Geoff Hoon - Creative Commons / Flickr
Geoff Hoon - Creative Commons / Flickr

I have a simple rule for my own blog: I don’t write about things I don’t know something about. So there’s no US politics here, and nothing about the credit crunch – others are much better qualified to write about those sorts of things.

Oh how I wish print journalists would follow the same approach!

There’s an article in The Observer today about the UK’s nominee to be a member of the next European Commission that is so dreadfully, achingly inaccurate that it makes me want to scream. It’s written by Toby Helm, ‘Whitehall Editor’ for The Observer. Maybe he better stick to his coverage of Whitehall…

So why is the article so bad?

Hoon, a former Europe minister and member of the European Parliament, is likely to be offered the four-year post later this year

No, wrong, Commissioners serve 5 year terms of office. Helm might have looked at the Wikipedia page for Peter Mandelson to discover he took office in the Commission in 2004, and the term lasts until 2009 – 5 years.

…taking over from Lady Ashton, who has been filling in since Peter Mandelson was recalled to the cabinet in September

Well, no. Baroness Ashton is not a stand-in – – her position has precisely the same legal status as Mandelson’s did. Plus Mandelson was not recalled by Gordon Brown – i.e. Brown could not force Mandy out of the Commission. Mandelson was invited to return to UK government and chose to resign from the Commission. Member States cannot – legally – recall Commissioners. If in doubt have a look at Article 213 TEC.

Senior figures in government say Hoon’s nomination would be expedient because of delays to the timetable of nominating commissioners – which would normally start in late summer – caused by Ireland’s second referendum on the Lisbon treaty last autumn. This means the next batch of European commissioners are unlikely to take up their posts until the end of this year or the beginning of next.

“This would mean we would be close enough to a general election for us not to have to call a byelection in his seat [Ashfield],” said an insider. “We do not want to have a byelection for obvious reasons.”

This is horribly wide of the mark. The conclusions of the European Council held last month state: “the Irish Government is committed to seeking ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon by the end of the term of the current Commission“, so that’s by 31st October 2009, the formal end of the term of the current Commission. No delays, no messing around. OK, Ireland might vote No again, but that’s another question entirely.

Then think about it further… Is Ireland going to hold the referendum in the winter months, November or December? Highly unlikely. Is the UK going to hold a general election within 3 months (or so) of 31st October 2009? Almost impossible. Also Article 214 TEC states that the Commission term shall be 5 years, no provision for delays. Plus Hoon has a majority of more than 10000 in his constituency – Ashfield. If Labour can hold Glenrothes, when why not Ashfield?

How, how, how can a major UK newspaper get away with publishing something that is so completely and utterly rubbish? No wonder the UK population is bewildered by the EU when paid journalists cannot even be bothered to do a bit of basic research about what the rules are.


  1. Oh, and if you care about the lack of democracy in the Commission have a look at Anyone But Barroso.

  2. In a rush, so just one point: the EP does have real power over this, it’s a codecision dossier. Problem is that the EP talks rather a lot to itself, rather than to the populations of Europe… and the party political dynamics are fiendishly complex. They have power on this one, not sure it’s used sensibly.

  3. ‘As for whether this helps the EU… Not sure. I assume your argument is that if the population knew all the theoretically mendacious things the EU was doing it would like the EU even less?’

    Well, yes. And they’re not ‘theoretically mendacious’ as far as I’m concerned. You say that liberalisation of the postal services (and let’s just call it privatisation, which is what it truly is) has been argued about in the Council and the Parliament – but you know as well as I do that firstly MEPs have little power over legislation and secondly that the power lies with the Commission and the Council – who are not elected by the citizens of Europe.

    Those decisions are not discussed in our parliament or made known to the electorate. The only reason I found out about the legislation on postal services, for instance, was as a result of poking around on the internet. The British media have for the last ten years consistently refused even to talk about the EU. At least in the days when the popular press carried anti-EU stories there was a chance that things could be discussed. That has now vanished.

    The government, for reasons of its own, prefers not to admit that between 60% and 80% of the legislation it puts on the statute books comes directly (and unchallenged) from the EU and is prepared to put up with a certain amount of stick when it comes to enacting unpopular EU laws (but there again, it’s been able to get away with that because of its big majorities). I suspect that if they admitted they were simply obeying orders from Brussels most people in the UK would feel aggrieved and wonder why our parliament is no longer in control of its own destiny.

    Whatever the benefits that have resulted from our membership of the EU may be they are as nothing, however, to the unacceptable destruction of national sovereignty and the lack of democratic accountability that it entails. Every one of our Prime Ministers since MacMillan has lied to us about the true nature of the EU, denying that it is project for political union, and not, as they have repeatedly said, simply a free-trade zone. Even Barroso recently admitted that the Union is basically an ’empire’.

    People in the UK have no idea how much of their lives are now governed but legislation passed down from the EU – without their knowledge and without their consent. That’s why it is in the interest of the Union to keep a low profile, because whatever small benefits may accrue from our membership, the disadvantages are immensely disproportionate – and any truly public debate would soon reveal the unpleasant truth. That knowledge, combined with a deep-seated British suspicion of the Union, would cause huge problems for our politicians.

    I could go on, about the mendacity of the EU in refusing to accept the No vote of the French and Dutch on the Constitution and the subsequent refusal to accept the democratic No vote of the Irish on its reheated form as the Lisbon Treaty, etc, but I suspect there’s no point.

    To which I may add the unbelievably authoritarianism of Directive 2006/24/EC, governing Data Retention. It’s not just about bendy bananas (which they lied about as well).

    Anyway, nice pic of the atheist bus.

  4. That would be because Commissioners serve five year terms of office, not four year terms… So you looked at the wrong part of the sentence.

  5. Jon,

    What is precisely wrong with the comment?
    “Hoon, a former Europe minister and member of the European Parliament, is likely to be offered the four-year post later this year”
    Wouldn’t October 2009 be later this year?

    As to recalled/invited well it is a little semantic, but you are right. However I have yet to hear of a Commissioner refusing such an invitation from their Prime Minister. It is a little like jump/pushed.

    To claim that Cathy Ashton is not a stand in is farcical, of course she is a stand in. Having the same legal status as Mandleson had and all other Commissioner’s have does not takle away from the truth that she is a stand in.

    As to the Commission overstaying it’s legal welcome. There are plenty of noises off in Brussels suggesting exactly that, EU law on matters such as this, particularly when it comes to getting the necessary agreements (in this case the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty) finalised is notoriously flexible.

    You can do better than that. That doesn’t mean that Toby Helm is well informed, just that you have attacked him unfairly in this case.

  6. I’m not following postal liberalisation, but I remember all the terrible things some people said would happen with telecom liberalisation, and now look what we have: lower prices, choice, affordable broadand, innovative services … terrible!

    How many times do the British government or media point out that this is due to EU liberalisation? Not exactly bliss for the EU, then.

  7. Hmmm, some interesting points there. Yes, liberalisation of postal services is as a result of the EU, and I wish the UK government would come clean about that. The UK has been among the countries lobbying hardest for it actually. It’s not as if there’s a lack of debate in a formal sense – postal stuff has be argued about ad infinitum in the Council and in the European Parliament, but you need the media to put that into the national context – the UK media is dreadful at that.

    As for whether this helps the EU… Not sure. I assume your argument is that if the population knew all the theoretically mendacious things the EU was doing it would like the EU even less?

    I would change the last line of your comment to: for the Member States having populations that are ignorant about the EU is bliss (so the Member States can blame the EU for everything, and can claim credit themselves for what’s good).

  8. Jon, your post confirms something I’ve suspected for a while about the British mainstream media and this journalist in particular – that they are almost completely ignorant of the workings of the EU.

    Fortunately for the European Union and its supporters this tends to work in the EU’s favour, so I wouldn’t complain too much.

    I’ve read at least two articles by Helm recently in the Observer concerning the problems at the Royal Mail, neither of which mentioned the fact that EU legislation is a primary cause of those problems.

    If the British people were properly informed that they were being compelled to ‘liberalise’ their postal services because of (undebated, unvoted-for) EU legislation, then I think their response would be unequivocal. They know nothing, however, because the British media know nothing. No correct information, no debate. This applies to just about everything concerning Brussels.

    For the EU ignorance truly is bliss.

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