Saturday, January 28, 2006

Losing the plot

For some little time now, I have been toying with the idea of penning a letter to Margery Proops, the famous agony aunt – if she still exists. My letter would be short and to the point, couched in the following terms:

Dear Margery, I am the co-editor of a "blog" on European Union affairs, and should be writing a clinical account of the goings-on in the organisation. Increasingly, however, I find its proceedings so utterly tedious that I am struggling to find the motivation to put fingers to keyboard. Instead of writing earnest analyses, I am more inclined simply to take the p**s. What is wrong with me? What should I do?
That, however, looks like being one of those great, unwritten letters of history (there's self aggrandisement for you). Before writing it, I availed myself of my own counsel. Often enough I have warned analysts to beware of trying to distil order and coherence from a confused situation, when the reality of the situation is that it is confused. Likewise, rather than search into my own soul for reasons as to why I find the EU boring, the more simple explanation is simply that the current behaviour of the EU is, er… boring.

What brings this on is the account in The Telegraph of the great Austrian presidency extravaganza in Salzburg, its "Sound of Europe" conference, something we flagged up earlier this month.

The conference, aimed at giving "fresh impetus to the spluttering European Project", has already run into trouble, with the assembled EU worthies not even able to agree amongst themselves that there is a crisis at all, much less come to a "consensus" on what to do about it.

Thus we have that towering statesman, Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, complaining that, "To talk about a crisis is not right... Such talk (is) a distraction from problems where the EU could prove itself, such as fighting terrorism, crime and pollution."

Hilariously, French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, "in a tough speech" went on to prove Balkenende right. After attacking the "rapidity" of enlargement as the proximate cause of EU troubles, he went on to propose a list of projects to bring the bring the EU back into line. Described by the Telegraph, as "distinctly modest", these included proposals for a Franco-German border police, co-operation over bird flu, and the creation of a committee to award "European heritage" status to tourist sites.

That indeed does make my point. In a week when the EU finance ministers were tearing themselves apart over the vexed question of VAT on hairdressers and French restauranters, now Villepin is agonising over "the creation of a committee to award 'European heritage' status to tourist sites."

Compare and contrast this with another piece in The Telegraph, which reports: "EU shows signs of panic on aid to Palestinians aid".

This records how the EU's "united front" over Hamas's shock win began to fracture yesterday as governments debated whether the EU should continue Palestinian aid payments, or suspend the flow of money until the group renounces terrorism.

Then there is the account which we picked up in the small hours of this morning, where the EU is planning to delay referring Iran to the Security Council, in the hope of attracting support from Russia and China for its action – despite the obvious hazards of such a delay.

Given the monumental importance of the events in the Middle East, and the imminence of a showdown that could have devastating effect on the global economy and the political stability of not only the Middle East by also Europe, you would have thought that, at the very least, the assembly in Salzburg would have ditched their navel-gazing agenda. A more grown-up reaction would have been to convene crisis talks, if only to emphasise the gravity of the situation.

Small wonder, therefore – as my co-editor constantly reminds us – the United States is increasingly regarding the European Union and it member states as an irrelevance; marginal players on the fringes of events, bogged down as they are on squabbles about hairdressers, obsessed with questions of "European identity" and awarding "European heritage" status to tourist sites.

More and more it is becoming evident that the "little Europeans" are unable to cope with the real world and are retreating into their fantasy world of trivia and irrelevancies. You cannot take them seriously, or even find them interesting. They are losing the plot.


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