieve one of a range of acceptable outcomes which otherwise would have remained out of reach.

EU-watchers who criticise Cameron for reducing the UK’s complex European options to a simple and final question, “in or out”, may thus be missing the point. The British would find a range of settlements with the EU acceptable, whether in or out, and the referendum potentially opens new means to achieve these – EU-wide reform under Juncker and Tusk, individual concessions to the UK in the course of treaty change, an exit settlement.

And finally: sow the seeds of destruction. The Scottish Nationalists’ end goal is independence. And it seems this won’t be achieved so long as the UK exists to offer an alternative to Scottish voters. The referendum process may, however, have sounded the death knell for the union. Referendum politics has discredited both the status quo and the attempts to reform it, and integrative modes of decentralising the UK now seem closed.

So will London follow suit and use any upcoming referendum process to sow the seeds of the EU’s destruction? Most people would probably agree that Britain will never be truly happy in the EU, and never truly happy outside it. But to solve this dilemma by removing the EU altogether? That seems a little drastic.

Happily, there’s no reason to believe the Brits will follow this or any of the other lessons from the Scottish referendum debate. All the same, Brussels might usefully acquaint itself with MacHiavellian tactics, just in case.

 

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Europe has poached Tusk – but what does it mean?

“Wir sind Papst” said the Bild newspaper when a German was made pope, and Poles will react in much the same way to the news that PM Donald Tusk is to head the European Council. This is national recognition, and it marks the completion of Poland’s integration into a once-closed West European club. And yet, not everyone in the EU will be convinced.

Some commentators are saying Tusk got the job only because of his friendship with Chancellor Merkel, as if German support for a Pole were somehow to be expected these days. It isn’t. In supporting Tusk, Berlin has had to overcome deep-seated fears about damaging its neighbour’s democratic development. And it has had to overcome its prejudice that CEE politicians are incapable of Brussels-style consensus-building because of their one-party heritage.

Other commentators will write this off as just another “quota appointment” – it is not a genuine endorsement of Tusk, they’ll say, but rather part of the requirement to give CEE states a job. Yet that’s not quite true either. EU leaders have gone well beyond the quota system by putting someone from a non-euro state into this key position. Moreover, Eastern and Baltic states are now producing some of Europe’s most talented politicians, meaning they no longer rely on protective quotas.

Nevertheless, there is one small fly in the ointment, and it is this: Poland and the other CEE countries have spent 25 years waiting to integrate fully into Europe’s post-Cold War order. Now, just as they achieve it, that order has begun to disappear.

The signs of its demise are everywhere. To its East, the EU is locked in Big Power competition with Russia, and a slow-down in enlargement has dented the EU’s attractiveness to its neighbours. Meanwhile in the West, member states seem to be dropping out. Scotland votes on independence on 18th September, and the UK is discussing exiting the bloc. France and the Netherlands view the EU as the disease it was supposed to cure – a source of populism, nationalism and racism.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the CEE themselves seem keen to leave the regional status quo behind. They feel they have spent too long adapting to other people’s rules, and the case of Hungary shows how this can poison their politics. Thus, although some West European commentators interpret Tusk’s deal-brokering (as opposed to leadership) post as a move to neutralise the Polish voice, in reality Warsaw & Co. are now expected to play a central role.

So what might the Polish and the CEE contribution be at this time of flux? Most speculation says that Poland will try to give the EU a harder, more geopolitical edge: more territorial defence and a classic foreign policy; an energy union and a rehabilitation of domestic energy resources; greater eurozone integration as the EU’s eastern and nordic euro-outs adopt the common currency. The European Union, in other words, will take on more of the attributes of a classic state in the coming years.

The logic behind that prediction is good. Poland feels vulnerable in these fields, and its desire to use a European umbrella could certainly trump its concerns about lost sovereignty. Moreover it still lacks experience of handling these issues domestically, leaving it open to innovate distinctive European approaches. But not so fast. There is a counterargument here too, and it derives from the simple fact that the EU is today under heavy pressure to soften such state-building.

The Union has always been split in its nature between a classic territorial body and a de-rooted political process. Whilst the former is about state-building, the latter sees the EU as nothing more than a political methodology, a cooperation process that can be applied to inter-state tensions anywhere. The EU’s model of integration has already been exported and copied in geopolitical hotspots from Africa to South East Asia, and it has been extended across Europe through various rounds of enlargement.

Some in Europe say that this is precisely what is now needed. In one radical version, the EU should no longer be permanently rooted in western Europe, but would be cut loose. Older members would reduce their bonds to the EU whilst the regional integration process spreads East, South and North, entailing more regional variation and clustering. They point to the way the UK is dropping out and to how Iceland dipped in and out of the integration process, reassuring markets with a membership bid before backing off.

Thus the EU’s state-like attributes and its assumption of fixed and permanent membership are increasingly under fire today. The deepening of EU integration is said to be creating rivalry with Big Powers like Russia, as well as slowing enlargement. It is making the EU’s methodology too particular to Europe, reducing its applicability to Asia and elsewhere. And it is alienating old members like Britain, France and the Netherlands.

If these arguments prove valid, it raises a question: will Poland, which has been trying to rejoin the Continent for 25 years, now be ready to dismantle and re-form it? Can it adapt a political system built on the idea of western supremacy to the demands of local differentiation and specificity?

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Cameron’s get-out-of-jail-free card

Had six months to prepare, but came to the table without a game-plan. Reached out to Sweden and the Netherlands, and alienated swing-state Italy. Concentrated far, far too heavily on Germany. Failed to play the European Socialists off against the Christian Democrats. Failed to put pressure on MEPs to see if they would really endorse a man with that record. Took a hard line when the battle was lost but concessions might still have been won.

The UK has clearly made a poor start to its campaign to reform the EU, straining relations with the Parliament, Commission and Berlin all for the relatively symbolic matter of the Commission presidency. Indeed the government’s efforts have become almost impossible to defend (the best the Brits can manage is “it’s not fair” – and that from a country which built a proud reputation on dishonest and perfidious diplomacy). But in the spirit of fairplay, ok, here’s a go.

First, a justification (of sorts) for London’s approach so far.

The British government had been pushing for a wholesale reform of the EU treaties ahead of a possible in/out referendum in 2017. Other governments have proved resistant however, worrying about the trend towards renationalisation, the upheaval and the inevitable round of referendums. As a result, London was forced to scale back its ambitions massively (in a nutshell: give us less free movement, more free trade) meaning that it now needs to win its voters over with some symbolic victories (hence the attempted Junckercide).

Since Germany is thought to be in favour of major treaty change but is holding off as a concession to France, London probably felt owed a favour. As for the Netherlands and Sweden, they are known to be worried about the UK’s marginalisation, and so London felt it had friends there too. Again though, it may be the symbolism that was most important to London. The British government wanted to show voters the existence of a reformist northern alliance.

Second, an explanation of how the failure to get rid of Juncker (if this does end in failure) might be a blessing in disguise for London.

It may seem unlikely now but, when the dust settles, the European Parliament may just turn out to be the UK’s main ally when it comes to pushing for treaty change. The Parliament doesn’t really fear the process and potentially has much to gain. With the UK having raised questions about its democratic credentials, moreover, Parliament may now make a point of demanding the high-profile reform path and resisting efforts at low-key ‘grey’ treaty tinkering. Cameron, currently so irritated by the Parliament’s “political autism”, may yet be saved by it.

Compare this to the scenario where the UK actually succeeds in blocking Juncker. History shows that weak status-quo candidates like Juncker are usually replaced under time pressure by even weaker status-quo candidates (Santer). And on the rare occasions when strong candidates do sneak in, they are normally more interested in their legacy than in rewarding the governments that sponsored them (Delors). In either case, they have tended to centralise power around themselves rather than defer to clusters of reformist Commissioners.

Third, a word about how all this might actually strengthen the EU.

Governments badly need treaty change if they are to make the EU workable, but they hate the idea of carrying it out. They have therefore got used to scaling down their ambitions and have tried to find back-door paths to reform. This has damaged the functioning of the EU and all but buried its democratic credentials. And it has profited Eurosceptics by shifting public attention towards constitutional issues and away from practical efforts to stop Europe’s decline.

The UK was increasingly part of this questionable trend, concentrating on cosmetic changes to disguise the EU’s lack of real development. But with the symbolic option of nominating a reform-minded Commission President now seemingly closed off, the UK is being forced back onto the straight and narrow path. With that, the momentum may fall to a club of countries, including Germany, which are not afraid of the reform-and-referendum path.

Would the UK deserve this kind of reprieve? Probably not. Would it even be a reprieve? Hard to say. But the real issue here is whether the UK will make the most of any opportunities that do fall into its lap. Instead of complaining about a lack of fairness, or stressing that they are in fact prepared to play the “Brussels game” by reducing their reform ambitions, the Brits should look for constructive means to promote their agenda.

 

Further thoughts.

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By the people, for the people?

Is there a parallel between the recent Eurovision Song Contest and this week’s European elections? EU-enthusiasts certainly hope so. The Song Contest’s “vote for tolerance and diversity” was an indication, they say, that we Europeans love each other really (except for the Russians, obvs). If our 28 electorates would only approach the EU elections in the same positive and high-minded spirit, just think what a Schulz or a Juncker might achieve as Commission President.

Funnily enough, eurosceptics also think there is a parallel. Thanks, they reply, but if the Eurovision Song Contest is really your idea of participatory democracy then you can stick it. After all, the song entry that topped many national phone-ins was secretly voted down by technocratic juries in favour of the “correct choice”. When we express a preference for metaphorical buxom Poles, they ask, is it really democratic to give us an Austrian fella in a dress?

There is a serious point trying to get out here. Protest parties across the EU complain that we are heading towards an age of “liberal totalitarianism”: Europe may have buried the old totalitarianisms of the Left and the Right, but here is a new and subtler form of social control. The Song Contest was just the latest incidence: a system established with a laudable aim (preventing voters from allotting points along national lines) is now restricting our choices for a whole range of other reasons.

Seen from this angle, the EU elections are an altogether more serious example of liberal democracy being traduced in order to constrain our political choices. Electorates are being asked to vote for a “top candidate” whom (with the exception of the Green party’s duo) they did not have a proper chance to pre-select, under a system that they did not ask for, and from a range of personalities who profess almost identikit views. There is a real sense that, just by casting a vote for a mainstream party, we will end up legitimising a liberal politburo.

But is this such a new predicament? In many ways this is just the latest iteration of the old problem of “government by the people, for the people” – the tricky task of ensuring that policies reflect the wishes of the people (“by”), but are also in their best interests (“for”). Or, in the lingo, it is about reconciling responsiveness to voters with policy-innovation and risk-taking (ie, giving voters solutions which they did not know they wanted).

Critics would suggest that the EU has so far failed at both. It has concentrated arrogantly on defining the best interests of the people, with the result that its policies are neither by nor for citizens. Renationalisation is seen as the best corrective: repatriating European power and politics would not only bring political choices closer to citizens, it is claimed, it would also encourage states to compete for innovative policies and put an end to the Brussels one-size-fits-all approach.

Under present circumstances, the case seems almost open-and-shut. But can a counter-argument be made? Might a more Brussels-heavy system like the one associated with the top candidates actually tick our two boxes? Well, yes actually.

When it comes to the first imperative, ensuring government by the people, it is worth remembering that the EU is not a simple hierarchy of powers that has Brussels at the top, then the national level, then the local. The European Union, like the US, was created by its member states and it is the member states that remain squarely at the top of the hierarchy. That means that “repatriation” does not equal “localism”.

Shifting powers back from the European to the national level does not automatically decentralise power and bring decisions closer to voters. This strengthening of the states would instead re-centralise power. And the current myths about “Brussels diktats” only permit governments and parliaments to abdicate their responsibility for EU affairs – hardly conducive to proper accountability.

As for the question of government “for the people”, healthy competition between European states for innovative policies occurs only under certain conditions. You need a strong Brussels to provide a safety-net for states taking policy risks, not to mention a robust system of free movement so that high-flyers can vote with their feet, and an overarching system that allows policy innovations to spread between very different states.

Oh, and you also need a political system where the figures in Brussels enjoy a high profile. After all, if there is no kudos attached to gaining a post in Brussels, then there is one less incentive for national politicians to compete and excel. Central Europe is a good example. The region may not have provided one of the “top candidates” in this European election, but the prospect of gaining a prestigious post in Brussels is certainly encouraging them to think of innovative policies back home.

So, will today’s top-candidate system improve responsiveness and innovation? Hell no – it’s a mess. But it is still worth engaging with the idea so that, at the time of the next elections, we are one step further on – further towards an EU system where our politicians take proper blame and credit for policies; further towards a system where European politicians compete with each other to create world-beating local models, rather than engaging in some glum “global race” with China and India setting the pace.

In short, don’t let a technocratic jury in the European Council spoil your vote this weekend.

 

twitter: @roderickparkes

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Europa seduced?

For some in western Europe, the May Day commemorations of the EU’s big-bang enlargement seem to have been a slightly unpleasant experience – a reminder of a historic blunder. By allowing Central Europeans into the EU in 2004, the French and the Dutch and the Germans altered their own way of life, bringing a harder element to their normally consensual cooperation and – worst of all – being dragged eastwards into a world of geopolitics.

“Europa was seduced” some westerners now complain. Europa, you’ll recall, was the innocent princess carried away by a white bull – a bull that later turned out to be a rather randy thunder god. Western Europeans feel a little like that innocent princess: they were swept up in the 1990s by easterners who declared a desire to adopt their advanced way of life. Ten years on, those promises have palled and the easterners have turned out to be unreformed Cold Warriors.

These tensions are neatly detailed in essays like the one published here last week (“How the EU’s ‘big bang’ enlargement changed foreign policy”). We should have been sceptical about those easterners from the start, it is increasingly suggested: easterners saw EU membership as nothing but a supplementary security guarantee after NATO. Moreover, their retrograde mind-set was clear already in 2003 when they broke the EU’s unity over Iraq and followed America into war.

And, because we did not heed the signs back then, we are now paying the price: eastern members’ old-fashioned geopolitical mind-set has reawakened the Russian bear. Worse: since the crisis in Ukraine flared up, the easterners have actually started questioning years of progress within the EU when it comes to taming nationalism and sovereignty, not to mention modernising European energy systems and, of course, promoting political cohesion.

But is this true? Were the dainty princesses of the West really taken for a ride by a bunch of thunder gods from the East? Reality is seldom that simple. Indeed, western Europeans may be reading history all wrong. The Europa story, remember, is an ancient and retrograde one. In the original telling, it was actually the thunder god who was seduced by Europa and her beauty, not the other way round. So too the EU’s eastern members seem to have been seduced by the EU.

To begin again at the beginning: easterners were not motivated to join the EU by a desire to seek shelter from an unreformable Russia. They applied because they were seduced by the idea that the West provided a solution to the problems of their troubled neighbourhood. The distinction is important: they were not cynically exploiting a bunch of western European loud-mouths, they were genuinely buying into a narrative about the End of History and unstoppable Western liberalism.

For that reason, the 2003 Iraq war should have been an early warning sign for the EU’s newcomers. It showed that the West was no longer “The West” of Cold War victory – a unified and expansionist bloc – but an increasingly inward-looking and tiered club. It was a lesson they learnt the hard way over the next decade: easterners may have joined the EU but it would be years hence before they could truly join Europe’s complacent core.

Now, in 2014, easterners are watching with disappointment as Western Europeans once again scale down their ambitions. Westerners are reassessing the norms and way of life that they once promoted as “universal”. Perhaps our post-nationalism is only applicable to established democracies of the West, they suggest. Perhaps our energy transformation is only applicable to rich countries like us. Perhaps Hungary and Romania are simply of the wrong mind-set for all this.

From an eastern perspective, therefore, it is actually the introversion of their western neighbours which has revived geopolitics in the east and undermined their own investment in the post-modern ways of the EU. Easterners may have been quick to tell the French or the Germans “I told you so” when Russia annexed Crimea, but the truth is they did not predict any of this. Rather, they had made a genuine investment in the EU as a solution to their problems, and are increasingly worried it does not in fact offer one.

So: Europa seduced? It most certainly did. And now it bears a responsibility to the enfeebled thunder gods in the East.

twitter: @roderickparkes

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Commissioners or Courtiers

The cynical politics of sixteenth-century Italy gave birth to two seminal self-help guides: The Prince and The Courtier. If Machiavelli’s The Prince provided a philosophy for an ambitious individual to establish a new regime, Castiglione’s The Courtier was a guide for anyone living under that regime, and it recommends compliance and flattery. The two books are becoming Brussels’s most hotly-downloaded Renaissance pamphlets (probably), and for good reason.

As the EU’s influence retracts, and its territories begin arguing over the spoils, Brussels is turning into a kind of antique city state. At its heart lies a body which exerts transnational spiritual power beyond the city walls and a very hard material power within them: it is the European Parliament that will emerge from the inter-institutional wrangling over the appointment of a new Commission as the real epicentre of deal-making in Brussels.

This remarkable rise may not be exactly Machiavellian, but Parliament has learnt well The Prince’s dictums, not least about adopting the mantle of religion for the purposes of acquiring power.

There have always been three realms in Brussels: the Parliament embodying the citizens; the European Council, the member states; and the Commission, the quasi-religious “European project”. But the financial crisis has seen something of a merry-go-round – the European Council appealed to the citizens, the Commission to the member states, and the Parliament to the “European project”. Five years on, that leaves a Parliament in the happy position of being accountable to no one.

That shift is underpinned by a willingness to play power games, as witnessed by the Parliament’s innovation of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten: by going into the May Euro-elections with lead candidates for Commission President, Parliament’s party-families claim to be giving voters a chance to elect an EU government. But this may turn out to be less about democracy than boosting Parliament’s hand. Parliament is simply challenging governments’ authority to pick the nominee for Commission President.

And behind all this, of course, there is the personal element. Member states’ influence in Brussels has been very much bound up with the personality of the current president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. His low-key deal-making has been as impressive as it was unexpected. But he has set the template for future incumbents, and when he leaves his post this year, governments will likely avoid replacing him with a charismatic figure, plumping instead for another “damp rag”.

If the European Council is about to lose its key personality, the Parliament’s will persist. Its influence lies with nothing so transient as a President. It is the eminence grise behind the President – the Parliament’s Secretary General – who pulls the strings. This is the man melding his master’s philosophy of power, the man with a plan for 2025, the man who – worried by the German Constitutional Court’s opposition to Parliament’s rise – has simply begun rebuilding the European Parliament on the model of the Bundestag.

Indeed, locals are quietly in awe of his next move. The Parliament Secretariat is putting in place a massive research service modelled on the Library of Congress. But, say insiders, this is not really about streamlining EU law. The new service will be filled with officials transferred from the interpreter cadre. And these useful polyglots have a simple task: to provide a justification for further EU regulation. Their chief activity will be to highlight the costs of EU inaction.

If Brussels has therefore seen a power grab worthy of The Prince himself, those gentilmen and gentilwomen keen to be appointed EU Commissioners in 2014 would do well to diligently studye The Courtier.

After all, Parliament is said to be preparing to use the Commission appointment process as a public display of its might. Parliamentary hearings of prospective Commissioners will be used to tell nominees what is expected from them. Those who do not comply will be scalped. Nominees for big posts like Catherine Ashton’s, and those from “tricky” member states (UK/Hungary), likewise. Hopefuls should therefore follow Castiglione’s advice and simper in the background while their more talented rivals are culled.

As for current Commissioners hoping to make a return, media attention has focused on the fact that many are first standing as MEPs to placate the Parliament. In fact, these Commissioners are merely hedging their bets, because even this is no guarantee of success. The Secretariat has apparently ranked the current Commissioners according to their pliancy to the Parliament over the last five years.  Those looking to avoid being scalped will have to make a public show of submission.

Despite all this, governments remain touchingly confident about getting their preferred Commission candidates in place. They say they will renegotiate a 2010 inter-institutional agreement between Commission and Parliament and break Parliament’s hold over the Commission’s programme; they will “take account of the outcome” of the Euro-elections by simply ignoring Parliament; and they will cynically slap a party-political logo on their favourite nominees and sell them to warring parties in Parliament. It is going to be a hard fall for them.

 

twitter: @roderickparkes

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Why Britain must end its snobbery towards Poland

British-Polish relations are back in the news again, this time as Warsaw asks London to engage in Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that the stakes are so high, snobbery may prove a stumbling block. Serious cooperation hardly seems possible when the British still call Poland “the Ireland of the East” (inferring a backward, emotionally-incontinent country reliable only as a source of plumbers).

And yet, this comparison does offer a glimmer of hope because, despite residual prejudices, the Irish case shows that the British superiority complex can be overcome. Not only does London now recognise Dublin as a key partner, it has even allowed the EU to act as catalyst in normalising relations (prior to accession, Britain hadn’t really noticed Ireland as an international presence).

Ten years after Poland itself joined the EU, and twenty-five after it emerged from Communism, this Visegrad state with a population of nearly 40m and a GDP of 500bn USD is ripe for a similar reassessment. But, predictably, the UK’s officials and politicians will need convincing. Many seemingly share the popular view of Poland as a junior presence in the EU and a rather fragile one at that.

One problem is that Poland is so obviously “punching above its weight” in Europe. Granted, it was a British minister who coined the phrase. But when it comes to other countries, the UK sees only pitfalls. British officials mutter that Poland’s current prominence is the result of chance – a crop of talented politicians and a proximity to Ukraine – and that its underlying weaknesses expose the whole EU.

Nor will it help Poland’s cause that the EU has been a veritable bonfire of national vanities over the years, a graveyard for states that have made a steep rise and then faltered badly. Many of these states – Hungary, Italy, Spain – would probably urge caution from London: we used to be rising stars like Poland, they will say, and just look what happened to us. Just look indeed:

Italy considered itself an indispensable member of the EU’s “Big-4” but has fallen victim to the same north-south tensions that permitted Poland’s ascent; Spain was a leader in EU foreign policy and a model of budgetary spending until its economy did for it; Hungary was the acceptable face of Central Europe with strong links to Berlin but a change of government saw it quarantined.

And perhaps these states have a point. One can deplore the way British snobbery towards Poland is making an enemy of a potential friend, but still ask the question: would it be actually responsible for a settled Western European power like Britain to enter into a firm tandem with a Central European state whose ascent may prove transient?

The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, Poland is likely to show greater stamina than Hungary, Italy or Spain, not least because it has been so meticulous in learning lessons from them. For instance: its role brokering a deal in Ukraine, at a time when many predicted the end of its privileged partnership to both Germany and France, is the result not of chance but of hard graft and long-term structural shifts.

So too is its current crop of politicians. Poland was perhaps unusual in having a well-developed opposition movement ready to take power in 1989. Unlike some other CEE countries, it did not really draw upon an international or diaspora population. Only now, with a glowing economy and its troubled recent past behind it, is it drawing in and producing properly international politicians.

The second, and deeper reason is that the power imbalance between the two countries does not preclude partnership. Precisely because they come at problems from opposite perspectives, Poland and Britain align on many issues – an effective EU budget or system of free movement. Indeed, there is speculation that they may simply swap portfolios in the next Commission (budget for foreign affairs).

More than this, the power imbalances between the pair may actually require partnership. The nature of the EU means Poland’s weaknesses are also the UK’s weaknesses. And, more pertinently, Britain’s weaknesses are now Poland’s: if Warsaw is punching above its weight in the world, this is only because London is underperforming. It is an uncomfortable position, leaving Poland propping up the EU.

In short, given the deep ties created by a globalised and multipolar world, the UK does not really have a choice as to whether it enters into a meaningful relationship with Poland – it has already done so. The UK is bound to Poland almost as tightly as it is to its closest neighbours. So yes Britain, if it helps, do please think of Poland as the Ireland of the East.

 

For a mapping of British, Polish and other national positions towards Ukraine and Russia: http://www.pism.pl/files/?id_plik=16646

twitter: @RoderickParkes

 

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