Bureaucracy and banality, the triumph of internationalism, the best hope for eastern Europe, a botched job - the EU is all these thingsby Nick Fraser / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
In the grubby, smoke-filled basement of the Breydel building in Brussels, members of the EU press corps gathers at noon each day for their briefing. Each of the 20 commissioners has a spokesman, and they skip up to the dais in turn. Today’s subject is the imposition of a kerosene tax on every plane flying in Europe. I note details, but as I do so they seem to slip away. A film of dead language wraps everything Christo-style, with phrases such as “parallel effort,” “global approach.” On the wall above us is a large painting entitled The Creation of the Single Market (1992) by Sven Nyrup, a Danish artist. Peering at neo-Expressionist murk, I realise that I am looking at a smudged map of Europe. I find a book listing the legislative achievements of the EU for 1999. Opened at random, page 406 shows a directive governing second-hand car prices in the Ukraine. A British spokesman rounds on me to complain about the behaviour of London newspapers. Nothing, it seems, will induce them to print positive stories. I can’t think of what to say to him.
Back to the Breydel to visit Romano Prodi, commission president. The lift deposits me on the 12th floor rather than the 4th. I keep taking wrong turnings, and can retain my bearings only by means of a poster representing the triumph of the treaty of Maastricht, which I pass again and again. Prodi’s suite of offices is surprisingly banal and he apologises for the ugliness. “We have to do something better than this,” he says, giggling. Prodi is smallish, dapper, soft-voiced. He was appointed with the task of making the EU commission believable after the mass resignation of commissioners which marked the end of Jacques Santer’s tenure in 1999. In recent weeks Le Monde has attacked him for irresolution, alleging that he is an “anglo-saxonist.” Under his tutelage, it is said, the prestige of the commission has fallen further still. Prodi suggests to me that Europe means so little to its citizens because they are essentially contented, and not fighting a war. Somehow Europeans must be led to realise that they are all members of minorities now, whether French, Italians or Bosnians. “Europe is a union of minorities,” he says, intriguingly. “There is no majority in Europe.” This sounds good, but I am not sure that it means much. Prodi appeals to me as an anti-politician. He’s the sort of professor I always wanted-someone who enjoys speculative chat, with a developed sense of irony. In public, however, stumbling over boring speeches, he comes across as a modern-day Wizard of Oz. It is easy to see why the slick ?rques don’t rate him.
Brussels days. Mistaking fire hydrant cupboards for conference rooms, I bumble Hulot-style around the parliament building. I come across a Belgian chef wearing a toque, shepherding 23 trainee caterers. Outside, the ugliness of Brussels overcomes me. I cannot think of such a place as the capital of Europe. But I notice a kind of solace in the vast, mall-like spaces. Here MEPs are afforded all-weather shelter from the prospect of non-existence. Souls in torment, they are often pathetically grateful to see me. The buzz this month concerns the creation of a Declaration of Fundamental Human Rights for Europe. I walk into the plenary session to find great-and- gooders, summoned from every country, discussing what constitutes a fundamental right. Everyone wants to add to the list-one hyper-PC Frenchman wishes two mentions to be made of women’s rights-except the Brit, who would prefer to see a distinction made between so-called “ordinary” rights and more important ones. Politely, because he is not a Eurosceptic, the Brit wants to make the point that rights are guaranteed in European democracies, and that this airy superstructure of verbiage may not be necessary. A Finn appears momentarily to derail the proceedings by speaking of “horizontal issues.”
I take away from the meeting a poignant sense of the difficulties implied by translation. It is hard to force concepts into languages in which they have had no previous existence, and we end by either minimising differences or exaggerating them. Eurenglish, which has displaced French as the EU’s everyday language, is not much help-it merely gives the illusion of comprehension. Later, the amiable Greek head of translation fills me in on the problems arising from the arrival of ten more EU members-she suggests that there will have to be a double system of translation, from Hungarian (say) or Latvian into English, and thence to Finnish-because the most obscure permutations are likely to prove prohibitively expensive. There is resistance to this scheme, because no one wants their language to join the second tier.
The parliament is a piece of kit from the Meccano age, grinding its way towards utopia. I do the official guided tour with pupils from the Jean Zay lyc?in Orl?s. One pupil says she doesn’t agree with the federalist guide, and that Europeans must feel free to think of themselves as French first, or Polish, or whatever. Her teacher is irritated at this display of free thought. Meanwhile, I am becoming uneasily aware of the depth of orthodoxy in Brussels. It is as if everyone repaired each day to some secret place where they were issued blue-and-yellow pills enabling them to believe in something called Europe.
The most flamboyant federalist is the red-haired, sharp-suited Green, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who keeps a paving stone from 1968 on his desk. He lectures me on the need for a strong Europe to protect us from the ravages of international capitalism. When I ask him whether it will be possible to stay British or French and be a New European, he becomes angry, gesticulating in my direction. “You British always want to have it both ways,” he shouts. “Keep your pound. Decide. Leave Europe.” By contrast, Lousewies van der Laan, a young Dutch liberal, is prepared to concede that there is a conflict between the legitimate desire of Europeans to preserve their homelands, and the EU’s own apparently insatiable appetite for more integration. But what happens, I ask, when the two are in collision? Must not people like her be forced to call a halt? Ah no, she says, it is up to politicians to persuade their electors to move forward. I don’t have the heart to ask what happens if this proves not to be possible.
On another floor of the parliament building, a Brit is busy editing a Eurosceptic magazine entitled These Tides. His name is David Wilkinson, and he is taking photographs of a young woman in a tight T-shirt inscribed with the word never. Dressed in brogues and a very English suit, Wilkinson is charming and witty, but he reminds me of what is ultimately wrong with the Eurosceptics. Wilkinson believes that the EU is doomed to fall apart as a consequence of its contradictions, in much the same way that Marxists used to say that capitalism would finally end by destroying itself. He doesn’t see that anything done in Brussels might be useful. In London, such views are rehearsed daily by a large part of the press, and it is even possible to think of them as being reasonable. Here we may see them for what they are-quixotic.
4th april, vienna
A cold wind is blowing off the Danube while I wait at the Hofburg Palace for the usual procession of limousines. I am here for the opening of the Observatory on Racism and Xenophobia. Although EU member states have imposed sanctions on Austria, following the rise to power of Jörg Haider’s Freedom party, these are not supposed to interfere with EU business. The Observatory was dreamed up long ago, and Romano Prodi has decided that the opening should go ahead. But members of the Austrian coalition government are not invited. I hang around a chandeliered suite of rooms, waiting for Prodi. A man with braid on his shoulders and dyed hair tells me that I probably can’t interview the Austrian president. “I’m not interested in the Austrian president,” I say. I see many journalists, but few members of “real” minorities. Everyone pretends to listen to Prodi’s speech, which is in Italian. The Austrian foreign minister has come uninvited to the feast, and she tells me that, appearances notwithstanding, Jörg Haider’s party is not packed with racists. No one explains what the Observatory will achieve, or indeed what the sanctions are accomplishing.
More Brussels days. The dead side of Brussels is the international quarter, but the centre is crammed with lively bars and restaurants. Food is the antidote to boredom in Brussels. The many sex bars notwithstanding, there are no sex scandals in the Brussels newspapers, and the doings of the Belgian royal family go mostly unreported. In one shop near the Grand Place, I acquire a bathroom towel in EU colours. The portly assistante assures me that it is not unusual to find couples buying entire sets “pour se mettre en Europe.” Who can these compulsives be?
I meet a man who may be the ultimate federalist. Thierry B?et is Belgian, and he is chef de cabinet in the overseas aid directorate. For him the New Europe means escaping Europe’s past. The European nation-states did not ensure the survival of democracy; more often, they destroyed it. Composed of laws offering the prospect of citizenship regardless of one’s ethnic origins, a federal Europe will indeed represent a higher stage of civilisation. Look at the Yugoslav war, B?et says. There, people were slaughtered because of who they were: Croats, Bosnians or Serbs. In Europe, everyone will choose. Remembering how bored my 87-year-old French mother is with the prospect of enduring national differences, I experience a brief quasi-revivalist rush of internationalism.
I take a tram through woods to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Displayed in glass cases are stuffed fauna, totems and masks contorted into expressions of pain. One room contains a munchkin-size cap belonging to Henry Morton Stanley, a selection of flags and guns, and a bronze statue of the museum’s founder (and the begetter of the Congo colony), King Leopold II. A list of names commemorates those Belgians who died in the service of civilisation. No mention is made of the millions of Africans starved or killed in the 30-year plunder sponsored by Leopold.
17th april, poland
I stayed in the same hotel in Warsaw 16 years ago, when it was a Stalinist Fawlty Towers. So much reckless capitalist energy is cheering. But joining the EU is proving more difficult than eliminating the last vestiges of socialism. I am told that there are at least 30,000 regulations that must be adopted before membership is possible. The legislative programme is stalled, and many Poles have begun to complain about what they must do. I am given a 15-kilo boxed set of the acquis communautaire-the EU in paper form-and I take this to Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish foreign minister. Geremek is depressed by the lack of progress. For him, Poland is part of Europe anyhow-centuries of Polish struggles against enemies to the east demonstrate this. “Europe for us is a community,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about jealously guarding a rich man’s club.”
But I begin to realise that things are not so simple in Poland. A deal is being done-though it bears little relation to the lofty talk about values in Brussels. On the Belarus border, the Polish guards have been equipped with Land Rovers paid for by the EU. At the checkpoint, cars with Belarussian plates are backed up for 2km. Soon these Belarussians are to lose their easy access to Polish markets. So the real border of Europe is already in place.
Pigs are the talk of Poland. I spend two days in the company of Andrzej Lepper, founder of Self-Defence, a populist movement which is attracting support on an anti-EU ticket. Lepper takes me to farms in which the delightful Polish pigs are being undercut by subsidised EU imports-a consequence of Poland being opened up to the single market. Sitting in the back of his Alfa Romeo, Lepper drinks can after can of Red Bull as we go to meetings at which he says that the EU is killing Poland. The audience is ageing and poor, and I realise that I have seen these people before-at the rallies of Jean-Marie Le Pen. At one meeting I ask a crowd of peasants to raise their hands if they are in favour of the EU. No one does.
9th may, back in brussels
I get to see G?ther Verheugen, Commissioner for Enlargement, in the wake of his controversial comment that there should, perhaps, be a referendum on enlargement in Germany. The latest polls show that only 34 per cent of Germans and 26 per cent of the French back it. Loud-voiced, amiably bulky, Verheugen shows me his collection of paintings from the candidate countries-the riotous splodges on display this month are from Hungary. As part of my efforts to convey the hostility of Polish peasants towards the EU, I have brought my own, more modest artworks: Polaroids depicting pigs and farmers. Shouldn’t they be allowed to survive? But the commissioner is adamant. These are the rules-if the Poles wish to join the EU they must adhere to them. “Of course it’s boring, of course it’s not sexy,” he adds, with agreeable candour. “This is what the acquis is. This is the written form of the European reality.”
Long ago in the 1970s, I suppose I considered myself an enthusiast, but I veered towards scepticism around the time in which it became apparent that the EU couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about the war in the Balkans. Now I find myself somewhere between rage and resignation. I know that the practice of contemporary democracy is meant to involve a certain degree of banality. But I hadn’t realised that banality, like rain-washed concrete, can come in so many different shades of grey.
A pattern is established by now in my relationship with Brussels. I walk off the Eurostar into a cloud of mild anomie. What is this place for? What am I doing here? I am beginning to understand that there is something called real life in Brussels-far from being faceless or corrupt, the bureaucrats are often nice, and usually harried, as I discover when the ladies of the town-twinning department burst into tears while describing how their missionary work is frustrated by lack of funds. “They always want folk-dancing,” the head of the department explains. “We would be happier if they had conferences about xenophobia, but they like folk-dancing.”
I wonder why the EU has failed to generate its own brand of satire. This may be simply the result of its distance from ordinary life in each member country-satire is still a national thing. That’s a pity. Brussels desperately needs more humour, but most of the supranationalists gathered here are reluctant to acknowledge their national differences, thus ruling out one big source of laughter. Also, banality is a difficult target to hit precisely. The only writer who remotely anticipated the EU was the Austrian novelist Robert Musil. His “pseudoreality” (vacuous documents wrapped in yellow or brown thread, never-ending discussions of non-existent “values,” debates over how a contingent of Viennese brewers should celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Emperor’s accession to power) rings utterly true here-except that the inconclusive deliberations of the Austrian empire possess a charm wholly absent from contemporary Brussels.
I read some classics, to see what they can tell me about the state I am in. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America identified the aspects of Europe which made the creation of a European federal state improbable. These included the lack of a common language, and the stubborn regionalism of Europe. “The distance from Maine to Georgia is about 1,000 miles,” he wrote, “but the difference between the civilisation of Maine and that of Georgia is slighter than the difference between the habits of Normandy and those of Brittany.” This is becoming less true, courtesy of huge European companies, from Carrefour to Siemens and Vodafone. The power of money, and not its political institutions, will finally pull Europe together. De Tocqueville dreaded the unchecked progress of capital, even as he admired its impact in the new world. Like the ?rques he inspired, he would certainly have supported the EU as a means of controlling the advance of “globalism.”
But de Tocqueville also believed that democracies must be comprehensible to their citizens. He worried that the US federal constitution was too complicated. Who, other than the experts, would ever be able to understand the concept of “separation of powers”? Compared to the overloaded, redundant plumbing systems of Brussels, the US constitution is a model of comprehensibility. I try to imagine a guided tour of the EU given by de Tocqueville. Would he, too, experience what I now identify as the mal de Bruxelles-an inability to remember any pertinent fact relating to the structure and/or organisation of the EU for longer than 15 minutes?
I begin to think that the notorious empiricism of the British could contribute usefully to the making of a European civil society. We could certainly supply much bloody-mindedness. Perhaps we might also reinstate the old-fashioned notion that rules, once made, can also be overturned. But in order to take “Europe” seriously, Brits will wish to know what it is. Somehow, I feel, this is not going to happen quickly. I pursue this line of thought with my federalist friend Thierry B?et in the Magritte gallery of the Mus?d’Art Moderne. Magritte’s famous painting showing the head and wings of a bird-a pigeon or eagle, one can’t be sure-arising out of a mountain, seems like the right image for Europe. I wonder what will emerge from the large eggs in the foreground. Will it be a pigeon or an eagle? Or nothing?
Meanwhile, a fresh debate over the nature of Europe has begun. In one corner is the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who presents his own federalist vision. This involves the recognition that nation-states do exist. They are to be granted a second chamber of representatives from the national parliaments, whose role will be to elect a European president. A European constitution will delimit the respective powers of states and centre. These ideas imply an extension of the German system to the rest of Europe, and for this reason they are unlikely to find favour with the Brits or Scandis.
President Chirac’s response, delivered at the Bundestag, is less than fulsome. Sounding like the late Lord Olivier at the end of his career, Chirac praises Fischer for his contribution to the debate, while ignoring pretty much everything he says. He calls for a European constitution; but it is clear that a federal system is not on. The French want “flexible cooperation” between those within the EU willing to constitute a “hard core” ready for further integration-those, in other words, prepared to accept French guidance. It is hard to see why a Europe dominated by French bureaucrats should thrill anyone these days. Reading The Federalist Papers, I feel a twinge of nostalgia for 18th-century prose. In those days, one unambiguous document was considered enough to steer the fate of a country-and the constitution was drafted during a single hot Philadelphia summer.
16th may, strasbourg
I am off to the European parliament’s other home. I take the train from Brussels, travelling for five hours through Belgium, Luxembourg and eastern France in the company of sleepy young wannabe Eurocrats. A bus deposits me at the Churchill building-which turns out to be the wrong place. After a short hike alongside a canal, I find myself standing before an enormous, ellipse-shaped building with a courtyard in which a young woman is assembling a giant bumblebee. This proves to be a prop for the day’s Greenpeace demonstration against GM food. A first walk around the Louise Weiss building-no one seems to know who she was-makes it clear that pseudoreality has been allowed to flower here into an extravagant bloom. MEPs, their aides and their secretaries scurry in all directions. They hate being here, and the grumbling is noisy and pervasive-like the BBC in the days of John Birt. With its creepers draped over the atrium, the building is constructed in the irritating primary-colour and glass-nursery pedagogic style beloved by progressive French television stations. However, I do like the floral carpeting in the bars, and the stick-insect chairs on which MEPs and their young stagiaires perch awkwardly. It appears that this d?r was achieved by the enlargement of the photograph of an English meadow taken from 10,000 metres. A tour with the amiable French architect (now constructing “living environments” for the communist elite in China) produces another Hulotesque scene in which a liftful of visitors say they are lost just at the moment when he is assuring me how easy it is to find your way around.
I attend a number of debates, including one in which the Austrian president is barracked. My head becomes lighter and lighter as I try to struggle ontologically with the existence of this building. At the Edinburgh summit of 1992, the new parliament was given the green light at the same time as the British and Danish secured their various opt-outs. So, this elaborate, foolish building, costing as much as the Dome and used only four days a month, should be named not after Louise Weiss, but John Major.
By my second day in Strasbourg my anomie is turning to fury. Europeans are always forced into making excuses for everything. We say: “The French (or Germans) want this, or the British don’t want this.” In the spirit of compromise, things are done which shouldn’t be done, and other things are neglected. This is how Europe ends up-as something that everyone has manfully struggled over, in a spirit of great seriousness, but something no one really likes very much. If the parliament were “stronger”-a ceaseless demand of the MEPs, but one that shows no sign of being fulfilled now that nation-states are clawing back power from the commission-perhaps nothing would ever get done at all.
22nd may, romania
A group of MEPs have come to Bucharest to see whether the Romanians are making progress in their quest to become EU members. Top of the agenda is the plight of the orphans-the 120,000 children abandoned as a result of Ceausescu’s policy of encouraging a high birth rate and banning contraceptives. We begin in the Conducator’s palace, now used to house the Romanian Parliament. Ceausescu’s building, it is now thought, cost 50 per cent of the Romanian national budget for more than five years. As large as the Pentagon, it is the sort of brutalist architectural folly that Albert Speer was supposed to erect in Berlin. That night I have a dream in which I am in a very large room filled with translators at work. None of them is speaking a language I can understand, but it is clear that they are saying the same thing.
Next morning, we drive for miles through a post-apocalyptic countryside full of wrecked pylons and abandoned smokestacks. Someone must be dishing out lots of blue-and-yellow pills, because the MEPs are cheery. Progress of candidate states is evaluated according to a long checklist, and on some counts Romania is, I am told, making progress. I want to know whether a political culture can be imposed in this way. Doesn’t it take decades to develop what the MEPs refer to as “values”? Isn’t this something that the Romanians should be doing for themselves? Near Constanta, somewhere by the viscous-looking Black Sea, at a lodge which was once a summer home of the Ceausescu family, a gypsy band plays tangos at a banquet. Rubbery fish is served. For two hours our bus tours what looks like a set for The Wizard of Oz, finally depositing us in a freezing chalet with taps which will only drip. Next day we visit an Aids ward for young children, and two homes for abandoned children. This is becoming a giant photo opportunity. But the MEPs are visibly moved, and one has to ask: Who else gives a damn about the Romanians? Who but masochists from the European parliament would come to godforsaken places like this, year after year, and ask awkward questions?
18th june, feira, portugal
More limousines, more journalists-this is an EU summit. We assemble in a hangar designed for trade fairs. I am told that participants are working on an agenda leading to another summit, culminating in a treaty. Meanwhile progress is deadlocked over the matter of the secret bank accounts by means of which Europeans avoid paying taxes. The Austrians refuse to abolish their own secret accounts until the sanctions are lifted. Partly because the EU didn’t impose these sanctions (it was the work of member states) the resolution of this problem takes up much time. In Porto, I stand outside the 18th-century banqueting hall, taking Polaroids of EU leaders. Tony Blair looks terrible; the rest are merely numb with fatigue. Prodi is smiling, but this may be because we have by now learned to recognise each other. Next day, gripped by the nullity of the proceedings, I begin to offer blue-and-yellow pills to journalists. I take one myself. High at last on European integration, I make my way to the press conference at which the president, the prime minister and the foreign minister are to announce their plans for the French presidency, which begins in July. While Chirac makes another empty speech, I edge forward among the security guards. I had planned to ask a question, but instead I come bearing a gift. After six months hanging around the EU, I say to Chirac, I am convinced that a belief in European unity requires stimulants such as these Euro-pills. To my surprise, the guards do not apprehend me. “Merci,” booms Chirac, sounding even more like Lord Olivier. The so-protestant Lionel Jospin even cracks a joke about France’s drugs policy, and how they will have to send my pills to a laboratory before using them. Later, I corner Prodi, who tells me that I shouldn’t worry about the lack of progress because the timescale for Europe is so long. “Ten years, fifty years!” he exclaims, throwing up his hands in amusement. “Why not?”
28th september, copenhagen
It is stifling in Christiansborg, the Danish parliament building. Everyone who is anyone in the Danish political elite is crammed into two small, smoky rooms. I watch the exit polls fluctuate until the size of the No vote becomes clear. Then the mood changes rapidly. Even among Yes voters there is an undertone of excitement, as if some earnestly sustained taboo was noisily broken. “It’s not quite a fuck off and die vote,” a friend tells me. The prime minister is ashen and bursts into tears during a rendition of a Danish version of the Red Flag. I ask the ex-commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard whether there is anything the EU could do to make itself more loved by Danes. “I don’t know,” she says. “I really don’t.” Befuddled by free Tuborg, I try to calculate how many countries, given the opportunity to vote this night, would have delivered a different result. Surely not Germany, where support for the currency is running at 25 per cent, or France, where Chirac is sinking in the wake of a scandal involving a videotape and envelopes containing millions of francs from building contractors. Perhaps Belgium would have voted Yes, and the Netherlands-perhaps, too, Luxembourg, Ireland, Finland… But a majority of Europeans? Surely not.
I am in the air, over the Alps, when I read Tony Blair’s speech, just delivered at the Polish stock exchange and billed as his most important yet about Europe. Blair wants Europe to be “a superpower, but not a superstate.” Politely, he rebuts both the federalist ambitions of Joschka Fischer (while approving his idea of a new chamber with representatives from national parliaments) and the neo-bureaucratic ones of Chirac. He would like to see more effort devoted to conserving the relationship between the nation-states and Brussels-because the former are the genuine agents of European democracy. And he wants to see the eastern enlargement of Europe speeded up. But this is the day after the fall of Milosevic, and the middle east is blowing up. No one will be listening.
So what will come of these contributions to the Europe debate? More “flexible cooperation” will take place, because it is unavoidable; but there will be no French-led “hard core,” because the days when Europe could be chivvied along into the future are gone. And it is unlikely that the question of Europe will become of greater interest, at least outside the elite whose job it is to discuss such things. This could be because Europeans are tired of politics-but it could also be a consequence of the ageing of so many imperfect Brussels institutions, and what Commissioner Verheugen aptly called their lack of “sexiness.”
EUrope is a vivid example of a troubling feature of modernity: the decoupling of the efficient engine of wealth creation from the messy business of emotion, identity and democracy. I still prefer the “real” Europe, altering before my eyes to the EU itself. At the self-proclaimed heart of Europe, I can see little but a busy void. The EU will neither break up nor become a receptacle for the dreams of Europeans. If it does reform itself, this will not be in a spectacular or even especially engaging fashion. Those who believe in grand visions, or think that the EU can suddenly mature into a supranational democracy, are deluding themselves. For the moment, it should be enough to think of Brussels as a place to which it is sometimes necessary to go, in order to bring things back. I have brought back a film.
17th october, postscript in london
Finishing the film proves as complicated as making it. None of the…