Sunday, August 08, 2004

Think again Byers

One really does wonder whether ministers past and present really understand what it is they are dealing with when they talk about the EU and the EU commission in particular.

In the Observer today, former transport minister (failed) Steven Byers is pontificating about the commission needing a "radical shakeup" to combat complaints that it is "remote and out of touch".

Byers wants national parliaments to approve or reject programmes from Brussels before commissioners start work on them, apparently as part of a "softening-up" campaign of tackling grievances about the EU in the run-up to the referendum on the European constitution.

If as Byers advocates, individual commissioners publish manifestos detailing their draft programme, which would then have to be debated and cleared by national parliaments first, the commission would cease to function as a supranational government, changing the whole character of the Union.

All Byers is demonstrating by this is that he himself is "out of touch". The exclusive power of initiative is central to the very nature of the EU, and the commission is no more likely to give it up than put back all the asbestos in the Berlaymont. Not least of the obstacles is that a major treaty change would be necessary, and that is not even on the agenda.

Not content with that piece of nonsense, Byers has another idea for his "fantasy Europe". He suggests that Commons committees should be able to interrogate commissioners, as they do ministers. But anyone who has seen EU parliament committees doing this will know full well what a charade this is.

The strategy is well established and cynically transparent. First you have a sympathetic "chairperson", who is able to make sure the "right" people are picked to ask questions - and also allow for the token antis (just to prove they are "democratic").

Next you pack the committee with patsies who can be relied upon to "soft-ball" the commissioner. Then, you take questions in blocks of five, so the commissioner can "cherry-pick" the bits of the package he/she wants to answer.

You also impose a time limit on the whole session, and let the commissioner waffle on as long as he/she likes, until time runs out without any of the awkward questions from the token antis being answered. And, of course, supplementaries are either not allowed or severely curtailed.

The whole thing is a sick charade and if Mr Byers thinks that replicating it in the country is suddenly going to inspire the nation, he is indeed living on another planet.

But such is his tenuous grasp on reality that he seems to believe precisely that. These "reforms", he tells the Observer, would give the government "a chance of persuading people that Europe provides us with a partnership from which we can benefit, and not a conspiracy against us".

From my experience of guiding visitors around the EU parliament, and letting them watch the procedures, the opposite is likely to happen. The more exposure people have to this dire organisation, the less they seem to like it. Perhaps Mr Byers should think again - assuming of course that he is capable of thinking which, on current evidence, is a pretty wild assumption.

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