What the EU is Really About

This is really rather fabulous. How the EU really works:

One of the problems with the European parliament is that it is not quite a parliament at all. Its members have no powers to introduce legislation; that is the function of the European Commission – the executive of 27 unelected grandees, one nominated by each European government (ours, a nice parting gift from Blair to Brown, is Peter Mandelson). MEPs only have limited powers to amend or block legislation in consultation with the Council of Ministers, drawn from the national governments of each member state. Beyond controlling budgets the the parliament – the only directly elected European body – concerns itself largely with talking and hoping that the commissioners, and their 16,000 civil servants, are listening.

There are, it quickly becomes clear, in my lonely press box, several structural reasons why the latter is problematic. MEPs\’ speeches are rationed according to the relative size of each of the parliament\’s 10 party groupings. Speakers are generally granted a precise minute, or a minute and a half to hold the floor. This timing is projected, in Countdown-conundrum fashion, on a pair of big screens at the front of the chamber, and policed by a chairperson with an absence of humour and a gavel. There are various strategies for expanding your minute: some MEPs try to talk very fast and cram all their thoughts in one deep Slovakian breath; others, rebels, ignore the clock and talk for a maverick 67 seconds. Most, though – unloved politicians who have scraped through national ballots with 20 per cent turnouts – carefully fill the time with platitudes in the understanding that no one is paying attention (except, on this occasion, unfortunately, me). Their role is to be mock politicians in a mock debate, providing the European executive with a semblance of direct representation. The result, through headphones, is a repetitive, intangible stream of euro-consciousness; it is only when a speaker addresses the chamber in English, 20 minutes in, that I understand nothing is being lost in translation, and my heart properly sinks.

The debate is concerned with the consequences of globalisation, which, delegate after delegate agrees, is a big issue to which Europe must face up. Many believed that this facing up was urgent. Some thought it was vital. Others argued it was critical. At one point Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck ventured the opinion that Europe perhaps needed to \’help Africa develop economically\’, (polite applause), but regrettably did not have time to venture how this might be done; Ryszard Czarnecki similarly wondered if peace could not be promoted in South East Asia, (much nodding), while Sophie In \’t Veld called for \’better legislation for women\’ (who could argue?). The big screens displayed a rolling list of the next three speakers, like a book of the dead, and in this way perhaps the longest two hours and 20 minutes of my life passed in measured increments. There were several rhetorical devices that the format mitigated against: personal anecdotes, specific examples, jokes, argument, passion, anger, thought. In their absence I couldn\’t help feeling the debate lacked a spark. Eventually, the relevant commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, rose to release those present from their shared torment. \’We have this morning created a clear focus for the Lisbon Agenda,\’ she suggested. No one laughed.

As Wallstrom talked, the majority of MEPs were coming into the chamber for compulsory voting and their tide of chat inundated her summing up. Wallstrom was caught between the rock of having to shout (very un-European) and the hard place of having nothing at all to say. When she finally sat down the speaker thanked her for her \’courage\’ in the face of overwhelming indifference.

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3 thoughts on “What the EU is Really About”

  1. I would note that, with judicious application of Occam’s Razor, where “better legislation for x” is mentioned, almost regardless of x, ‘better’ can usefully be replaced with ‘less’.

  2. The trouble with arguing that the Toy Parliament is not a real Parliament is that the inevitable follow-up is demanding more powers for it. Whereas we should simply get rid of it and the rest of the baggage and return to our own parliaments.

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