Friday, 4 March 2016

Good at the big things, bad at the small things

Eurosceptics are wrong when they say the UK has no influence in the EU, but they are right that Britain is outgunned and outmanoeuvred in Brussels lawmaking. What they don't tell you is that this is self-inflicted impotence.

When the new European Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker took office in 2014, they promised to counteract increasing euroscepticism by being "big on the big things and small on the small things". In other words, no more 'Brussels meddling' in small issues that should be left to national governments. 

Of course, they had a British audience and an upcoming Brexit referendum chiefly in mind. Years of media reports on bendy bananas and 'Anglo-French Friendship ponds' have led to an impression, generally accepted as gospel in the UK, that eurocrats like legislating for legislating's sake. The Commission's 'better regulation' drive is meant to counter this impression, whether or not it's an accurate one.

As I've written before, these UK media outrages over small regulations are not really about the laws themselves, but about who has the right to make them. The regulations being complained about in the British media, when they are actually a real thing (which is maybe 40% of the time), would attract no attention at all if they were made at Westminster. 

So, for instance, when the British press went into a tizzy over new ecolabels for toilets, I was at a loss as to what the problem was. So too for the outrage over new ecolabels for vacuum cleaners. These regulations surely would have been adopted nationally if they weren't implemented at EU level, and if they were it would have attracted no attention. And yes, sometimes an EU regulation goes awry (like the strange olive oil incident of 2013), but no more often than national regulations do. 

These EU regulations and directives are routinely painted as being put in place by 'unelected bureaucrats in Brussels'. The reality is that they were usually voted on by directly-elected British members of the European Parliament and representatives of the British government. 

As the Brexit debate has become more nuanced, some Eurosceptics have finally acknowledged that yes, British officials and elected representatives are involved in EU law-making. But, they say, the UK has little influence over these laws in practice because the system is stacked against them. Even if elected officials are at the table when these policies are made, they are powerless to stop them.

This is patently false. The UK has a weighted vote on almost all EU laws that is proportional to its size. Whether or not it exercises this power to get results that it would like, depends on whether we're talking about the big things, or the little things.

Enlargement and liberalism

The EU, we are told by the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, has morphed into something entirely different from what the UK first joined in 1972. "In the 28 years since I first started writing for this paper about the Common Market – as it was then still known – the project has morphed and grown in such a way as to be unrecognisable," the Mayor of London wrote in the Telegraph. 

He may be right about that, even though the writing was certainly on the wall in 1989 about the confederal intentions for the project in the long term. If Johnson, then the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent, didn't see them, then he wasn't paying very close intention. 

But it should be pointed out that many of the transformations which made the EU unrecognisable were at the request of, and as a result of the significant influence of, the United Kingdom.

Take enlargement for instance. One of the most 'unrecognisable' things about the EU today are its borders, and that expansion probably wouldn't have happened without the prodding of the UK. Britain has been the biggest champion of enlargement to the East, in the face of caution from France and Germany. If the UK had opted to leave the EU in 1992 when the Maasricht Treaty was signed, I doubt we would have the 28 member states we have today. We would probably have a core group of 17 states, and an 'association agreement' with Eastern and Central Europe.

It is strange to me that I so often see enlargement blamed as one of the 'problems' of the EU in British media and political discourse. It was the UK that insisted on this enlargement! It is the reason that London is virtually the only EU capital still insisting that Turkey eventually becomes a member state. It almost certainly never will, but this is the only enlargement battle that the UK has lost.

The other big-picture area where the UK has had a huge influence on the EU is in free trade. The UK has been the champion behind free trade agreements with countries like Korea, Japan and Canada (and the impending one with America). British influence in Brussels has resulted in significant EU-mandated liberalisation in areas such as transport, telecoms and finance (for better or worse).

It is amusing to me that the British media so often portrays the EU as a Socialist destroyer of free enterprise dominated by the French, while the French media portrays the EU as a Capitalist neoliberal plot dominated by the Anglo-Saxons. Surely, this should be a sign that both countries have significant influence on the big-picture issues.

Britain is bad at Brusseling

But the Eurosceptics are right when they say the UK is routinely outmanoeuvred in the day-to-day lawmaking that goes on in Brussels. As Johnson notes, the qualified majority voting introduced in the European Council made the voting power of the UK slightly disproportional to its size (in order to give small countries more say). 

But this applied equally to other big member states like France, Germany, Poland and Spain. The system was put in place out of respect for the importance of nation-states, so that small countries couldn't be constantly outvoted by the big ones. (In any event, under the Lisbon Treaty this will end in 2017, and we'll be back to exactly proportional voting).

What Johnson doesn't mention is that while other countries like France and Germany have learned how to win allies in order to make votes go their way, the UK never did. The British perm rep is probably the most reviled in Brussels (well, these days perhaps second to Hungary). They are notoriously terrible at building alliances. Even when they manage to do so, like with the partnership that had been developing with Poland, they usually manage to muck it up by demonising that country's population for domestic political gain (for instance by removing benefits for Polish immigrants, which has enraged the Polish government and broken the alliance).

That's in the Council. The situation is even worse in the European Commission, the EU's executive arm which initiates legislation. The UK is at a huge proportional disadvantage because they have such a hard time getting British people to join the Commission's civil service. In 2004, the proportion of British permanent officials in the Commission was 9.6%, already far less than the UK's proportional population of 12%. By 2014, this had fallen to 4.5%. 

By comparison, the proportion of officials from France, with a population roughly equivalent to Britain's, is 13%.

This is partly due to the requirement that applicants must speak at least two EU languages to join the Commission, and English-speakers tend to only speak one (the subject of whether one really needs more than English to work at the Commission is a fiery debate I often get into in Brussels). But this can't fully account for the problem because the Irish are proportionally overrepresented in the Commission (Brussels is rife with them).

Looking at the discourse around 'faceless eurocrats' that goes on in the UK, it's no wonder young British people don't think about Brussels as an attractive place to start a career. Contrast that with Ireland, where it is considered very prestigious to go work for the EU institutions. My British civil servant friends tell me that they're made to feel ashamed about what they do when they return home.

And what about the European Parliament? There, the UK also handicaps itself by tossing out a huge proportion of their allotted seats with a protest vote. In the 2014 European election British voters chose to give 24 of their 73 seats to UKIP members, who usually don't show up to vote as they don't support the Parliament's existence. 

Of the 49 seats the British are left with, 19 are taken by the Tories, who effectively castrated themselves in Parliament lawmaking by defecting from the Parliament's main centre-right grouping the EPP, in 2009. They formed a protest bloc with a rag-tag group of Eastern European and Nordic far-right parties that wields little to no influence in the Parliament. The 20 Labour MEPs are, frankly, not very effective either, sitting fairly marginalised and uncomfortable in their Socialist group and holding few senior positions. That leaves one Liberal Democrat, three Greens and two SNP members who actually get anything done.

Self-inflicted impotence

So yes, the UK punches below its weight in Brussels. But as you can see, this is not an institutional handicap. This is self-harm. This is a result of the British not taking the EU seriously. They're just bad at the game here in Brussels, because they don't try. And they leave others like France and Germany to dominate the table.

But history has shown that when the UK wants to shape the direction of the EU on the big issues, be it enlargement, free market capitalism or foreign policy, it has the clout and influence to do so. It wouldn't be so hard for the British to exert that same effort into the day-to-day lawmaking that happens here.

I still have hope that the British will not vote to leave the EU in June. If that is the case, then please, can we say this 'are we or aren't we European' question is settled? If the UK decides to remain in, then it's time to take EU lawmaking seriously. Stop demonising the EU institutions so that young British people will want to go work there. Start electing real candidates to the Parliament. And start putting the same effort into forging political alliances in Brussels that you would in Westminster or at the UN. 

It's time to grow up, Britain. You can do this.

1 comment:

Enda said...

Well said Dave! You've hit the nail on the head concerning so much about the UK relationship with the EU and the tendency of people in the UK to see themselves as other than European. Politicians are mostly to blame for this attitude, going home and constantly blaming "Brussels" or "Europe" for forcing some horrible regulation on them when in fact they have been in the room when the very regulation has been discussed. However its not just in the UK that this happens, all politicians speaking to a national audience are guilty of it to a greater or lesser extent. By the way the number of Irish staff in the EU institutions is declining as many approach retirement and less and less are applying to join even though the Irish language can now be used as a second language in the concours. Of course once you join you do need to obtain a certain level of French or German in addition to English despite the fact that nowadays English is predominating as the daily working language.