This piece was published in The Big Issue in May 2013.
In Brussels they are discussing things. Big things and small things. They are discussing fisheries, Syria and growth-friendly consolidation. They are discussing media literacy, the dangers of tobacco gum and corporate social responsibility in the fruit juice industry.
There are excellent discussions in more than a dozen different languages and the single unifying thread, the collectively understood desire, is to sound as serious and boring as possible. To survive in Brussels you must speak technocrat.
The first thing that strikes the British outsider about the Brussels power district, east of the city centre, is simply the fact that it exists. Britain’s Europe debate has become so strange and poisonous, so warped and hysterical, it has become difficult to see beyond a mythic, phantasmagorical EU – an EU of shadows and monsters and looming chaos – to work out what’s actually going on.
But here it is. It’s real all right. Huge buildings full of fluent multi-linguists; well-established procedures followed in good faith; blue and yellow-starred flags everywhere. Despite angry clashes in Greece, Spain and Cyprus and feverish talk of a two-tier eurozone or even currency collapse, none of the well-heeled, well-educated people working here look frightened for their careers.
As a matter of fact, Brussels is still building. The sound of construction drills makes West Wing-style walk-and-talks between the various big institutions and agency HQs quite difficult. The new Guggenheim-like Europa Building, designed to house the Council of Ministers since its present home is no longer deemed big enough, is beginning to taking shape. “Brussels is never quite finished,” one regular visitor explains.
I came to Brussels to work out whether the EU is really the bogeyman of British popular imagination. Other than a Taiwanese cooking stand and Irish landscape paintings in the European Parliament building, there are no obvious signs of indulgence that might irritate The Daily Mail. But even for those of us who quite like the idea of co-operation with near neighbours and expanding recognition of human rights, are we entitled to worry about the size and scope of what’s going on here?
François Hollande, the French President, is also in town. Perhaps the presence of a big powerful figure will cut through the stifling waffle and help me understand the EU’s larger purpose. But when Hollande finally appears with José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission (EC), he can only meekly communicate to the assembled press that his government and economists of the EC are in complete agreement on everything. “Competitiveness” is vaguely the problem with the French economy, mired in recession. “Reform” is vaguely the answer.
Barroso becomes exasperated by suggestions France has been given a telling-off by his institution. “Europe is not a foreign power,” he says. “France is Europe. Europe is France.” Hollande seems a little nonplussed about that idea but doesn’t argue the point.
Listening to debates and off-the-record briefings, leafing through the deluge of discussion papers (papers on Kosovo, papers on oil industry safety standards, papers on something called “European added valued”), it is hard to avoid the conclusion Brussels is not a place of ideas. Numbers: yes. Analysis of structural imbalances: yes. Ideas: no.
The economists who drive policy from inside the 14 spacious floors of the European Commission’s HQ (this one institution has more than 60 other buildings) say they have more “tools and levers” to react to present difficulties and future shocks. The sensible, serious people of Brussels want the eurozone to move toward a banking union and greater economic convergence.
Yet their forecasts have gone awry, hence a shifting rhetoric toward the idea of “growth”. Growth at the expense of deficit-reduction? Well, that all depends. “It is a question of calibrating, a question of pace,” says President Barroso.
There is precious little acknowledgement of the human trauma happening in the south of the continent as a result of austerity: the homelessness and suicides, the lack of basic medicines in hospitals and people foraging in bins.
And what about democracy? What about differences of opinion? I ask Labour MEP Catherine Stihler whether the European Parliament – Brussels’ only elected body of men and women (each of whom earn an average of £182,000 in salary and allowances a year) – now feels somewhat cut-off from the really important stuff now decided by unelected economists in the European Commission and European Central Bank in Frankfurt.
“There are politics involved,” she insists. “We have a right-wing Council of Ministers, we have a right-wing European Parliament… dominated by conservatives. Often when we talk about Europe, the Left-Right split in politics seems to disappear. It’s important to bring that back. The reason there’s austerity in Europe is because the Right have a majority and they’ve chosen that perspective and we would argue from the Left that there’s an alternative, that austerity’s not the answer. We have to argue the politics to see change in Europe.”
Can any one nation cut through the vast layers of bureaucracy and sclerotic group think?
Alyn Smith is the SNP’s most experienced MEP, having worked in the European Parliament for nine years (he is also a graduate of the College of Europe and once worked here as an intern). He concedes some of the structures are “not models of democracy I could recommend to the people of Scotland”, but also believes it’s better to argue the case for reform from within.
“Scotland, regardless of what we decide in 2014 [at the referendum on independence], is going to be affected by this stuff,” he says matter-of-factly. “And if we’re going to be affected by something, I want us in the first-class cabin deciding on the direction of the ship, not bobbing along in a lifeboat getting dragged behind.
“The beauty of the EU is that it’s a constant set of negotiations, and a constant range of constitutional upheavals. The EU has always been evolving, and it’ll continue to evolve fast, given the deficiencies in the current set-up about finance. From a Scottish perspective, there’s nothing wrong with the EU that can’t be put right be representing ourselves within it.”
Britain’s most famous MEP, you will not be surprised to learn, does not believe the great European project can ever work. Nigel Farage is busy speaking to an Italian TV crew (he fascinates politicos across the continent) but when I catch up with him later, he shows no sign of flagging. He describes Brussels as “a latter-day Byzantium” and says it must all be torn asunder, so much more modest trade agreements for the continent can be drawn up from a “blank sheet of paper”.
“If the EC wasn’t making law it would fall over,” he says. “It’s a living, breathing, organic beast. We’ve been trying for 40 years to reform… and there is no evidence we’ve achieved any change in the British direction. If there was a grand moment the whole thing could’ve been reformed and democratised, it was 10 years ago with the EU constitution.
“It’s a model that I would argue is unreformable – we’re past that. And it’s a model that’s failing. It’s failing desperately. I want Britain to get out, and I hope the result of us getting out is other countries doing the same.”
What does Farage think of Brussels as a city? Is there anything he likes?
“No. I really think it’s the worst city I’ve been to in northern Europe. It’s filthy. The litter is just astonishing. You have to watch where you’re walking, because there’s not just cracked paving stones but missing paving stones as well. It really is a city in terrible social decline. Crime is completely out of control. And for women, the streets aren’t safe.”
Oh dear. Is there really nothing at all he enjoys about coming here?
“The good bits are lots and lots of restaurants. The Belgian beers are quite fun. And the little old Flemish part of Brussels is still very nice. But apart from that there isn’t much of Brussels left really. It’s been hollowed out and it’s full of overseas workers.”
Leaving aside the international make-up of Brussels’ command base, is it possible to be suspicious of the EU from a leftist point of view? Yes – absolutely, says Costas Douzinas, a law professor at the University of London. He describes the power brokers of the north imposing austerity on Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Italy “as colonial masters of an impoverished and disenfranchised south…The words ‘democracy’ and ‘referendum’ create panic in Brussels’ corridors”.
Even the FT’s star columnist Martin Wolf writes that “the indifference to democracy in the emerging eurozone is worrying: it looks far more like a machine for imposing the will of strong countries than a democratic federation”.
In Brussels, meanwhile, they continue to discuss. There are developments. Big things and small things. They are discussing tax avoidance and the fiscal two-pact. They are discussing the banning of the unhygienic ways olive oil is currently served in restaurants.
There is a vast amount of power here. Despite all the hot air, no-one should be under any illusion the institutions in Brussels are simply forums for negotiation. The EU is engaged in the business of government on daily basis, driven on by bright lawyers and economists. However cumbersome the tiers of administration, decisions affecting every man, woman and child on the continent are being made in ways it is increasingly difficult to understand.
Britain’s semi-detached approach to Europe is understandable. We are not the only ones puzzled and frustrated by rigidly interlocked economic policy, but keen to make sure we’re not missing out on any big trade deals the continent has to offer.
We will continue in confused semi-detachment, at least until the promised in-out vote in 2017. In the meantime, many excellent discussions await.