A European 'omnishambles' in Brussels?
by our secret columnist in Brussels
Our resident satirist Schadenfreude takes a sneaky look inside the hallowed halls of the committee rooms in Brussels. What goes on? Who says what? And why? Prepare to raise your eyebrows
What goes on inside the committee rooms in Brussels? Much the same as committee rooms everywhere. People are sitting around a table. Others are sitting behind them. Some at the table speak. The European Commission representative explains what he or she wants. The institution has made a proposal. It is the only source of proposals. Others can ask the commission to propose what they want, but the institution is not obliged to pay any attention to such requests – never does it take 'instructions'.
The others around the table say what they like or do not like in the proposal before them. This gives rise to multiple disagreements. The committee chairperson, who comes from one of the member states, tries to find common ground. The commission representative may give way somewhat or may 'take the commission's responsibilities' – in other words, stand firm. This does not matter if the chairperson can put together a lobby of some size. Others who are not in the lobby will maintain their demands.
Sitting beside the chairperson are one ort two of his or her own people and someone from the European Council secretariat. He or she is the only person in the room who does not have their own agenda. Their sole purpose is to look for the traces of a possible compromise. This is sometimes scornfully called 'the least common denominator' - wrongly because arithmetically eight over 16 is the same as two over four. If a number is wanted, it is the highest common factor; that is the point at which the largest number of supporters can be counted.
The chairperson sums up. Maybe there is the basis of a result, maybe it needs more work. Maybe there is already the seed of an agreement, which people can take away to brood over and consult on. The dossier moves up to the permanent representatives, the PRs being the heads of national delegations. They have a club mentality and are keen to maintain a reputation for efficiency. They have another go at finding more common ground.
If it works, it is as good as agreed. Their ministerial masters will not need to discuss it all over again. If not, and again with the help of the council secretariat, they set out what the outstanding issues are. They have their own vocabulary, with language which has worked before like 'without prejudice to' when it looks as if it might and 'doing x while doing y' - to join up two objectives which are not easily compatible, but which different people want. Look for them in published documents and you will see the proof.
If there is no agreement among PRs, ministers will have to try - the PRs sitting by the side of each. The new snag is that at the top, the meeting of heads of state and government. The chairperson is no longer one of them, but the man or woman on a term contract. This discontinuity was supposed to correct the other discontinuity between rotating national EU presidencies, such as the Cypriots replacing the Danes this month. In today's hard times, it is moot whether it works or whether the old alternative of a national presidency throughout would be better.
The results are reported first in a press conference, which is sometimes captured by more important events and later by the publication of decisions taken. It is easy to make fun of the lobsworthies of the new Byzantium in their ivory towers. But nobody has come up with another way of helping 27 sovereign states to give substance to the cooperation, which they want to practise. Majority votes are quicker but an accumulation of them can give rise to resentment. Perhaps, it is time for the term 'omnishambles' to go Europe-wide.