Saturday, January 16, 2010

From Brussels with more fudge of the theatrical kind

The new Europe is marching or, to be more precise, it is now “hearing”. Reference is made to the on-going hearing proceedings of commissioner-designates before the European Parliament. Having passed the written “test” (reply to some basic questions), nominees have been invited to take their "grand oral" (confirmation oral exam). Auditions can be watched on Europarl TV, the C-Span à la EU that no-one really watches - except EU watchers. Quid these proceedings? Democratic and transparent or just more fudge?
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Eurobarometers, no-votes and low elections turn-outs have consistently indicated that the two actors (Commission and Parliament) now involved in the proceedings do not enjoy a high level of trust among the peoples. The failure of the ratification of the Constitution (2005) and its reappearance in the form of the Lisbon Treaty (a near identical document) without direct public consultation (except Ireland) further exposed a bureaucratic and political élite united in deep mistrust of the citizenry. As Professor Ian Ward put it in no uncertain terms; “the new Europe is fundamentally undemocratic” (1). Short on legitimacy and popular support, the élite needs to create its own legitimazing processes. Hence the mediatized “accountability” play now being performed between Brussels and Strasbourg with a script written by EU élite for the EU élite. A popular audience is not essential. Besides the populace has the Eurovision song contest.
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Indeed for those with a taste for the theatrical, the "Barroso II" play has all the necessary ingredients. High flying rhetoric of values to be upheld and goodness to be bequeathed on citizens, twists in the plot and surprises. The latter came from Stefan Füle, the Czech nominee for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, with his stance in support of Turkey’s membership. In a bloc led by a Franco-German directoire, his honourable opinion on a sensitive issue will not influence policy-making a bit. Yes, in the EU size does matter. As the polity becomes more centralised, some member states are seemingly becoming “more equal”. A little drama was provided with two commissioner-designates (Lithuania and Bulgaria) flunking their audition. Tension, tit-for-tat exchanges between political groups and accusations of “witch hunt” ensued. Gripping. For the internal market portfolio Michel Barnier's solemn declaration to the MEPs that he would not take orders from Paris was so, well, moving.
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After the politburo-esque appointments of the European Council president and foreign policy chief, few are happy in fortress EU. Behind the wall (the other Europe), the Kremlin is probably satisfied. Quizzed on the Ukraine-Russia gas crises, Baroness Ashton stated her determination to “put pressure” to ensure that the Moscow leadership saw “these issues in an economic way not a political one”. By its very nature, the “siloviki regime” (2) can only see it as both. The “securocrats” in charge have repeatedly demonstrated that they have little time for EU moralising, Sakharov prize winners (arrest of Lyudmila Alexeyeva of NGO Memorial), and that territorial integrity in its “near-abroad” (EU neighbourhood) is to be determined on its own terms. In the final analysis, a google search will yield more information on the bloc's foreign policy than the hearing. Type: “quiet diplomacy”, "soft power" or "energy dependency".
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Most pundits have dismissed the process as largely ceremonial. It is also incredibly dull. The formula chosen for the proceedings has a lot to do with it. The “one minute for questioning” and “two for answers” format reflects the utterly “managed” nature of debates taking place in the European Parliament. A more adversarial process like the one used in the US Congress committee hearings might have given the publics a chance to experience the frisson of politics. But that is not the EU way of governance. Add to the equation, uninspiring orators (the quangocrat kind), technical subjects and interpretation, you have a recipe for boredom. Furtermore it is clear that the nominees’ grasp of issues pertaining to their portfolios cannot be seriously tested within such contraints. On the positive side, it provides EU watchers with a window to discover the candidates from nations other than theirs.
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European citizens have not bothered to watch the carefully choreographed proceedings. Who can blame them? Some observers have dismissed the whole affair as a “stitch-up” between member states governments and the EP. Indeed nominees were carefully chosen to appease the main political groups. And so, for that matter, are the words chosen by the Commissioner-designates. Everything had to be "regulated", "greened" and "socialised". In truth, the hearings are a façade, a show for "public" consumption. No-one is trying very hard to dismiss this evidence. Yet few would admit that the real drama is taking place in the “behind-closed-doors" (wherever that is) so characteristic of the EU supranational decision and policy-making process. Thus rest assured that the consensus-building machine is now busy at work in that "public-free zone" where since the onset of European integration, a culture of “secrecy” has prevailed despite the rhetoric of "transparency”.
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The more powerful Parliament is flexing its muscles. Will it seize this occasion to block the Commission and risk a political crisis after the Lisbon ratification saga? The final act will be played in Strasbourg. Whatever the dénouement, for the euroligarchy the full Lisbon-isation of Europe cannot come a moment too soon. Commissioners "designated" can therefore start looking forward to a mandate of hard work but also a lifestyle of privileges and high salaries (€20,000 monthly+ allowances) (3). Living in the EU bubble, they will enjoy the kind of isolation from the publics once experienced by the top echelon of the Soviet nomenklatura.
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In times of crisis, eurocrats love to pontificate ad nauseam about the principle of solidarity (4). Let us see if the new "vanguard" can lead by example and show some towards the toiling masses by tightening their belts (dropping the controversial 3.7% pay-rise). But as the former Marxist activist and new foreign policy chief said, idealism is for the young.
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(1) Ward Ian. A Critical Introduction to European Law, p. 19
(2) Illarionov Andrei. “The siloviki in charge”, Journal of Democracy, April 2009, Vol. 20, No 2
(3) Regulation No 422/67 EEC
(4) TEU, amended by Lisbon Treaty, consolidated version, preamble paragraph 6

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