Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Squeaks of protest

What have the Brussels correspondents of the Europhile Guardian and the supposedly Eurosceptic Telegraph got in common – apart from their both working in Brussels and covering EU affairs for their respective newspapers?

The answer is that they are both mortified by the result of the Today programme poll which elevated King Barroso to the top of the poll, making him "the most powerful man in Britain" – and have both rushed into print, declaring their disgust at the result.

The Guardian's correspondent is, of course Nicholas Watt who, in today’s print edition, under the heading, "José? No way", "marvels at radio listeners' nomination for the title of most powerful person in Britain”.

Watt starts his piece with a comic (he thinks) parody, which completely distorts the relationship between the UK government and the commission, all to set up his thesis that the Today programme readers are in error. "Tony Blair is enjoying an early dip in the warm waters of the Red Sea," he writes...

…when an aide rushes out with an urgent message. "Prime minister, it's the most powerful man in Britain on the phone. You must come quickly." With no time to grab a towel, and with the worried look of a pupil summoned to see his headmaster, the prime minister rushes to the phone to speak to José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European commission. "Good morning, Mr President, what are my orders from Brussels today?" the prime minister inquires.
The vote, claims Watt, provoked guffaws in Brussels, where Mr Barroso has endured a miserable year struggling to enforce his writ in the European commission, let alone across the Channel in Britain. The finger was being pointed at highly organised Eurosceptic groups - about the only people in Britain outside Westminster to have heard of Mr Barroso - for ensuring that he came out top in the Today poll.

A line-by-line deconstruction of Watt's piece, however, would be more tedious than the original but the most egregious – of many – errors comes when the boy wonder claims that:

What sophisticated Eurosceptics know, but refuse to admit, is that the real centre of power in Brussels is the council of ministers, where elected ministers and heads of sovereign government thrash out EU deals. At last month's European summit in Brussels, which decided the highly important business of an EU budget, Mr Barroso was a mere bystander as he watched heads of government slash his proposal for a trillion euro budget to €862bn.

Eurosceptics understandably criticised the prime minister, who chaired the negotiations as part of Britain's presidency of the EU, for abandoning a part of Britain's budget rebate without winning a French commitment to cut its generous farm subsidies. But Britain's failure to secure a wholesale reform of EU finances had nothing to do with Mr Barroso, a reformer who is sympathetic to Mr Blair. It was Jacques Chirac, the elected head of the sovereign French government, who blocked the Blair plan.

The negotiations showed that Britain has, in common with the other 24 members of the EU, handed over some of its sovereignty to the EU - mainly to the council of ministers. A truly sovereign nation would not have to negotiate with other countries on how a proportion of its budget is spent.
Hilariously (you have to laugh, or you would weep), Watt has confused two entirely separate Community institutions, the Council of Ministers and the European Council. With some prescience, one of the first pieces I wrote on this blog – back in April 2004, was on the European Council, aware as I was of the confusion that existed.

But Watt avers that "pro-Europeans have been utterly hopeless in explaining to the British people that Britain has pooled some of its sovereignty to achieve a greater good," without realising the absurdity of his own statements, where clearly he is ignorant of the basic structure of the European Union.

Imbued with that ignorance, he is able to dismiss the Today poll, arguing that Barroso is "at times marginal figure," citing the egregious Denis MacShane, saying, "The notion that José Manuel Barroso has effective executive power over any European country is just silly."

This is virtually the line taken by Telegraph correspondent, David Rennie, is his first piece in is newly established blog. So ridiculous did he find the notion that his first reaction was mirth, "and to wipe up the coffee I had just spilled."

Mr Barroso, writes Rennie, does not even fully control the European Commission, let alone the UK. Around Brussels, he is seen as a decent, but rather downtrodden sort, undermined from his first day in office by a lack of support from the EU's biggest beasts, France and Germany.

With that firmly lodged, Rennie then dismisses the result as "horribly revealing."

It spoke of the worst of British Euroscepticism - that mixture of masochism and dank, resentful defeatism that wants to believe the UK has already surrendered to Brussels, turning the British people into sleepwalking vassals.
Not for Rennie, though, this "dank, resentful defeatism". He wants to look at the "big picture". The European institutional machine, he claims, has rarely been weaker. Mr Barroso threw his full weight behind two key projects last year - securing ratification of the EU constitution and agreeing the next EU budget.

And there lies Rennie’s nemesis. The European Union is not about the "big picture". The very basis of its success lies in the genius of Jean Monnet, devising what the nerds call "functional integration", the slow, steady process of economic integration, carried out small step by small step, so slowly and over such an extended timescale that it is barely noticed.

Monnet himself called the process engrenage, and it is that process which has built the acquis communautaire to its present level of over 97,000 pages of law, which has supremacy over all national laws in the fields it covers.

It is that same process that Rennie airily dismisses, in a few pithy (he thinks) phrases, thus: "As I write this, officials in the Commission are undoubtedly pushing ahead with all sorts of ill-judged or alarming schemes, that will waste public money, and costs jobs."

But this, to Rennie is just trivial detail. The real real, urgent peril facing the EU, and Britain's place in it (he thinks), comes from other EU member states, where voters are panicking in the face of globalisation, and refusing to face up to the imminent collapse of the feather-bedded, highly-regulated postwar continental labour model.

This is Rennie's "big picture", in pursuit of which he displays an ignorance just as profound as that of his Guardian colleague, a refusal to confront the nature of the integration process and the progress it has already made. Thus, to Rennie also, Barroso is a bystander. "Fantasising that he is anything else, is a dangerous distraction," writes the man.

Therein is his final, more dangerous error. The Today programme voters chose Barroso as the symbol, the office-holder who represents the whole construct that is the European Union. Rennie has confused the person with the office. Barroso personally may be a nine-stone weakling, but as the president of the European Commission and all it represents, he is a giant amongst men.

Barroso photograph by Anoneumouse. David Rennie courtesy of The Daily Telegraph..


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