Friday, July 16, 2004

The presidential sofa

One of the central criticisms to have come out of the Butler report was of Blair's style of management. He has been accused of presidential rule, running a "government by sofa" with a coterie of unelected advisers.

But all this does is simply reinforce the impression that cabinet government during Blair’s tenure has been on the decline.  Very few commentators have sought to discover why.

In fact, the sofa - and armchairs - were a feature of an earlier form of government. In the mid-1970s, heads of state and government of the then nine member states of the EEC used to meet in Giscard d' Estaing’s drawing room in the Elysee Palace for informal summits.  While they discussed the affairs of Europe, they sat on sofas and armchairs – and even on the floor – around the fire.
 
At that time, these leaders had very little collective power but, in the years since, the power of the EU has increased vastly, as have these "summits", which have been formalised as an EU institution known as the European Council. They are now gigantic affairs, fully minuted, with ranks of advisors and attendant ministers, issuing official communiqu├ęs which are soon to be styled "European decisions".

With something like 80 percent of member state laws being made at EU level, huge tranches of policy are now decided at the European Councils to the extent that they have, in effect, become the superior cabinet, ruling over all the member states.

It cannot be a coincidence, therefore, that as the European Council has assumed the role and powers of a cabinet, from its humble beginnings of a meeting of men around a fire, it should have become more formal. Conversely, as the British cabinet has declined in power and influence, is it a surprise that it should end up as a meeting of people around a sofa?

This is something that Butler did not comment on, but some months ago, the Sun newspaper did, publishing a photograph of the leaders of the 25 member states of the newly enlarged EU, assembled for a European Council meeting. Its caption ran: "Meet your new cabinet".

The Sun apart, most of the media have not realised this. They do not understand that the governments of what were once foreign countries, now acting either through the Council of Ministers or the European Council, collectively form our government. For them, the workings of these governments are still "foreign news".

This is why this Blog takes such an interest in these governments, and will continue to take an interest. That task, incidentally, has been made a little bit easier with the discovery of a new Blog, Euro Savant, which is monitoring some of the foreign language media that that these authors are unable to do. The latest post on the meeting between French, German and Polish finance ministers is well worth a read.

Neverthless, the Lord Butlers of this world, and the serried ranks of the media, do not even begin to realise that we are now living under a regime so different from their preconceptions that they have not even noticed the changes. It is in this and other Blogs like Euro Savant, that the real story of what is happening to our governance is emerging.

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