rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: EU

Race and the European Union: Can the subaltern speak?

They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

At the end of a podcast interview with author Rafia Zakaria, the presenter said the European Commission had been asked how many members of the current college of commissioners were persons of colour. The reply was that the question could not be answered because the EU did not collect such statistics. Anyone who capable of a cursory search on the Internet can quickly discover for themselves the answer to this clearly rhetorical question: it is zero. The answer remains zero if you consider the whole group of the most senior office holders in the EU – the presidents of the European Council, Parliament, European Court of Justice, European Central Bank and so on. It is zero not just now but in the entire history of the European project since its foundation under the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

On the question of gender balance, the EU machine is now comfortable with targets for senior positions, and Commission President von der Leyen made sure 50% of her college were women. All male panels at Brussels conferences are out of fashion. But when it comes to questions of race and ethnicity the EU machine is impervious. This matters because human rights in the EU are not evenly enjoyed and respected, especially for those on the margins, like dark-skinned migrants and refugees. A workshop hosted in April by the European Network Against Racism concluded that there was a ‘lack of serious political commitment around the implementation of anti-racism policies, including with the reluctance to collect equality data disaggregated by race.’ If, among the cadre of decision-makers in the EU there is not one single person of colour (i.e. someone who self-identifies as non-white, or is racialised), then how can they be expected to empathise with or uphold the rights of the people most likely to suffer violations of their fundamental rights.

A recent major citizen consultation , ‘the Conference on the Future of Europe’, provides a salutary illustration. This was conducted by the European Parliament, an institution in which an estimated 3% of its Members were people of colour, or 24 out of 751, until the number fell by a further 6 when the UK left the bloc. The final report describes the methodology for the exercise as follows:

Particular attention was paid to ensuring balanced groups of experts in terms of gender and geographical diversity and balanced inputs from each of them, via extensive briefings providing citizens with facts and/or the state of play of the debate while avoiding sharing personal opinions….  European Union citizens were randomly selected (random telephone calling was the main method used by 27 national polling institutes coordinated by an external service provider), with the aim of setting up ‘Panels’ which were representative of the EU’s diversity on the basis of five criteria: gender, age, geographic origin (nationality as well as urban/rural), socio-economic background and level of education.

Across the report’s 350 pages, the terms race, racialisation, or people of colour do not appear at all. ‘Ethnicity’ occurs once – in the context of family rights. It includes a ‘key message’ that is remarkable mainly for what it does not say: ‘In the future, Europeans, across Member States and regions, should no longer face discrimination due to their age, residency, nationality, gender, religion, or political preference’. It is as if we have been immersed into a post-racist virtual reality. 

White people in the institutions tend to respond to such criticism with an insistence on how the EU is actually really diverse because it is a project uniting all the different nationalities of its Member States who are treated equally by law. The protests following murder of George Floyd in May 2020 briefly spilled over into the EU and forced a degree of introspection among policymakers, but their reaction was largely superficial and tended to dismiss the episode as symptomatic of a peculiarly American malaise. The European commissioner for equality announced: “Black Europeans are European citizens and should be treated equally and fairly, free from all manifestations of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.” It was an echo of a familiar right-wing trope that attempts to assimilate by denying difference, experience and agency. (Paul Gilroy dissected this in his 1987 book Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, in particular by citing a party political ad in late 1970s which displayed a young black man in a suit with the slogan ‘Labour say he’s black, Tories say he’s British.’)

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A more substantive response was hinted at by the Commission in its 2020 EU Action Plan Against Racism which acknowledged the existence of ‘structural racism’ and conceded – for the first time for any EU body – that the Commission itself ‘as an employer, has to lead by example. To be a modern organisation, the Commission needs a workforce which is representative of our society as a whole,’ and it promised ‘actions… in a forthcoming HR strategy’. This HR strategy was published in April this year and it underook to develop ‘Actions … to better attract, support and include staff with an ethnic minority background. To monitor progress, the Commission will carry out regular diversity and inclusion surveys and review the actions accordingly.’ It further undertook to ‘Ensure full gender equality at all levels of Commission management by 2024″’, but was again silent on both race and racialisation.

Meanwhile, the leader of one EU member state, Victor Orban, is now openly articulating an agenda for European racial purity, and the official EU response is limited to worthless platitudes.  Orban only said the quiet parts out loud.  There is always an othering.  The EU recognises the need for gender equality, and prizes cultural diversity, whatever that might mean, but human rights are degraded when they are treated as abstractions. The reality is that rights are fragile and their infringements are unevenly felt. Conferences addressing human rights like privacy and freedom of expression rarely invite people of colour onto their panels and keynote lecterns. Where EU institutions employ people of colour, they tend to have more precarious contracts compare to jobs-for-life officials.  In the Ukraine crisis, reports of discrimination experienced by people of colour fleeing to the borders in the early weeks of the invasion were offically dismissed, even as they were corroborated by the Fundamental Rights Agency. “Whenever Ukrainian border guards saw my face they stopped me while waving the Ukrainian women forward,“ said Bwalya Sørensen of BLM Danmark, who visited the border in the spring. She had a similar experience in a hotel accomodating refugees in Krakow. The ‘anti-woke’ narrative is being coordinated across the Atlantic. EU politicians are generally at ease with slamming overt racism, but few if any engage with its systemic nature. Michaela Moua, the Commission’s excellent anti-racism coordinator, seems alone in carrying forward the message of the action plan.

Gayatri Spivak, the title of whose seminal essay I have plagiarised for this article, critiqued French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault for their complicity in the silencing of the colonial subject, in the erasure of the ‘signifier’, the presumption that the subaltern are transparent and can – must – be represented (vertreten) because they are (as Marx wrote of the small-holding peasants in mid-19th century France) incapable of representing themselves. The subaltern, Spivak concludes, cannot speak.

It is not, therefore, a question of a right to speak, which in a profoundly unequal society is a meaningless abstraction, but rather a question of creating the possibility for them to do so. The imperative is not only one of social justice but also geopolitics. The EU’s institutionalised colour blindness may help explain why much of the rest of the world has shrugged its shoulders when white Europeans appeal for support against Russian violence and cruelty. Where is the ruling class of the EU when the rights of people who do not look like them are violated?

Inching towards counting how many staff identify as non-white is helpful but no game-changer. This is not a scientific exercise. Around 10% of the population of Europe are people of colour; there are around 60 senior officials: so go figure. A bold, precipitate political manouevre is called for, akin to von der Leyen’s decision to insist on a gender-balanced college of Commissioners. ‘If, in the context of colonial production’, wrote Spivak, ‘the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’. It should not be too much to ask that, when the EU’s next cycle begins with parliamentary elections and a new Commission in 2024, at least 10% of its nominations and appointments to high office should be of people of colour.

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Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

Fat-bellied white men clinging to the front of a double decker (destination Willesden), or tumbling over plastic tip up seating. Images of a green laser beam on the furrowed brow of Casper Schmeichel readying himself to save Kane’s penalty. Another fat-bellied white dude, in this case the prime minister, draping himself in the flag of St George, endlessly thrusting at the eager cameras tumescent thumbs which have been in god-knows-what places over the five decades of his sinful, successful life.

Such bacchanalia following the England’s first qualification for a final since 1966 would have been interpreted by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as the temporary triumph of the lower stratum, the sudden outburst of carnival and the bodily grotesque, a necessary counterpoint to the official order of the Renaissance social system. 

It is embarassing but also intoxicating and I miss being part of it. People in England have been physically locked down behind facemasks and in their homes, and digitally couped up in their filter bubbles. I reckon these filter bubbles have become more hermetically sealed than ever during the pandemic. For instance, on the last day of term, I suddenly found myself in a tense early morning discussion at the school bus stop with two ordinary dads, educated middle class expats, when a polite inquiry about destinations for summer holidays descended into a very testy exchange about vaccines. These men were genuinely convinced that the pandemic, lockdowns and vaccinations were a global conspiracy to manipulate and control the population. When I suggested they should be more worried about the world on fire and ruining the future lives of our children, I further learned that they dismissed global warming as a distraction from the real problem of human underpopulation of the planet, and that we are not having enough babies who can ‘look after us’ when we are old.

The pandemic has taken a further toll on the diversity of social interaction. Already a generation with heads bowed and focused on screens, lockdown for long periods obliterated the chance encounters in the street, on the bus and by the water cooler where you might briefly have been exposed to views unfamiliar or divergent or opposed to your own.  

It is a big problem in society now. It is terrifying that temperatures this summer have hit 50 degrees in Vancouver and Jacobabad, and 20 in Antarctica, and the Gulf of Mexico in flames in a scene that set #Godzilla trending, sending into an unsuspecting atmosphere yet more tonnes of carbon which we can ill-afford and had lain deep within the earth for millions of years. My wife mused we might be witnessing a vindication of the Gaia theory, the inevitable unfolding of an impersonal universal plan to harness and contain its most dominant species.

Euro2020 has released a pressure valve and it’s not supposed to be beautiful. For me football and England have represented an unresolvable conundrum of identity and belonging. I spent most of my life in London. My parents are Irish and Indian, products of the British Empire. My partner is Polish and we live in Flanders. I have attempted to rebrand myself as Irish, sickened by the nationalistic turn in my country of birth. Noone is convinced. And football is my game of choice, as a spectator and player – though few were ever convinced of that latter either.

So I have had a love-hate relationship with the England national team. I was scandalised by Maradona’s hand-of-God in 1986, repulsed by the omission of Arsenal players in 1990, and enviously watched from Italy the original ‘it’s coming home’ class of 1996, devastated when Germany won on pens. I then cheered them on and wanted to belong in the 00s, much to the chagrin of my Irish family, until eventually the side descended into an ugly uselessless and sense of entitlement encapsulated in the disdainful grimace of Wayne Rooney. Italy was my home for a while, I am not a really English, Brexit is happening, so my allegiances in tomorrow’s final should be a no-brainer.

Indeed, watching the semi outside a bar on the ironically-named Place de Londres in the trendy margins of the European quarter, the well-heeled crowd other than a clutch of estuary English were united behind Denmark, and booed when England scored. Speaking with an English accent is now a mark of Cain in these parts, thanks to Brexit and Boris. Guilt by association is never fair. The rapper who regaled Glastonbury a couple of years ago with ‘fuck Brexit fuck Boris’ is the same brilliant black musician spotted in Croydon stoking the ectasy that greeted the win over Germany in the round of last 16. This England team is composed of phenomenally-talented boys young enough for me to be their dad who are prepared to take the knee and endure the scorn of the gammon boomers with their eternal victimhood and new mantra about wokeness, which are merely proxies for wanting to go back to the good old days of racism and homophobia. And these lads are managed by Gareth Southgate, a previously dorkish penalty-squanderer with a modesty and respectfulness that the country doesn’t seem to deserve: this is has been a week where their journey-towards-fascism government has now proposed laws criminalising peaceful protest and helping asylum seekers. It is a squad of mixed races and second or third generation immigrants like me, sporting that Delphic surface shyness and mischief associated with GenZ. They probably inspire envy in other Europeans from a continent riven by systemic racism that its politicians willfully ignore as they pat themselves on their back for their integration of nations under the EU flag. The UK was an unusual member state as it would bring black and brown faces into policy discussions. So I wonder if there is a hint of racism in the European’s booing this particular England team which manages to represent the millions, like my friends and family I left behind over 13 years ago now, with a positive vision for the country. Everyone’s shit stinks.

So much of life is just spent arranging your face. People have tried to congratulate me on England’s progress and I have reacted with long-winded tergiversation like this blogpost. The best advice came from one old friend whose delayed response to one of my hand-wringing texts was quite simple. Take the win. Don’t think too hard about it.

A radical Labour keynote speech on the UK and the EU

[This is what Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition should be saying. Yes I know I’m biased but it helps to get it off my chest. The blame for the 23 June debacle lies primarily with Cameron, but secondarily with the ineptitude of the current Labour Party.]

Brexit means Brexit.

Except that no one knows what Brexit means. You can keep repeating this motto as long as you like. It remains locked in a verbal merry-go-round. If you don’t know that the words mean, then the sentence, however potent, is meaningless.

Brexit means Brexit? Well, tautology means tautology.

During the referendum the British people were sold lies – from both sides – and were incited against each other and against foreigners. Some of you bought these lies.

There was no manifesto for the Leave campaign, so the peddlers of the lies cannot now be held to account. Although Prime Minister May seems to be trying to do so by putting the Brexit boys in charge of finding a dignified way out of the morass.  And if that is indeed what she is trying to do then I commend her for this, if for nothing else.

But don’t let the Tories fool you. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is another Tory attempt to hoodwink the people, just like they did with the referendum and with Cameron’s hyped-up renegotiation of UK membership, which no-one really believed.

Brexit means Brexit is a ploy to detract attention from the government’s own incompetence in getting us into this mess, through a swift changing of the guard, swapping a complacent Etonian with a busy Oxonian.

You see, the referendum was never about the interests of the country.

The Tories needed open-heart surgery to get over their Europe fixation. Except with the referendum, they were allowed to inflict the ordeal on the nation as a whole, with uncertain consequences far beyond Britain’s shores.

A thin majority of voters voted for Brexit.

There were, according to the Electoral Commission, 46,499,537 registered voters in June 2016. 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU – that is, 37% of the registered voters voted to leave. 35% of the electorate voted to stay.

Most of the remaining 28% of the electorate were presumably not bothered either way.

Is it responsible democratic government to rush to action against the economic, environmental and strategic interests of our nation, purely on the basis that 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 35% to stay?

Let’s compare this with the vote to join the Common Market in 1975. In that referendum, 43% of registered voters voted to join the EEC against 21% to stay out. That looked like a fair mandate.

The trouble is that referendums have no constitutional place in the UK, so they can be used by political chancers like Cameron to fix party political problems which, until this year, were never a problems for the country.

We must never allow a party – of whatever colour – to hold the country to ransom in that way again.

People have drawn comparisons with the lower voter numbers who delivered landslide victories to Blair and Thatcher.

But that is simply an indictment of the winner-takes-all electoral system. (Which we must fix too.)

At least in a General Election the outcome is only valid for a maximum five years, there is an opposition to the elected government, and there is representation at a local level to reflect the wishes of the majority of the constituency.

We had a vague, dumbed-down referendum on 23 June. No one know what we were voting for, so it acted as a waste bucket for all our problems. And with the referendum, if we allow the Tories to get away with it, there is no going back.

I recognise that people voted against the EU because they believed that the EU was responsible for too much immigration, for pressure on public services and underspending on the NHS, for the watering down of our national identity, for lack of accountability of the elites, for inefficient bureaucracy.

But I do not recognise the vote as a mandate to leave the EU in a way that harms the UK economy, its environment and its strategic interests, that weakens protection of human rights, that causes division within the country, that is used to legitimise hate crimes against people considered to be different.

So until then, with Labour in opposition, we will demand remaining in the EU until the Tories can tell us what they mean by Brexit:

What Brexit will mean for poor communities across Britain.

What Brexit will mean for ever growing inequalities in our country, and for the long term stagnation in median wages which hits ordinary working women and men.

What Brexit will mean for race relations.

What Brexit will mean for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

We will then demand a clear mandate from the people for taking us out of the EU on those terms.

But with a Labour Government, we will stay in the EU, and yes we will try to reform it.

And we will get on with fixing the real problems, which the people have told us need fixing.

So let the Tory Party mop up its own vomit.

We have real work to do for Britain.

Greek stuff, or, Hélas Hellas

Once I went to a post office on a Greek island. I asked the man at the counter whether he spoke English. Looking at me blankly with bored, heavy eyes, he lifted his chin with a slow jerk: όχι. No.

A younger me would greet the triumph of Syriza with unalloyed glee. With my more advanced years I’m nervous about the consequences. Democracy is disrupting history.

We assume that failure en masse to repay ones debts will cripple society and the economy. But at some point a consensus emerges that accumulated debts must be forgiven. Tsipras cannily reminds Germans that they benefited from this magnanimity after the Second World War. The moral force of that argument is indisputable. But motivation for German debt forgiveness lay in the Manichaean geo-strategising of the Cold War. Germany’s geographical position made it America’s bulwark against the Soviet menace. Greece, and by logical extension all weakly-performing economies of the EU, will have to rely on less compelling forces.

Yesterday Giles Fraser said, following David Graeber, that the concept of debt had its origins as a means for conquering armies to subjugate populations and then to transfer moral guilt onto the oppressed. That may be why the Vulgate Jesus, perhaps following Socrates, taught his disciples to pray God to ‘forgive our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ Also yesterday the chief economics editor of the Financial Times said the ‘proposition …that the Greeks borrowed the money and so are duty bound to pay it back, however much it costs them… was very much the attitude that sustained debtors’ prisons.’

A Hegelian reading of Europe’s predicament would demand an antithesis to the stale orthodoxy of austerity which has been prescribed by Europe’s ‘reluctant hegemon’. It is better for the radical left to deliver such a riposte. Better than the far right which always aims to make a virtue out of targeting the weak; but they are waiting in the wings.

My high charms work And these mine enemies are all knit up In their distractions


This is not supposed to be a blog about the EU, and I’m not one to say told you so but….

During the week that was the Brussels commentariat is coming alive to the self-aggrandising chicanery which these pages foresaw a couple of months back.

First, there was the leaked memo spelling out in Teutonic detail how the President  intends to control the delivery and depiction of his ‘political guidelines’. A wish list surely concocted during the past eight years in which Viviane Reding  revelled in chasing headlines with off-message self-promoting pronouncements on other commissioner’s policy areas. Such noising off, now that the one-time court jester has become the master of ceremonies, kann nicht mehr sein.

Second, there was the unedifying spectacle of the commission threatening to withdraw its proposal – the European institutional equivalent of a boy taking his football home in the middle of a kickaround in the park because he’s losing – on waste reduction. Not because the European  parliament and council were conspiring to scotch environmental standards – on the contrary they like most of us want to fight one of the blights of contemporary existence which is the ubiquitous plastic bag. No, the motivation was a craven fear of the EU reputational damage wrought by another new EU target – even if voluntary. It is an example of a misplaced and hopelessly overdue urge to ingratiate themselves with Eurosceptics under the (worthy) banner of better regulation. Instead the new commission emerges with its credibilty for loyal cooperation and environmental stewardship tarnished.  His eminence should forget the Daily Mail  – they are never going to placated, nor should they be.

The antics of the new regime starts to resemble the machinations of that ultimate insular micromanager, Prospero, only minus the poetry.

L’Union? C’est nous.



A friend of mine recently told me that the artificial Brussels construct – of the EU institutions by day and the polite socialising by night – makes for relatively boring fayre, replete with platitudes, when compared to the bonhomie enjoyed with educated peers from his native Portugal. The air of society in the bubble feels cold and impersonal (emails to known individuals open with the frenchified ‘Dear colleague’). That suits me fine. After the chaos of my latter London years it gave me an opportunity to start something new.

Global capitalism may make the EU necessary, but not sufficient. It’s deficient because it was and remains a technocratic confection, the brainchild of several brilliant and progressive post war visionaries, determined to avoid another man-made catastrophe. Democracy, in the sense of direct accountability through an elected transborder parliament, was an afterthought. Now, as the wannabe superstate totters from crisis to crisis, the parliament provides a veneer of post hoc legitimation for the whole project, but it has little chance of placating a grumpy and pessimistic electorate. In the same way the laws that are churned out seem to lack a sense of (can I say this?) organic conviction – there are so many checks and balances that the solutions are at best beautiful compromises, fleeting like the seasons.

Take the latest capitulation to France and Italy for their unapologetic flouting of the fiscal rules which they themselves had foisted on Greece, Ireland and Portugal a few years ago. Une Europe solidaire? Chutzpah evident in, for example, Michel Sapin’s breathtaking pronouncement last month that ‘No further effort will be demanded of the French’, carried distant echoes of the Sun King and his successors. Such episodes make it easy to conceive of the EU as a bastard offspring of the French polity, perpetually condemned to pleading for its inheritance.

The compromise machine will no doubt also find a way to accommodate a truculent majority Tory UK government post-2015, for all the ostensible trench-digging about intra-EU immigration, a.k.a. the free movement of labour, a.k.a. a founding principle of neo-liberal capitalism. Britain owes its historic prosperity to this same right, arrogated to itself by its ruling class and merchants while they were hoovering up the land and resources of the empire. These were rights denied to colonials, and only reluctantly and slowly ceded when large numbers moved in from India and the Caribbean. It is not expedient for Farage, Cameron and Johnson to engage with this facet of Great British History. Anti-immigration is too useful a tactic for deflecting anger at political ineptitude and cowardice onto the least enfranchised members of society.

In the eye of the storm, meanwhile, boredom reigns largely unperturbed. I don’t know whether this is a good thing.


The Juncker Class


I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Boswell, Life of Johnson

Sometimes the EU calls to mind my favourite 18th century sexist witticism.

Last week the president-apparent of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled his exciting new organogram. Full of deft little touches – vice presidencies to women, larger countries’ commissioners apparently subordinated to smaller ones, calling bluffs and doling out unwarranted favours.  To pursue the footballing analogy which he himself hinted at (sending his team on the field and all that), his chosen formation might be described as a shift from the predictably laboured 1-27 (the president plus 27 other commissioners) to one of 1-7-20: his nibs, seven lieutenants and the rest. (Or even 1-2-5-20 if you consider the high representative for foreign relations and the ‘first vice president’ to form a super, super cadre of commissioner, all under his nibs.) Clever.

The novelty and superficial elegance of this opening manoeuvre was greeted with generally polite applause, even from the corners of the auditorium still reverberating with heckles at Juncker’s appointment. From the gallery it looks sensible. Everyone recognises the absurdity of contriving European public policy into 27 segments simply because each member states must have its own commissioner, and everyone except national governments decries the craven abandonment last year of the Lisbon treaty’s (still modest) commitment to keep the number of commissioners down to two-thirds of a theoretically unlimited number of members. A reasonable reader of Juncker’s recipe might see this as a tentative but brave first attempt to institutionalise rational accountability within the EU’s executive.

Spectators are rarely afforded glimpses behind the curtain however. The commission backstage is populated by a few thousand dimly glowing automata, each encased in his/her own office, most plotting lonely trajectories, parabolae rising from euro-optimism, through disappointed cynicism, before coming to rest in comfortable early retirement berths. These solitary atoms are assigned in groups of 15-25 to ‘units’, the impenetrable basic agglomeration of the EU administration, where they report equally and severally to the head of the unit. Without any formal provision in the staffing rules for line management beneath him or her, the head of unit typically lacks any serious hands-on experience or even training in management and leadership prior to appointment. So the boss is deprived of support, and the underlings of advice and opportunities to further their careers.

The framework is impersonal and inviolable, a post-war, post-Napoleonic, quasi-ecclesiastical relic (staff always speak deferentially of ‘my hierarchy’ never of ‘senior management’), and the college of commissioners is merely the loftiest application of this template. Now Juncker is going to try to bend it into something slightly more reminiscent of a modern executive board overseeing projects delivered through what’s called in a parallel reality matrix management.

This surprising plat du jour bears the paw prints of Martin Selmayr, today firmly established as the eminence grise of choice for Luxembourg’s EU journeymen. The baby-faced chief of staff already commands awe and loathing in equal measure among the apparatchiks. As principal string-puller for Viviane Reding in the outgoing commission, Selmayr ran a hermetic, bloody-mindedly uncollaborative outfit which was remarkable even by the Bergmaneque standards of the Berlaymont building and its inhabitants. There is therefore a pleasing chutzpah, seemingly lost on most commentators, behind Juncker’s prescription for fostering a ‘new collaborative way of working’. Silos cease to be helpful when you are supposed to be in charge of them all. Joined-up policymaking suddenly becomes a good thing when you’re handed control of the un-joined-up bits.

Does Selmayer really expect this to work? He knows perhaps better than anyone else that the EU at each level performs a danse macabre of unit against unit, department versus department, department versus cabinet, cabinet versus cabinet, and so on. He will also know that a commissioner requires no licence from the president to block an initiative – they already can and flagrantly do so, often coincidentally reflecting the desires of their national capitals. Even officials can do it through the inter-departmental clearance procedure before it even reaches the college’s agenda.

If they really wanted to break down barriers, a first step would be to do so literally, by removing the walls between everyone’s offices. (Juncker’s predecessor Romano Prodi tried cohabitation between commissioners with their respective officials. It was judged an abject failure: they didn’t get on any better, and commissioners became even more estranged from one other.) A second step would be to link grading and reward to actual responsibility and capability.

Instead the supercommissioners look like adding a further layer of rivalry and resentment. What exactly is their status? ‘In the new Commission, there are no first or second-class Commissioners – there are team leaders and team players’ (Barroso used almost precisely these words on the eve of his first term in 2004). So, all commissioners are equal, but some will ‘steer and coordinate others’. This fuzzy functional elevation rests solely on the patronage of the president. The more confusion and infighting that ensue, the more power redounds to the centre. (Similar divide and rule tactics have been deployed, less impressively, by Barroso.)

Christopher Clark in his outstanding study of the origins of the First World War notes that policy in the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire ‘did not emanate from a compact executive cell at the apex of the system. It emerged from interactions across an archipelago of power-centres whose relationships with each other were partly informal and in constant flux.’

Today the most powerful woman in Europe can maintain her studied supremacy amid the warring factions of her coalition precisely because she hovers serenely above the fray. And as for the commission, who will now be on hand, sparingly, to resolve the ambiguity and overlap? Go figure.

Cunning linguists

I want to understand you,
I study your obscure language.

It is always gratifying to read something that chimes sympathetically with your own experience. Living in Brussels and speaking bits of sundry other European languages, I rather dread the ‘It’s ok we can speak English’ interjection, so ubiquitous among Euroland’s hyper-educated non-native speakers. Germans do it a lot (believing themselves superior); Poles do it a lot (fearing themselves inferior). Is it a patronising, passive-aggressive cut-down, a staking of a claim to intellectual and professional superiority? Or is it an innocent and benign offer to help facilitate conversation. Often quite hesitant anyway in my own language (What’s that word again? Is it worth saying anything in this situation?), I am nervous that people mistake my circumspection for linguistic limitations.

On the other hand you encounter plenty of people here who blithely mouth off in several languages other than their native one(s), their sentences peppered with grammatical errors, showing scant regard for pronunciation and zero attempt to disguise their accents. Thus you get (in particular) Spaniards, Italians and indeed Brits who, unless you are concentrating, sound almost exactly the same whatever language they happen to be speaking. Those in positions of authority tend to be the worst culprits.

Like much in life, it all comes down to the brassiness of your balls, irrespective of the first language chiselled thereupon.

Yes, Madame la Commissaire

One of the half-truths about the EU is that it’s very hierarchical. In fact, as far as the Commission is concerned, it’s a very flat management structure, with only three formal tiers of management, whereas in the UK civil service you might have a dozen of them. Directors-General are in charge of the department, and there is a small clutch of directors to whom report a few heads of unit. Then there’s everyone else. Between each of the 28 Commissioners’ cabinets and the officials is a wall of procedural etiquette, which varies in penetrability from one DG to the next. Over here, Sir Humphrey’s counterpart does not just stroll next door into the minister’s office. One of the bevy of clever and well-paid grunts will write something, like a draft directive, and it rises up that short management chain and before being presented to the cabinet by the DG’s private secretary like a waiter removing the lid from a dinner plate. Thus diplomatic protocol infuses the warp and weft of European policy making.

Structure and process protrude all over the place. Documents, offices, buildings, even staff have unique numbers which regularly flummox the uninitiated. Even the DGs were known by code names until just over a decade ago. Creativity and diplomacy are the weeds which push through the interstices of all this abstraction.


As a result of the linguistic turn from French to English, Brits have a big advantage in this arena. So do the Irish. Though one of them was livid at a teacher in a French writing class when she categorically refused to accept that the Irish were real native speakers. In fact the Irish have the biggest headstart of all, because they can break off into Gaelic during tricky negotiations knowing that no-one else in the room will understand a word.

There’s a tendency to feel a little ashamed that most people here work with communicate with consummate ease in at least three languages. Better rather however to enjoy the endearing French-isms which proliferate; such as when people write ‘Thanks for your reply, already next week’ (i.e ‘Please reply by next week if possible’) or use the term ‘floaters’ to refer to readily redeployable staff.  English doesn’t belong to the English anymore, through we may still considered the experts in using it, for the time being.

(A version of this blog appeared on the Telegraph website in February 2011.)

This sceptic isle

Euroscepticism is an English problem not a UK problem. And, I would venture, it is even more accurate to view this as an English non-urban white issue. It stems from a latent sense of superiority and xenophobia, in spite of the fact that our economic and political clout has been steadily declining for over a century, and our football team is now beyond crap. And it is of a piece with the anti-immigration discourse. These are deep-seated prejudices which I don’t think can be shifted for a long time to come, though try we must. Having said that, I suspect that when confronted with a referendum, the country will overall vote yes to staying in the EU, because for all the distasteful traits in the national psyche, it is pragmatism and self-interest (i.e. money) that tend to prevail. Unless of course, the Scots vote to leave the Union next autumn… Then we really might face the comedy nightmare prospect envisioned by Julian Barnes.