Did Barroso Help the EU in Britain?


There are too few EU representatives on British television, so it was good to seeoutgoing Commission President José Manuel Barroso putting in an appearance on the Andrew Marr show in October.

Barroso highlighted the EU push for a transatlantic trade deal; said Britain is stronger globally within the EU; and pointed out that millions of Britons enjoy EU freedom of movement. These points need to be made more often, as too many British politicians have decided they will gain little personally from being an advocate for the EU.

The trouble is, many Britons’ perceptions of the EU are based in emotions rather than facts. One feeling is that the EU is somehow bossing Britons around. Added to this, the EU appears to magnify Britain’s continuing, incremental loss of international importance.

Tackling this emotional baggage is a lot to ask. But new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has told new Commissioners to be politically active in member states – the final paragraph on page 5 here. So EU representatives need to get the message and tone right.

Barroso’s appearance provides a few lessons. Given how touchy many Britons are now, I think his tone was wrong. He lectured Britain on what it can and cannot do. He also tried to puncture British hubris, saying that the UK depended on the EU for international influence. As a result, I guess he alienated some neutral viewers and confirmed the prejudices of Europhobes. (The headline given to this embedded video hints at the mood of many Britons.)

OK, it’s going to be impossible to change some ingrained prejudices. Perhaps Barroso just felt like taking a swipe before leaving office at people who made his life difficult. But if EU officials want to encourage a more positive attitude in Britain, there are a few things they could do differently.

Avoid sounding officious. It gets up people’s noses.
The appearance followed reports that Prime Minister David Cameron wants to cap the annual flow of migrant workers to the UK, as he worries that his Conservative Party is losing support to UKIP. Barroso said that “any kind of arbitrary cap seems to me to be not in conformity with the European rules.”

This was reported in exaggerated headlines and some apparently false quotes. And the next day Cameron had an excuse for a populist sound bite: “I’m very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to and it’s the British people.”

Barroso could instead have pointed out that migration and its effects depend on national policies as well as EU rules – such as transitional periods for immigration from new member states, and requirements that new arrivals have sufficient means. He could also have praised Britain’s liberal traditions and relative lack of barriers to migrants.

Don’t belittle people you’re trying to influence.
Britain is highly sensitive to its international status, and fantasises about “punching above its weight”. Talking about the fight against Ebola, Barroso noted that Cameron had written to other leaders urging more action – and that outside the EU, the British Prime Minister’s “influence would be zero”. The headlines and tweets focussed on “zero influence” and dropped the Ebola context.

He could have just praised the current British contribution to European diplomacy, and point out how this advances UK-friendly causes such as EU free trade deals. Seven months before the Scottish independence vote, English politicians started to warn Scots of the hazards of going it alone. Many Scots felt they were being talked down to, and support for independence surged.

Don’t set up unnecessary oppositions.
Marr pointed out that Britain’s relatively strong economy is attracting migrant workers. Barroso hit back and said that Ireland was doing better, trying to score a point for the Eurozone versus the UK.

Yes, there has been some triumphalism in parts of the British media recently over its relatively strong economy. But why does the Commission President need to combat this? Given that the context was the effects on migration, it would have been enough to point out that the economic cycles are out of synch – so when other countries grow faster the rush to work in the UK might ease.

Be careful with body language.
Barroso crossed his leg in a “figure-four” position – with ankle on knee. Body language experts say this is designed to display dominance. This sounds like a small point, but it added to an impression of slight haughtiness.

A few days later, Juncker was interviewed on the sidelines of a European Parliament meeting. He gave a factually similar answer on freedom of movement, but suggested adjusting national rules to stop abuses. “I think we have to approach this problem in an open-minded way, but we cannot change the rules,” he said. “We have to discuss this in a friendly way with our British colleagues”. That was a bit nicer.



Juncker to EU Commissioners: End “more Europe”

juncker plus lisbon lines

Little noticed in Jean-Claude Juncker’s mission letters to his Commissioner-candidates is some surprisingly bold language, which seems to swap federalists’ mantra of “more Europe” for “Europe, when nothing else will do”.

The wording is important because of the recent debate over the EU’s pursuit of “ever-closer union”. This phrase has been a fixture of European treaties since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and has become a focus for Eurosceptics – particularly those in the UK campaigning for a Brexit. Juncker doesn’t, technically, reject ever-closer union. But he limits it, probably more severely and more explicitly than any Commission President before him (with my highlights):

We will concentrate our efforts on those areas where only joint action at European level can deliver the desired results. When we act, we will always look for the most efficient and least burdensome approach. Beyond these areas, we should leave action to the Member States where they are more legitimate and better equipped to give effective policy responses at national, regional or local level.

The lines have been included in all the mission letters, and they appear to have gone unreported. Such sections inevitably consist of standard reminders about ethics, transparency and teamwork. Media and interest groups are understandably more on the lookout for policy changes telegraphed by Juncker’s choice of personnel and the Commissioners’ new job descriptions.

But such language was missing from outgoing President José Manuel Barroso’s letters in 2010, where the only mention of member states went as follows:

An effective Commission must also form a successful partnership with the Member States and the other institutions, and in particular with the European Parliament.

“Ever closer union” has come under intensifying fire in recent years with the surge of Eurosceptic parties. As he sought to fend off the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), British Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2013 that he wanted to opt out of the principle – something he made a condition for his support of continued UK membership of the EU. Since he wants to hold a referendum on this by 2017, retaining the principle would increase the chances of a British exit, or “Brexit”.

Rejection of this phrase has spread beyond the traditionally difficult British. Soon after Cameron’s speech, the Dutch government too said that “the time of an ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”. It called for the EU to work on the principle “European where necessary, national where possible” – not much different from the principle Juncker has now outlined. May’s European Parliament elections returned  100 or more MEPs who are broadly anti-EU.

The Commission is of course the guardian of the Treaties and Juncker, its President, could argue that his guidelines are still in line with the texts. Moves in those areas “where only joint action at European level can deliver” would still constitute closer union. (He talked about the digital single market during the Parliament campaign.)

But at the very least Juncker is offering a defining principle for where the Commission should act, and sharply curtailing the scope for closer union. As a candidate for the Commission presidency in July, he told the Parliament that he would leave matters beyond 10 policy areas to the member states; this time, as President, he has gone further, by saying the Commission should only act when there is no alternative. The letters thus constitute Juncker’s clearest rejection yet of the “federalist” (or “arch federalist”) label pinned on him by some of the British press.

If all these words turn into actions, the continent’s new Euro-sceptic protesters might find they have less and less to protest against.

(A version of this post appeared as a Friends of Europe column.)



Independence: Who’s Next?

mixed be flags

A few weeks after Scots came close to breaking up the United Kingdom, Belgium will likely get a federal government that for the first time includes Flemish nationalists.

Will Belgium be the next to flirt with a breakup?

There are good reasons why it should. Belgium consists of about three-fifths Dutch-speaking Flemings and two-fifths French-speakers. Since the country was formed in 1830, these communities have never been that happy together, though individual Belgians rub along OK.

Francophones dominated for more than a century. They were wealthier. French dominated in universities even in the Flemish north. While the southern part of Belgium, Wallonia, had always been largely francophone, French also took over in traditionally-Flemish Brussels.

But since the 1960s, Flemings have produced more per person. They kicked French-speakers out of the university in Leuven. Traditional political parties split into francophone and Flemish units, while Flemish nationalist parties formed. The election on 25 May was the second time for the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA, to win the largest number of seats in the federal parliament.

Still, I think Belgium will endure. And some of the reasons for that show why want-away regions elsewhere in Europe – Catalonia is planning a vote on 9 November – might find that true independence is not worth the trouble.

The first reason is that Scots’ ideas of independence appear more radical than Flemings’. Scottish nationalists seem to have in mind a traditional nation state – one people, one government. That’s understandable, given that Scotland used to rule itself and have its own monarchs.

But the world doesn’t work like that any more. It was unclear whether an independent Scotland could easily have joined the European Union or would have been welcome in NATO. Demanding continued use of the pound showed that even the Yes campaign was not prepared for full independence.

Flemish nationalists seem to have a clearer understanding of these hurdles. Flanders has never had its own state, and went through a series of proprietors – Spanish, French, Dutch – before Belgium was formed. So a Flemish nation state doesn’t seem as natural as an independent Scotland. Moreover, the EU is headquartered in Belgium (as is NATO) and the average Belgian probably understands better than the average Briton the limitations and costs of sovereignty in the 21st century.

So, despite the N-VA’s ultimate goal of independence, it speaks of “confederalism”, a system of extreme devolution with a minimalist central government.

Another problem for Flemish nationalists is the capital, Brussels, Belgium’s economic engine. Brussels is part of Flanders geographically and by tradition, and is the Flemish region’s seat of government. But it is a separate region in itself – along with Flanders and Wallonia – and has a large francophone majority. Only 16% of Bruxellois speak Dutch at home, according to one survey. So an independent Flanders might have to abandon Brussels –- the biggest, wealthiest city in the Flanders area.

Though Brussels’ status is peculiar to Belgium, it points to the entanglements that evolve in nation states and make splitting up messy and potentially costly. The Scottish equivalent of Brussels is the pound.

Thirdly, a lot of nationalist discontent is about money – so it can be dealt with by less-drastic means.

While Scots want to keep more North Sea oil wealth, Flemings want to keep more of their earnings. Wallonia has higher unemployment and lower output per person than Flanders, and Flemings are tired of subsidising Walloons through tax and social security contributions.

That’s why N-VA leader Bart De Wever spent the election campaign hammering home a Thatcherite message of smaller government. Look at this web page with 25 people each giving a reason to vote N-VA – and guess what they’re saying even if you don’t understand Dutch. Only number 19 seems to talk about devolution – and his main point is just that Flemings lean more to the right politically than Walloons. But these are not necessarily innate preferences. They’re more likely to do with who’s currently gaining and losing from wealth redistribution.

De Wever appeared to have grasp that most Flemings are tiring after four decades of wrangling over state reforms. The last such tussle left Belgium without a proper government for a year-and-a-half, which was considered bad for business. In the May election, while the N-VA gained six seats, the more radical separatists, the Vlaams Belang (“Flemish Interest”), lost nine.

So, the real story of the N-VA’s rise this year is a shift away from radical Flemish separatism, and towards a defence of Flemish economic interests. If these are promoted effectively enough by an incoming centre-right government, separatism might no longer have much point.


Illustration: Flags of Flanders, the European Union, Wallonia, Belgium and Brussels. Author of Brussels flag: Ssolbergj.

Solutions for “Boring Snoring”

cat on tv1

The editor of Newsnight, the BBC show famous for its political interviews, thinks many political interviews have become “boring snoring”.

Ian Katz and others say the format has reached an impasse in Britain. Interviewers are aggressive, so politicians focus on avoiding gaffes – a statement that could be construed as inconsistent or as a sign of discord within their government or party. Instead they repeat a message decided in advance.

The result is a safety-first ethos that conspires to make even the most interesting political figures seem dull, and rewards those who prove themselves to be “a safe pair of hands” with the highest offices in the land.

Katz is right – and perhaps candid to a fault.

I frequently watch Newsnight because it promises depth and insight lacking from a regular news bulletin – and then I swtich off midway because studio guests are trying to score points and I’m not learning much.

Some of the slugfests can be entertaining, and lists abound on the Internet of favourite attacks by former presenter Jeremy Paxman. But they are enjoyable for the “wrong” reasons – the game of attack and defence, the desire to see who will “win”.

This level of TV interviewer aggression seems peculiarly British, something that has evolved from a culture where humbug, pretension and arrogance are regarded with more hostility than elsewhere. Top people are thought to need taking down a peg or two.

Contrast the style with a few seconds of this 2013 French TV interview by Claire Chazal with President François Hollande, and consider what such a regal setting does for the tone of an interview. After this Hollande interview, Chazal was quickly criticised for being reverential.

But these presidential interviews have been going on – and criticised – for decades and there’s been no serious change. (Here, a few years earlier, former President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks across his desk to a couple of interviewers as if they are his subordinates. He probably thought the format was refreshingly businesslike.)

Katz doesn’t call for this kind of format in Britain. But he does propose a kind of Geneva Convention to give interviews the space to breathe. In exchange for more candor from politicians, interviewers would accept that government is often about making the least-bad decision, and politicians should not be blamed for this.

The trouble is, the pressure on this kind of interview is too great. Even if interviewer doesn’t jump on a “slip”, other people on other media will do in the hours that follow. So it’s going to be very hard to persuade polticians (or business leaders thrust into the spotlight by some bad news) to drop their guards and open up to the world.

My suggestion: interview different people. I’ve interviewed foreign and finance ministers and a prime minister, but they’ve never said anything I didn’t basically know already. My hunch is that they’re too busy dealing with different demands on their time, so they often get their insights from advisors and they have little recent experience of the normal life their decisions are supposed to improve.

Real insight often comes from people that haven’t climbed a corporate or political ladder: experts, people with an original way of looking at the world, or regular people who have coped with a difficult situation.

It needs work of course to make such people seem relevant – to link them to present concerns and what’s on the public radar. Of course, such explanation takes time and words, so you need viewers with some free time, which is rare.

I guess I’m saying that documentaries are often more interesting than news programmes – or that I’d rather the news featured more short, documentary-style reports. Newsnight does some of these already. Maybe it should do more.


Illustration constructed from photos by mwanasimba (flickr) and Chiltepinster.


An Independent Scotland? Just Imagine…

scottish flag5

Why has support for a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum risen this year, as difficulties for an independent Scotland become increasingly clear?

My guess is that it’s linked to the way in which people handle difficult-to-answer questions about the future and the difficulty of imagining some of the consequences of independence.

Presented with a difficult question, people tend to replace it with an easier one, according to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. He gives the example of the question, “How popular will the President be six months from now?” Because this is impossible to answer, we might substitute the easy-to-answer question, “How popular is the President now?” If he’s popular now, we might answer that he’ll be popular in six months too.

Before an election, we want to answer the question: “What will happen if Party A wins?” So we might substitute the question, “Which parts of its election programme could Party A enact?” That works OK in most elections. Rival parties usually offer different packages of incremental reforms, and it’s easy to make reasonable guesses about the consequences of a victory for Party A or Party B.

In the Scottish independence vote, most people can make reasonable guesses as to the consequences of a No vote. It’s also fairly easy to picture some of the consequences of a Yes vote: things like more control for Scots over their own government and a greater share of North Sea oil revenues – though no more transfer of public money from England.

But some potential consequences of a Yes vote defy the imagination. That makes it easy to produce wildly divergent scenarios.

  • Could an independent Scotland join the EU? It might well be able to. But countries such as Spain would have a strong incentive to veto Scottish membership in order to deter future breakaways by regions such as Catalonia.
  • Scotland would also want to join NATO. But some of its stances – military spending cuts, opposition to nuclear weapons – might make it unwelcome.
  • The Yes campaign wants to keep the pound as Scotland’s currency. But the Westminster parties say they won’t allow this. Scotland couldn’t adopt the euro unless it was in the EU – but sharing the pound might prevent Scottish membership. So it would need its own currency. But this might weaken, making it hard to pay back the sterling-denominated debt Scotland would inherit.

It’s not clear what would happen in any of these cases. So, how do we try to answer the impossible question, “What kind of currency and international relations will Scotland have after independence?”

These arrangements are so fundamental to the functioning of a country – economy, trade and security – that we don’t normally think about them. However, the UK – indeed the whole of Northwest Europe – has been fairly comfortable and stable for the past half-century or more. That makes it hard to conceive of anything really bad happening.

So it feels natural to substitute the question, “What kind of currency and international relations does Scotland have now?” – and to go by the answer to this. Though Kahneman talks about such question substitution as an unconscious reflex, the Yes campaign almost makes this explicit. It talks about Scotland’s “continued membership of the European Union”, even though the EU is a union of member states, one of which is the United Kingdom.

We’ve become used to things working out in Northwest Europe. That makes it only natural to imagine that, somehow, Scotland’s basic underpinnings will continue after independence as before. It’s far harder to picture the worst-case scenarios. So many people don’t.



Photo: flickrtickr2009