How does the operation of the Brussels bureaucracy compare with running Hong Kong? Badly.by Robert Cottrell / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
When chris patten gave the first of this year’s Reith lectures on governance, he ended it with a verse from a Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know that he exists.” On that measure, the institutions of the EU in Brussels, Patten’s new home, must contain some of the finest leaders in world history. How many people can name the president of the European parliament? Or the president-in-office of the European council? Or more than five members of the 20-member European commission?
Lao-tzu’s lines probably made delightful sense in 6th century BC China, but for Europe, at least, something has changed in the two and a half millennia since. Patten put his finger on the nature of that change in the discussion which followed his lecture. He remarked: “People feel their primary loyalty in a political sense to the institutions of a nation state. When that nation state hands over real authority, in order to protect its national interests, to an international organisation, the loyalties do not travel with it. People may rationally comprehend that it’s in their interests that this should be done, but nobody feels a whoosh of pleasure… Nobody has yet climbed a mountain and put the EU’s flag at the top.”
A whoosh of pleasure for every European citizen! Now there is a manifesto pledge which would get Patten and his commission colleagues noticed. But Europeans will have to be whooshed and pleasured closer to home for many years yet. The kind of authority that European governments have handed the commission involves lines of business that the public rarely understands or cares much about.
No fame, no loyalty. Nor, now, does the commission stir up hostile passions in the way it used to. True, it still occupies a generous place in the demonology of some British eurosceptics. But viewed up close, the commission has become a bit of a mangy old beast-and all the more so since the sad beating it took last year when the previous team of commissioners, headed by Jacques Santer of Luxembourg, resigned prematurely in March, brought down by an accumulation of carelessness and petty scandal.
The new commission in which Patten serves, headed by Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy, took office in September. But the damage done by the Santer era will not easily be undone. The commission has lost the moral high…