Friday, 10 June 2016

No, the EU does not have 'five presidents'

How many Brits could name John Bercow, Mark Carney or George Osborne? Well these are the equivalents for three of the "five presidents" cited by Michael Gove in the Sky News debate.

During the live Brexit debate on Sky News last week, 'out' campaigner Michael Gove, the former UK minister for education, was taken to task by interviewer Faisal Islam.

Asked to back up his claims with hard facts, Gove deflected. Asked to name notable experts saying the UK would be economically better off outside Europe, he demurred. But he could tell he was on to a winner when he distracted from the questions by turning to the audience and asking them a question himself, "There are five presidents run the EU. Can you name them all?"

There was an awkward silence from the audience, and from Islam. No, it turns out, nobody could name them. Since then the Leave campaign has ran with this 'five presidents' line, and the British media has heralded it as an excellent point for the leave camp (The Guardian called it a "superb" moment for Gove in the debate).

There's only one problem - it's completely bogus. 

Just because there are a number of people with the title "president" in the European institutions does not make them all comparable to the "president" of the United States, France or Russia. But this is what Gove is implying.

It's hard to tell which five 'presidents' Gove is referring to. This Metro article assumed he meant the presidents of the European Commission, European Council, European Parliament, European Central Bank and Eurogroup.

The confusion seems to have arisen because of a document called the "Five Presidents Report", which was published last year by the President of the European Commission and the heads of four other EU and Eurozone bodies. It's a report setting out a strategy for shoring up the Eurozone, which the UK is not a part of because it does not use the euro. Despite its irrelevance to the UK, the Leave camp has been pointing to it for some time as evidence of a plan to set up an EU super-state.

But they seem to have taken the title too literally. This is a report by five people who happen to have the title 'president' in different bodies, some of which are technically not even part of the EU.

Ceci n'est pas un president

Let's dissect how absurd it is to classify these people as the EU's "five presidents", shall we? First of all, the president of the European Central Bank is a position akin to the Governor of the Bank of England. I don't think anyone would classify Mark Carney as the "leader" of the UK, and I'm certain 95% of British people could not name him. He's not even British (he's Canadian).

The president of the Eurogroup is the national finance minister who chairs the regular meetings of all the finance ministers from the 18 countries that use the euro. The British equivalent would be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. I'd venture to guess that 60% of British people could not name him.

In any event, neither of these people have any relevance to the UK because the UK isn't in the eurozone! So these two men have no power over the UK economy and have no dealings with the UK.

Then we move on to example number three, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz. Though sometimes he might pretend that it is more, this position is only a ceremonial one. It's the equivalent of the UK Speaker of the House, currently John Bercow. How many British people do you think have ever heard of him?

The EU has two presidents

So that leaves us with the two men who actually head the EU - Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. They are the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission, respectively. These are the actual leaders of the EU. 

There are two, Mr Gove. Two. One heads the Council, which is the 28-member body up of the leaders of each EU member state. The other heads the Commission, the 28-member body made up of independent people nominated by the leaders of each member state.

And yes, the fact that the EU has ended up with this strange two-president system is a source of handwringing here in Brussels. It wasn't meant to be this way. The position of President of the European Council was only created in 2009 and was at the time talked about as being the "EU President" - singular case. 

For a while Tony Blair was being considered for the role. But in the end they chose a light-weight, Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium. The first person to hold the office would shape the role, and Van Rompuy's consensus-driven style and low profile ensured that the role was hobbled. In fact, that's the reason the big member states, including the UK, chose him. They didn't want one powerful EU president, because it would challenge member state authority.

So the President of the Commission, which until then had been the de-facto 'President of the EU' maintained (under Barroso) and increased (under Juncker) the prominence and power of the Commission president role. And that's why we ended up with two presidents.

There is of course another possibility. Perhaps Gove did not mean Eurogroup President Joroen Dijsselbloem, who is also the Dutch finance minister, as the fifth president. Perhaps he meant the rotating presidency of the EU's Council of Ministers. 

But that is not a person, that role is held by a different country every six months. At the moment (by coincidence) it is held by the Netherlands. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is not the "President of the Council of Ministers". There is no such title. There is a "Presidency of the Council of Ministers", which is held by a country, not a person. So if Gove meant this, he is even more confused (or disingenuous) than I thought.

No knowledge, no government?

There. Honestly, was all that so complicated? Then tell me, why is it that nobody in the British media can take 15 minutes out of their day and spend some time on Wikipedia to get caught up on this stuff? Why is it that nobody at that Sky News debate called Gove out on his incredibly misleading claim? "Hold on there Gove, those five people aren't the leaders of the EU, they're just five people who happen to hold the title of president."

Nope, nothing. Instead I've seen this "five presidents" claim repeated ad nauseam in the British print and television media. Does nobody in the UK understand how the EU actually works?

And even if these actually were the "five presidents" of the EU, why on earth is people's inability to name them a reason to dismantle the EU itself? I guarantee you that the vast majority of Americans could not name the President, Speaker of the House, and Supreme Court Chief Justice (the heads of the three branches of US government). Does that mean we should dismantle America? Burn down Washington? 

What exactly is Gove's point? Are we to celebrate the ignorance of the British public as an example of their moral character in the face of a creeping European super-state? I'm not sure how to interpret Gove's argument, given that this is the man who in the same debate asserted "the British public has had enough of experts".

Perhaps Gove just doesn't like the word 'president'. It's so French, it reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution. Really, Cameron should have made changing the EU's title nomenclature part of his renegotiation.

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