EU Canoe

Confession time – I have to take my share of the blame. Back in the mid-90s I spent several enjoyable months working for the Financial Times on a ‘new media’ product – a CDRom, no less – which was all about the workings and achievements of the European Union.

It tackled the myths and misconceptions of the Union head-on, in bite-sized chunks, mixed with interactive graphics and – the height of innovation at the time – links to various ‘world wide web’ sites for those seeking more info.

I don’t suppose it was a huge seller, though I did see someone buying a copy in Waterstone’s on Gower St once, and it still pops up on internet searches, showing it being used as a teaching aid in Romania and Australia. I have a copy at home, though it doesn’t work on our computer these days. My kids pinched it in their pre-teen years, not for any incipient interest in European politics and democracy, but because one of its best features was a computer game we had great fun developing, and that we called EU Canoe. This involved paddling around the waterways of various European cities – Amsterdam, Paris, London, not Berlin – whilst avoiding the exploding hazard of sunken euros.

We called it FT Eurofile, with the pun clearly intended. Equally as clearly, our efforts of 20 years ago didn’t work. One of its other highlights, which all Brexiters would love, was an interview I did with Lionel Barber – FT Brussels correspondent at the time, now editor – about a very low profile EU institution called Coreper, the Committee of Permanent Representatives. Barber had written an article about this shadowy grouping, which could still provide material for a Eurosceptic diatribe on the insidious, hidden EU power system. I just searched for the article and found the FT had re-published it earlier this year, so it clearly struck a chord with more than me. So here we have the unelected bureaucrats that have usurped national democracy? Well, no. I didn’t think so then and still don’t. The permanent reps on Coreper are very senior civil servants (so, yes, unelected and definitely part of ‘the establishment’). But they act as go-betweens connecting national governments and the Commission. They are the very embodiment of nation state supremacy in the EU, not its antithesis. Here are some other things we failed to get across in FT Eurofile and that I didn’t hear in the debate.

  • The Commission proposes legislation but only under national government behest
  • The European Parliament is under-powered because the national governments like it that way.
  • The UK government is closer to the EU’s final position on all policy issues than nearly all the other 27 and, though outvoted more often than any other country since 2010 still voted for 87% of the laws passed (there’s the work of Coreper).
  • And that 13% disagreement could have been for domestic consumption. See these very good articles from Kings.
  • Size of the all-consuming EU civil service? We said the Scottish Office in Eurofile, but with that comparison no longer available …. about the same as Birmingham City Council
  • There is no ‘Brussels’ as a separate, autonomous power centre. It’s a mechanism for dealing with collective problems between the nation states.
  • EU policy will change if the national governments change their political outlook.
  • Corporations are multi-national and will pick off national governments more easily than they can a cross-territory governmental institution.

OK, I admit, that last one wasn’t in FT Eurofile. And a far better attempt at getting under the skin of Brussels as a law-making body than we achieved has just been produced by Swiss film maker, David Bernet. His film – Democracy (they may have toyed with putting a question mark at the end) really ought to have been obligatory viewing before the vote, but only screened once at this year’s Open Docs festival. It follows the two-year journey of an EU Green Parliamentarian from Germany, on a quest to introduce a European-wide data protection law. Bernet got lucky as the wikileaks story happened during the filming, making a technocratic exercise front page news. But the film is riveting – especially once the lobbyists and corporate lawyers wade in, from the US tech behemoths (who, irony of ironies wouldn’t agree to be filmed) to small Swedish start-ups. As one says “99% of political lobbying in Brussels is done by corporations”.

Does the very Brussels system create that – or is (was) the EU a much needed bulwark of civic responsibility, acting on our behalf against corporate vested interests? It’s difficult not to feel the latter watching the stamina of the young, committed Euro-politicians in Democracy. Yet it’s impossible not to also register who they are – educated, aware, engaged, with a steely sense of purpose. And Vote Leave could be read as a protest against the way these decisions, however worthy, are taken by this ‘elite’ – if we must call them that – on behalf of people, rather than with or by them. That’s what we now have to solve.

Where do we go from here? As it happens I still think the black box of EU law making needs opening and better understanding (watch Democracy if you can). We are gojng to be absorbed with Brussels give and take over the next however many years it takes to negotiate an exit. Meanwhile, hope we haven’t capsized our EU canoe.

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