Sunday, May 23, 2004

Myth of the week

"The EU is becoming a centralised superstate"

The central administration – the EU Commission – is tiny, with fewer employees than Leeds City Council. Some superstate!

Richard Corbett MEP


The myth this week is by way of a rebuttal of a rebuttal. This issue here is not directly whether the EU is or is about to become a "superstate", but the rebuttal used many Europhiles to counter this claim.

Corbett’s claim, quoted above, is typical of the genre. It purports to show that the EU could neither be not become the fabled "superstate" simply because of the small number of staff employed by Community institutions – commonly cited as less than a medium-sized local authority.

Interestingly, as far back as 1975, during the referendum campaign, Margaret Thatcher herself had used this argument, pointing out that there were "only 7000 officials" working for the Commission, mainly in Brussels. In later years, this number crept up to "only 15,000 officials", then "only 18,000", then "only 22,000", then "only 25,000". Currently, with enlargement, the number is approaching 40,000 but it still remains less than work for many UK local authorities.

Nevertheless – as you would expect – the argument is specious. There are plenty of historical examples of very small numbers of people dominating large populations, not least the British Raj. While not directly comparable with the EU, it is nevertheless germane to note that, at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, 300 million Indians were ruled by barely 1,500 British administrators of the Indian Civil Service, and perhaps 3,000 British officers in the Indian Army.

Excluding British soldiers, there were probably no more than 20,000 Britons engaged in running the whole country – fewer than the number of permanent officials currently employ-ed by the Commission. (Judd, Dennis [1996], Empire – The British Imperial Experience From 1765 To The Present. Harper Collins Publishers, London, pp. 79-80.)

However, referring to the actual number of employees of the Commission is misleading. On any given day in Brussels there are not only the officials of the Commission itself but also thousands of visiting national civil servants, from every country in the EU. They may work for the national representative offices, they may be on detachment to the commission or council, or they may simply be visiting for discussions – but they are all engaged in some way or another in the construction of the "project".

The commission, of course, is the "dynamo" of the project, spewing out directives and regulations by the thousands, now totalling over 97,000 pages, plus millions of pages of other documents. Looking at this output, common sense would tell you that such a small staff could not possibly achieve such levels of productivity. And, of course, it does not. The preparation of much legislation and many of the technical reports is contracted out, or otherwise farmed out to outside agencies, ranging from paid contractors, universities and other academic institutes, sympathetic think-tanks and even the growing legion of non-governmental organisations in the pay of the commission.

Much of the rest comes from other sources, ranging from civil servants of member states to an array of anonymous committees, made up from professional consultants and academics to environmental pressure groups, or commercially-funded lobbyists acting on behalf of a particular industry or company. It is estimated that there are 1600 such committees operating in Brussels, and beyond them 170,000 lobbyists of one kind or another across the EU, ranging from pan-European trade associations representing whole industries to the representatives of individual county councils pleading for a share in regional funding.

Once the legislation is produced, it must then be implemented – the task of national civil servants and agencies. And where policy domains like fisheries and agriculture are involved, the hundreds of thousands of civil servants working on these portfolios in the 25 member states are effectively working for the EU. For sure, they may be appointed by their member states, they write on paper bearing their own governments’ letterhead, and they are paid by the taxpayers of their own countries, but their activities and their functions are all dictated by Brussels. They are national civil servants in name only.

Thus, to say that 30 or even 40,000 Brussels bureaucrats are insufficient to run a "superstate" is completely to miss the point. They are only the tip of a huge iceberg. The real point is that "Brussels" acts as a nexus, the centre of a network, linking thousands of other organisations throughout the Community, not least the civil services of all the member states.

And that point was latterly acknowledged by Thatcher in her book Statecraft, published in 2002. She noted that the figure given for the commission staff – which by then had increased to 30,000 - "leaves out the much larger number of national officials whose tasks flow from European regulations". (Harper Collins, London, p. 324.) Those and the many others, amounting possibly to millions, directly or indirectly working for the project, are more than sufficient to run a "superstate".

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