Category Archives: Europe

Two Breakups and a Funeral

In the last year I have gone through two traumatic breakups and a painful bereavement.

A year ago my father died. The loss of a parent is devastating and life-changing. But he had lived a full and long life, he was suffering, and so was my family. We all have to go one day. My dad’s day had come. My grief was laced with relief and acceptance.

Earlier this year, my partner of three years ended our relationship. I fell into a (thankfully short-lived) depression. I felt for a while as if my world had disintegrated, I felt rudderless. But on some level I knew that it had been necessary, that better times were ahead, that my ex had been brave to act, and that she was hurting too.

Last week the UK chose to leave the European Union. This doesn’t feel the same. I don’t love the EU like I loved my father and my partner. But I do love it, and this is personal. I believe in the EU. I work as an EU public servant because of that belief – it is, to use an unfashionable word, my vocation. For at least thirty years it has been the leitmotiv to my life. And now my homeland has rejected it, possibly fatally wounding it. I am beside myself with anger and grief. This isn’t the euthanising of a loving but flawed relationship, nor the end to a loved one’s terminal suffering. This is a cold-hearted killing. The trigger was pulled by people who had no real understanding of what they were doing, and the gun was being pointed by cynical, manipulative narcissists and psychopaths. Around me I see shocked people in denial, anger, grief. I don’t know if I will ever progress to acceptance.

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

The Age of Unlightenment

This was the advice from my friend Mary this morning:unlightenmentA snapshot of where we are on the morning of 14 June 2016: a disturbed man apparently driven to self-hate murders fifty people in a club; populist politicians clamber over the corpses to score points; religious fundamentalists claim the atrocity for their own. A law firm boasts of its victory over families trying to secure a future for their children who have already been dealt a shit hand by life. And my country seems intent upon an unimaginably stupid act of self-harm, egged on by charlatans, liars, demagogues, and self-serving narcissists.

I feel as if I’m watching our civilisation’s lights dim. The Age of Unlightenment.

Twenty-two three

22 March is my sister’s birthday. Now, it’s something else too.

I was still getting ready to leave for work this morning when the news came in first about the bombs at Brussels airport – where I’d been at 11pm the previous night – and then at Maelbeek metro station, just a short distance from my flat. Jo begged me to stay at home, and that’s probably what I should have done, but I didn’t. I walked in to work along eerily normal streets where the people I see every day looked like they always look, or perhaps just a little bemused and quiet. Police cars with men wearing balaclavas tear past, sirens wailing. But that’s another thing we see fairly often in my part of town, given the regular Summits. I get to the office and once I’m at my desk it feels fairly normal. I check Twitter and Facebook. Friends all over the world are messaging me to ask if I’m OK. I feel like a fraud. I’m in the middle of this thing but basically I’m just fine, unaffected. And then I start to cry. I can’t explain it. Fifteen people are dead at the metro station I can see out of my window. People are dead at the airport I flew into yesterday night. It could so very, very easily have been me. But it wasn’t. I feel guilt. I feel disconnection. I feel very strange. I dread finding out who has in fact been killed, and injured. This is a small town, this will touch us all.

Nearly fifteen years ago, days after 9/11, I was in a large crowd gathered on rue de la Loi outside the Berlaymont and the Justus Lipsius to show solidarity and sympathy with America. Fifteen years later, I look out of my window at the same view. There are barricades, I count at least a dozen armed police, and I can see four soldiers in full body armour carrying assault rifles. If Osama Bin Laden could see this he would say to himself “mission accomplished”.

That “demos” thing

Sooner or later, every Brexit debate hits the “demos” wall. The following conversation is a classic example:

 

Its critics will say that the European Union is not democratic, and therefore lacks legitimacy. Its defenders will contest this, as I did in this post. We claim that, actually, it has all the characteristics of a healthy democracy, and arguably then some (compared to certain EU Member States). No no, its critics argue, none of these characteristics count because they are meaningless without a “demos”. The EU, they say, doesn’t have a demos; and so it can’t be a democracy.

This is a tautology and a circular argument. They criticise us for not being democratic while in the same breath arguing that we cannot be democratic by definition, and that we should therefore not even try. The very fact that we try seems to be what infuriates them. The more the EU attempts to advance its democratic credentials, the more state-like it seems, the more we anger those who insist that sovereignty and statehood must be limited to existing nation states. Why? we ask. BECAUSE DEMOS, they yell, as if this is self-evident (which to them apparently it is).

For a long time now I have wanted to tackle this argument, but I have never found the right way to come at it. I think it’s because we are simply talking past each other, in different languages. Theirs is the emotional language of nationalism, I think, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. What defines a “demos”? The Oxford English Dictionary definition says that a demos is “the populace as a political unit, especially in a democracy”, which hardly helps – what defines a “political unit”? If the EU has all the trappings of a political unit, then isn’t it one? By specifically excluding the UK from the quest for “ever closer political union”, has David Cameron effectively excluded the UK from an EU demos and thereby validated the “out” camp’s argument in a bizarre form of Pyrrhic victory?

We need to dig deeper. What makes people feel that they belong to a political unit? Is it language? Several EU Member States have more than one official language and all certainly have citizens whose first language is not the majority language – are those citizens excluded from the national “demos”? Is it a shared history? Clearly not, I won’t even bother dismantling that argument but will simply point to Norman Davies’ excellent book Vanished Kingdoms. Perhaps it’s shared culture? That’s also hard to argue in our multicultural and yet monocultural modern world. I’ve come to the conclusion that a demos is self-defining and therefore largely meaningless unless you are already part of that self-selected demos. Playing the “demos” card is like playing the joker, it only works if everyone playing the game has agreed a common set of rules.

I could end this post here. But that would be a touch too dismissive. Clearly, this does mean something to lots of people, and I have to try to understand. Many people feel disconnected from the European tier of government and have no sense that they belong to a continental “demos” or political community. Evidence for this is the poor turnout at European elections, with many of those who do vote tending to do so on national issues. Clearly, many of us in Brussels feel defensive about this and so we invest a lot of effort in creating democratic institutions and attempting to communicate more effectively with citizens. (On this subject, see Jon Worth’s article on the EU’s efforts at comms.)

Not having a magic solution to offer, let me instead offer these thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The harder we try to legitimise EU government by giving it the trappings of democracy, the less people seem to like it. So why do we bother?
  • Are we not falling into the populist trap of fetishising democracy? (By which I mean misrepresenting our representative democracy as a direct one, and glorifying the people’s actually rather limited though important safeguarding role in the complex process of modern government – which I talk about here.)
  • In a functional, modern state there are multiple tiers of government which each have legitimacy with a given ‘political unit’ (or demos), and we are all as citizens members of more than one demos. The trouble with the people who claim that the EU has no demos is that they actively choose to exclude themselves from that demos; and I think that these are generally the same people who dismiss the other tiers of government too. These are the Westminster exceptionalists who get in a tizzy over the West Lothian Question. They cannot see the wood for the trees. I can’t lose any sleep over their inability to see the bigger picture, and it would be a crying shame if they took the UK out of the EU because of their tunnel vision.

The referendum’s silver lining

Still early days, but so far I’m finding this referendum campaign less of an ordeal than I expected.

This morning, a friend said to me “this whole farce must be very frustrating for you.” But it isn’t. Negativity, misinformation, and ignorance has long been the norm when it comes to the UK’s public debate about the EU, and I am used to it. Refreshingly, we are now also hearing the other side.

I blame the media far more than I blame politicians for the years of toxic negativity. There are many principled British politicians who make the case for the EU but who have not been heard because the media does not give them a platform. There are principled politicians on the ‘out’ side too, who truly believe that the UK would be better off outside the EU (I am quite sure they are wrong, but I respect their opinions and am happy to debate them). But these are not the politicians to whom the media gives a platform, either.

Seen from an outsider’s perspective, the UK’s mass media seems to have lost touch with the principles of sound journalism, confusing business imperatives with journalistic imperatives. What matter are circulation figures, viewer figures, listener numbers, page hits. EU-bashing sells papers, therefore it must be right. We are reaching the logical conclusion of our fetishisation of democracy, interpreted in a literal and simplistic fashion. People power is what counts. Have your say! Vote in our online poll! The results of which become the news.

Chris Morris beautifully skewered the vox pop as a news tool in The Day Today, but twenty years later it has become a core ingredient of modern ‘journalism’. In a world where focus groups and call-in shows set the political agenda, it’s small wonder that we now refer complex and weighty policy decisions on the future of our country to a referendum.

murdoch

This is the world of the Daily Mail and UKIP; this is why Nigel Farage appears on Question Time more often than, say, Catherine Bearder, or Douglas Carswell for that matter. Euromyths sell newspapers; fearmongering generates page hits. Demonising the EU makes business sense for the red tops (and some of the broadsheets), and in our confrontational, bipolar, first-past-the-post beauty contest of a democracy, the market leader is also the opinion leader. There may well be more sinister reasons for press barons to denigrate the EU, but regardless of this, our system is skewed towards populism. This is why we are having a reckless and risky referendum on the UK’s future; and incidentally it’s why our cousins across the pond are now presented with the real risk of a populist President.

trump

Donald Trump – popular

My critics will tell me that I am guilty of paternalism and elitism. This is a lazy defence of populism. We live in a representative democracy, not an Athenian-style direct democracy (thank God). General elections are there as a safety valve, so that the people can remove an executive which seriously underperforms. But we appoint an executive to govern on our behalf – we do not govern directly, because as ineffective as that was in an ancient agrarian society it would be simply ridiculous in a complex modern society.

So where is the silver lining? Here it comes: this referendum has finally given a platform to the moderates. The media’s obsession with ‘balance’ can be infuriating when we see a swivel-eyed climate sceptic given airtime alongside scientists; but in this referendum campaign we are finally hearing from the ‘pro’ side of the argument. After literally decades of overwhelming negativity, the UK media is at long last also giving coverage to the people who are making the case for the EU. Personally, I am finding it wonderfully refreshing.

There is another upside to what I guess we should call the popularisation of the news: the rise of social media. As our society has careered from one extreme (elitism) to the other (populism), the undue weight given to poorly-informed popular opinion is balanced to a degree by the decline in relevance of the mainstream media. The Daily Mail might sell the most papers, Question Time might have Nigel Farage on again, but we are using Twitter and Facebook and we see that we are not the only ones who have a problem with what we are hearing on the television and radio and reading in the press.

Boris “Outs” himself as a fan of electoral reform – or is he just a massive hypocrite?

So it seems that Boris will be the figurehead of the Out campaign. Today he writes in the Telegraph that:

That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are “all the same” and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.

Boris

I love this new Boris with his passionate concern for citizens, his belief in democracy, his frustration on our behalf at our inability to kick out our rulers. I have every confidence in him that he will carry on from here to crusade for electoral reform and rid us of the wicked First Past The Post system which disenfranchises the vast majority of British voters. Good for you Boris!

 

btl

 

I mean, he must mean FPTP, right? He surely can’t mean the EU…

 

What is EU reform?

Early in my career, with a group of other like-minded young officials, I launched a pressure group which we called “EUreforme” because we were frustrated with our staff unions’ obstructive attitude towards perfectly sensible reforms such as meaningful parental leave for fathers. We felt that, if the Commission did not reform itself, the Member States would impose reforms on us, and these were unlikely to be so constructive.

Our group attracted a great deal of hostility. “Reform” is a dirty word for some people. Neil Kinnock, as European Commissioner responsible for administrative issues and human resources during the late 90s/early 00s, did eventually push through a series of reforms which substantially eroded eurocrats’ employment conditions – it is no longer the highly attractive prospect it used to be for a talented graduate (though I’m not complaining). But la réforme Kinnock (a phrase to give a certain kind of fonctionnaire nightmares) did not do much to improve working conditions for staff and promote efficiency, focusing instead on cutting perks and reining in salaries, responding to political pressure from Member States in the EU Council. An opportunity for real reform was lost, caught between obstructive denialists in the staff unions, whose mantra was “ne touche pas à mon statut!“, and populist politicians in Member States, who saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters by going after everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Brussels fat cat.

We are seeing something similar happen today. David Cameron, trapped by his unwillingness to confront the relentless anti-EU narrative of his backbenchers, pushes his agenda of EU “reform” – against him stand other EU leaders who prefer to preserve the status quo, reluctant to reopen the Treaty because of the referendums it would trigger in their own territories. Stuck in the middle are the rational voices saying yes, the EU could do with reform, because there are many things which could be done better than they are at the moment.

Cameron calls his agenda “reform” but this is a euphemism for “retreat”. He wants to repatriate powers, scale back ambition, play to the gallery on migration, and defend narrow national sectoral interests such as the financial sector. He does not offer a vision for how the EU tier of government should operate efficiently in sync with the national and regional tiers of government with a view to delivering good governance. For further background on this, see my post here dissecting the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech of January 2013, and take a look at this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper Handelsblad.

So what should reform look like? Let’s begin by stating some first principles: we take it for granted that we see the need for a European tier of government, and our objective is to achieve clarity on what that European tier should do; and then to make sure that it can do those things efficiently and effectively; and to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances exist in line with the principles of a modern, representative democracy. We need intellectual honesty and clarity here. If you don’t want a European tier of government, then say so and leave, don’t say you want in but then sabotage it from the inside so that it doesn’t work effectively. Intergovernmentalism is not an effective way of governing a complex political entity. If you want effective government, you need strong, functioning institutions. If you want accountability, then you need to achieve it at that level. If you think this sounds like federalism, well that’s because it is. It’s not a dirty word. Intergovernmentalism is a form of denial and a dead end.

So I’m arguing for reform which would make the EU a functioning, effective, federation. That means dismantling the apparatus of intergovernmentalism which has slowly swallowed the EU ever since Maastricht. We do away with vetoes and extend QMV (qualified majority voting) into all areas where the EU is competent; and we extend EU competence into all areas where it makes sense to govern at the EU level, including monetary policy and taxation. There are other areas where it makes little sense for the EU to be involved, and so we need clarity also on where the national or regional tiers of government are competent. We need reinforced subsidiarity. Where the EU is competent, it should have the tools it needs to be effective. This means, for example, pulling foreign policy into the Commission. There should be no exceptions to the communautaire approach for all EU policies; anything else is ineffective and compromised. And for that communautaire approach to be implemented effectively we need institutions which work. This means a best-in-class civil service with strong leadership, where managers manage people not to-do lists. As for accountability, I think the EU already does pretty well on this front. But we do have a problem with public engagement and that needs more work.

So this is my rather non-specific and non-exhaustive list of areas where reform is needed. None of this is on the table right now, and the Cameron-driven “reform” negotiation actually propels us in the other direction. Realistically, I know that true reform is a big ask at the moment, and I am not optimistic that we will achieve it; but I do believe that it is necessary if we are collectively to achieve our full potential in Europe.

Should a pro-European vote ‘leave’?

medal

Last week, I collected my medal for twenty years of European public service. I have dedicated my entire professional life to the EU, it is the issue about which I feel the most passionate. As a student I was an activist for the Young European Movement, I joined the EU public service with a strong sense of purpose, and I am a believer in a European tier of government as a necessary evolution of our political system which benefits us all.

So you would have me down as a cast-iron certainty to vote ‘remain’ in the upcoming Brexit referendum, wouldn’t you? Right now, I’m not so sure.

Like Anand Menon, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more opinion pieces like this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The deal which David Cameron is trying to negotiate with the European Council will no doubt be presented by him as a good one for the UK, and there will be lots of debate over whether it is or it isn’t. But it will be very hard to argue that any deal he strikes will be good for the EU and its other 27 Member States. How could it be? He will seek to protect UK interests, narrowly defined by the current right-wing and ideologically-driven government, with a view to appeasing his party’s nationalist fringe. There will be a number of superficially insignificant but symbolically meaningful features which further water down the vision of the EU as a post-national political community; and there may well be more ideologically-driven elements which water down the EU as a force for social justice. I do recommend that you read Adriaan Schout’s aforementioned article for a sense of where this is likely to be heading.

You might think that the other 27 Member States are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied into a bad deal. But experience tells us otherwise. In the world of horse-trading and compromise that is the European Council, short-term political considerations tend to count for more than long-term sustainable visions, which is why the Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam, and Lisbon left us with such a mess in the eurozone. The EU and its Member States, acting together, can be a formidable force; but when decisions are made in the European Council it’s all about the weakest link in the chain and this results in cautious incrementalism and defensiveness.

If Cameron were negotiating for a deal which introduces meaningful reform to the mechanics of the European Union, making it more effective and efficient, I would enthusiastically back him. He isn’t, though. And his fellow heads of government are likely to bend over backwards to accommodate his political needs in order to avoid a scenario where the UK leaves the EU. So there is a fairly strong possibility that next week’s European Council will sign off on a deal which would be a step backward for the EU in order to keep the British in. But even with such a deal there is still the real possibility that the British could vote to leave in 2017; and even if they vote to stay, the European question will not go away, and the next neverendum becomes only a matter of time. The Council may buy a temporary respite, but at what price?

One way or the other, we will soon find out what the deal is which David Cameron has negotiated. Most of the debate will be about whether it is good enough “for Britain” to justify a vote to remain. I will be looking at it from the other perspective: will the deal he negotiates be good enough “for Europe”?

As a Briton, I see nothing to be gained for my country by its leaving the EU, and much to be lost. As a European, I see nothing to be gained for our collective wellbeing by further handicapping the European Union simply in order to appease one Member State. Indeed, we stand to lose a great deal. Unfortunately, although the outcome of the UK referendum will have an impact on all Europeans, only the British will get to vote. That potentially presents pro-European voters with an awful dilemma. If the final choice is between a bad deal for Europe, and a Europe without Britain, I will feel dreadfully torn. While my heart would revolt against a vote for Brexit, I can see a real possibility that the best thing for Europe would be for the UK to leave rather than stay on the basis of a bad deal for the rest of us.