6000 working groups during the Swedish Presidency!? What do all those meetings do? That’s the question posed by Open Europe. Undoubtedly there is a cost, and a financial burden, posed by this number of meetings but – frankly – what is the alternative? Let’s take the Working Party on Olive Oil stated by the Open Europe blog entry. I’ve never been to that particular committee but at a guess it would be advising on what the guaranteed price an olive oil farmer would be paid for a litre of olive oil in the Common Agricultural Policy, and also analysing evidence of any health or contamination issues in olive oil.
Now, Open Europe, if 27 Member States at a working group are not dealing with these things then who would take such decisions? Well, that would be the European Commission. So as Open Europe actually wants a EU better controlled by its Member States then they should actually favour the existence of bodies such as the Working Party on Olive Oil.
Now there’s the wider issue of whether the EU should be regulating olive oil or not, but if the EU is in the business of doing that then there have to be the systems to allow decisions to be taken.
But of course with Open Europe (which claims to be a ‘think tank’ – not that you would know) they first and foremost want to have a little while about bureaucracy. Forget any analysis of why there might be need for working groups, oh no, that wouldn’t fit the agenda now would it?
Jon – nice to see you rant on this!
NM – I agree with pretty much all of what you’ve written above.
Thanks to Iain Dale’s blog, I learned today that what I’ve always thought of with my EU-speak hat on as “subsidiarity” can indeed be the same thing as “localism” if referring to something proposed in the UK!
I’ve long had an issue with the “thought” that a thinktank like Open Europe actually puts into its critique of the workings of the EU, particualrly its handling of the Council of Ministers.
It’s always annoying when you see something that you know a bit about treated so… weirdly… (Small rant of my own here: a few months back it produced some preposterous figure of the number of people that worked for the Council.
I can only assume it included all of the national experts – for which read subject-specialist civil servants as while “expert” is a job title in Belgium I’ve had some problems explaining that in the UK – in capitals working on the issues which Council working groups were discussing.
They’d clearly never ever even bothered to speak to anyone that had been to a Council meeting but given the numbers they were talking about that in itself should have been quite an achievement!)
The Council has a website that’s not very user-friendly, it has working groups that are not open to the public and the televised parts of Council meetings tend to be the bits where matters have already been more or less settled and are uncontraversial to the participants.
Does it matter?
If you consider the Council to be the upper house of a bicameral decisionmaking process (known as co-decision), then that’s not very satisfactory.
Perhaps slightly less so if you consider the discussions slightly more akin to international treatymaking a la the United Nations which I’m not sure are televised, open to the public etc. (I guess you could see the processes used for foreign policy and cooperation in criminal matters that way?)
Or you could argue that there’s little point in making the Council’s workings more transparent because the Council side of EU business is more like civil servants trying to put together a selection of options for a Minister (based on an original draft by the Commission), which the Presidency in that sort of Miniserial-figurehead capacity then takes forward to the European Parliament in the style of a Minister presenting a bill to the UK parliament. It is then discussed, debated and voted on in the EP as any UK government bill would be in Westminster. It’s not how I see it, but I guess some people might.
But while annoying and opaque as the Council undoubtedly is, it’s not necessarily sinister.
There is a question about whether the EU needs to be doing everything it is doing (and if it is not to do it, what the consequences will be), but attacking working groups for their frankly daft titles is not the same as deciding whether the work they carry out is important or useful. And Jon is right to ask who would be doing the things they do otherwise.
As far as I recall, I think that for the UK Presidency of the EU (July-December 2005) we estimated 3000 working group meetings. This was a huge undertaking even given the size of the administration in the UK. To double that for the Swedish Presidency is an incredible feat, I mean is the public sector in Sweden really big enough to support the work that goes into these things?
And also the meeting rooms in the Justus Lipsius building were chokka with just the 3000 UK-chaired meetings. For that reason alone, I am really not convinced that all the meetings mentioned are full-on interpreted formal meetings. If they are, then the Swedish civil service would be wise to expect a lot of stress-related sick leave – we were on 14 hour days for most of the year ahead of the UK Presidency just trying to handle what sounds like half the workload.
The commenters who say that the EU has torn down politics and put bureaucracy in its place may have a point.
But politics is more than just people with two opposing views slugging it out two swords lengths apart as they do at Westminster.
It’s also the art of finding compromise between the opposing views, and that’s something the EU has encouraged the Member States to do in a spirit of peace and cooperation for over 50 years now.
Trooper – where do you get that the committee in question is telling anyone how to *make* olive oil? Jon’s suggestion is that it probably helps ensure that Italian olive farmers get a fair price, I’d say that there’s also probably some element of ensuring that consumers *pay* a fair price, as well as of quality control to ensure minimum standards – but that’s hardly the same as telling anyone how to make olive oil. (And, in any case, none of us actually know what this group does, so we’re all just chucking our own prejudices and preconceptions onto a body about which we know nothing – this is revealing far more about our political opinions than it is about the EU…)
You certainly have a point on the subsidiarity issue, and will hear no arguments from me that more decisions should be taken at a local level (and when I say local, I mean *local*, not national). But some central oversight is always going to be necessary in any system with lots of people who are all supposed to be getting the same deal, lest resentment build up. Think the uproar over the “postcode lotteries” in the decentralised NHS, only on a continent-wide scale, and in every area of life. Some central oversight is vital for any free trade bloc to ensure that the market is not being manipulated (cf. the WTO).
Are you seriously suggesting the Italians, as one example, need a committee in Brussels to show them how to make olive oil? I bet they have a committee for teaching grandmothers to suck eggs as well.
If the EU was true to the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ it would immediately dissolve 95 percent of itself.
“The EU is basically about taking politics away from the cut and thrust of public contestation – decisions arrive fully formed, sorted out by the “experts” for our passive acceptance”
The EU tears down politics and puts bureaucracy in its place.
“The EU is basically about taking politics away from the cut and thrust of public contestation – decisions arrive fully formed, sorted out by the “experts” for our passive acceptance.
So efforts to “communicate” the EU are rather one-sided, often sounding like a long-suffering, rather pompous or prissy, grown-up telling a troublesome child something for their own good.”
There is urgent need of change here, but in a way these problems have kind of been institutionalised. The media in particular has shown no initiative in reporting on proposed legislation, unless there are rumours that fit the anti-EU agenda of some papers, so there’s no way for informing the population at large of up-and-coming legislation so they can try to influence the process if they can. There needs to be a way of reporting developments to reach a mainstream audience, which would force the politicans to debate the more bread-and-butter side of the EU. Of course, it’s hard for the media to report on a process rather than an event, but perhaps there should be more incentives and (dare I say it) statutory duties for more invesigative journalism? Importance of the fourth estate and all that. A lot of national political systems could benefit from this too. The internet can never really fulfill this function.
As for the EU “communicating” itself, it is woeful. And in its current form it always will be. The EP can’t elect the Commission, so EuroParties can’t offer change or attract much interest; the Commission isn’t directly elected, so they don’t have to sell themselves to the public; the member state governments have no incentive to disturb their cosy position; etc. So there’s no reason or oppertunity for anyone to debate or sell or explain the EU. Any attempt for the Commission to “communicate” itself is done through surveys and focus groups – like most governments, really, except there’s no opposition to dispute the claims and explain counter claims – it all just gets painted propaganda. It might well be proaganda, but it’s stifling even the smallest possibility of the debate if it’s jus dismissed and not examined.
Yeah, so…. I picked up on what I wanted to rant about anyway…
There is money via the European Journalism Centre for blogging.
I think there is an audience for critical and reflective thinking on Europe – and the EU. Not necessarily big but good. I am a big fan of sites like Spiked.
One of the fascinating things, I find, is how little we really engage with European politics, in terms of knowing or getting to grips with it in countries like Germany or even Ireland.
No clue… I don’t get any cash for this blog, and I get a tiny amount of cash for the EJC / Think About It project. But it’s not close to being enough to live off… this is still very much a hobby for me.
> a growing trend to give money to “bloggers”
Who’s giving money to bloggers – and why aren’t they giving any to me, the bastards? Years – YEARS – I’ve been doing this, and the only cash I’ve got directly out of it was from openDemocracy, who in turn got it from Stanford University. (Hardly overly European, that…)
Or do I need to apply for a grant or something? Or move to Brussels?
On the general lack of interest front, I worked out a while back that my monthly readership is probably something akin to that of the print versions of European Voice and The Parliament Magazine. And as I’ve said many, many times, no one’s interested in the EU. (Unless it’s supposedly trying to ban something, that is…)
Sorry. I meant EuroparlTV. The EP website is a good institutional site.
Not sure about the EP site overall, but Europarl TV’s stats are shockingly low for such a high budget effort. More here.
The problem of the EU on the interweb is that it tends to be:
+ A circle-jerk (I think you once said Nosemonkey) for sad, head-banging Eurosceptics and Europhiles. Margot Wallstrom’s blog is a good example of this kind of mutual ejaculatory forum.
++ EU funded “informationals”, including a growing trend to give money to “bloggers”. This seems to be more therapeutic, it makes the world of officialdom feel good, that it is with it some way. It is very rarely adversarial.
+++ EU websites that no one reads. Europarl’s viewing figures, are I hear, truly awesomely dreadful. I might do a little blog later
The EU is basically about taking politics away from the cut and thrust of public contestation – decisions arrive fully formed, sorted out by the “experts” for our passive acceptance.
So efforts to “communicate” the EU are rather one-sided, often sounding like a long-suffering, rather pompous or prissy, grown-up telling a troublesome child something for their own good.
On the other hand, most Eurosceptics are trying to breathe life into the corpse of old nationalist ideologies, such as High Tory Conservatism or old Labour.
Most use the EU as a form of affirmation or as a site of conspiracy theories. Again it’s all rather icky and masturbatory or plain therapy for the hopelessly irrelevant, cranky or unpleasant.
I wish it was more rabble rousing – I agree with DK there.
DK – since when have you been “sensible”? 😉
“Now there’s the wider issue of whether the EU should be regulating olive oil or not…”
I’m so glad that you inserted that caveat…
“It’s the same populist strategy that brings us “British MPs are supporting ridiculous/abhorrent proposal y”, when proposal y is merely an Early Day Motion, and so utterly meaningless and with no chance of making it into law.”
Yes, yes; it will not make it into law. But if said EDM is deeply unpleasant and an MP supports it then they should be excoriated for doing so: after all, one extrapolates that, all things being equal, they would still support said abhorrent measure if it was proposed in a manner that would make it law.
“Come on, next you’ll be asking the anti-EU lot to provide examples of what impact British withdrawal from the EU will have on the UK economy beyond “we’ll no longer have to pay £[hugely inflated guesstimate based on little factual evidence] to the Brussels bureaucrats, so we’ll be far better off”.”
An odd statement, this one. You know perfectly well that there have been a good number of studies done – and by respected economists rather than UKIP MEPs – on the impact of leaving the EU.
However, I will acknowledge the point that you have made before – that benefits would only accrue if the majority of the EU laws were removed from the British statute book. I think that one has to assume, however, that any government that has the political balls – or the single-mindedness – to take this country out of the EU would also have the imperative to start to dismantle the EU-imposed/inspired laws.
“… and that the few sensible anti-EU types that there are out there have a tendency to drift into populist rabble-rousing at the drop of a hat.”
Guilty as charged… 😀
Bruno – sure, you can have sensible anti-EU types. In fact, I’d say that the vast majority of anti-EU and eurosceptic people are eminently sensible, basing their aversion on a combination of the far less than satisfactory reality of the organisation and the minimal likelihood of serious reform. My biggest gripe and frustration about this blogging lark is that such sensible eurosceptics seem to be a rare breed on these here internets – and that the few sensible anti-EU types that there are out there have a tendency to drift into populist rabble-rousing at the drop of a hat.
This is always my problem: I’m interested in the theoretical side of politics, but can’t stand the way in which political discourse is conducted – especially when I get sucked in to doing exactly what I hate in others and making broad generalisations about an entire political group based on the stupidity of a small group of noisy fringe extremists. Grrr…
Fair points both… 🙂
It’s just when I read some things it’s like a red cape in front of a bull.
Good on the Swedes for even crunching this number.
It would be more interesting to ask what the working groups all are, who is on them, what is on their agenda and why the proceedings are often or always secret.
The same questions can be asked of the myriad committees in Whitehall (often containing the the same people sans their European counterparts) and wider quangoland.
These people are the “experts” of officialdom, ranging from senior security or police officers to financial services and agriculture policy wonks.
The default position to such institutions and people should be adversarial – however I agree that people should not make it up (this is something that both the Europhiles and Eurosceptics do quite frequently while bending the stick for propaganda purposes).
Btw Nosemonkey, I know ad hominem argurments are tempting, but one can be anti-EU without being a “better off out” or a Eurosceptic.
One can be anti-state without being anti-democratic.
European cooperation and integration are good things but on the basis of accountability – the first principle of which is to conduct politics in public.
Come on, next you’ll be asking the anti-EU lot to provide examples of what impact British withdrawal from the EU will have on the UK economy beyond “we’ll no longer have to pay £[hugely inflated guesstimate based on little factual evidence] to the Brussels bureaucrats, so we’ll be far better off”.
Far easier to make swift jokey attacks on one of the myriad tiny details about which nobody knows anything than come up with a coherent, viable alternative. It’s the same populist strategy that brings us “British MPs are supporting ridiculous/abhorrent proposal y”, when proposal y is merely an Early Day Motion, and so utterly meaningless and with no chance of making it into law. Or, indeed, the old “the EU is planning to ban x” stories that repeatedly crop up in the eurosceptic press and on the anti-EU blogs, where “the EU” can be anything from a single MEP who has tabled a motion through to an entirely independent lobbying organisation that has sent the Commission a draft proposal.
The next step, of course, is to challenge any pro-EU types who happen to wander past to defend whatever it is the EU is accused of doing this time (usually in ridiculous detail, or else they won’t be satisfied), despite having provided little or no clue as to where the scare story originated in the first place. And then, when the passing pro-EU type points out the entirely sensible explanation for whatever it is that’s got them in a huff this week, they’ll shunt the argument onto a far more general withdrawalist case that’s impossible to argue against thanks to being based on little more than emotion and speculation.
Note to think tanks: You want an independent report writer/editor to counter your institutional/ideological bias and make your public offerings slightly less worthless? Let me know.