The absurdity of the EU decision-making process
by our secret columnist in Brussels
Decisions is what the European Union is supposed to be in the business of. But to get to them is a long and winding road with many twists and turns. Our resident satirist Schadenfreude reveals some of the shenanigans he has witnessed
Some decisions come from the treaties, which the member states have signed up to and which say in general terms that such and such should happen but not when and how much. Some are second order, needed to make things work. Some are responses to new events, not foreseen but needing attention.
Most begin in the European Commission, either autonomously or because some interest group has persuaded the commission that something has to be done - like protecting migratory birds from their Mediterranean hunters. From the commission - they go simultaneously to the European Council, the European Parliament, nowadays to national parliaments and mostly to the in-house Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. This is when the lobbyists earn their bread. All manner of comments are collected and pored over,
The crucial stage is in the council and the EP. By now, there is the proposal; possibly amended, an explanatory memorandum and impact assessments on, for example, the environment and on small and medium enterprises - as well as a costing. Separately the council and the EP debate. When the council has decided what it - the member states - want, usually unanimously, less often by majority vote; it then sends its version to the EP. Honour requires that the EP should not tamely agree. The ensuing dispute involves a Conciliation Committee meeting to work out a final version.
Members of the European Parliament would like to meet face to face with ministers but reality intervenes. Ministers may not know much about the ins and outs of the questions at issue and are usually represented by the deputy permanent representatives. They are national officials, resident in Brussels, working in the engine-room. They know what it is all about. It was once said that a deputy is doing salaried penal servitude.
The wrinkles are ironed out and a decision is born. Most are, by their own lights, understandable even if not universally popular. Some are oddities. A cucumber has to have a certain fixed angularity. A peach is OK to market on day x but not on day x plus one. Subsidies for olive oil production are not calculated from weight, but from satellite photographs. More than a few decisions are condemned as bureaucracy run riot. But making a single market out of 27, and replacing their regulatory systems with a single one is a herculean task - which can never end as economic processes continue to grow and change. A few years ago, nobody would have known what a roaming mobile telephone charge was. Now it bites, thousands of times a day.
Footnote: in a display of mental oblivion, the current issue of the newsletter of the Staff of the Council Secretariat features a review of a book entitled Absurd Decisions. It is noted that there will be a sequel Absurd Decisions and how to avoid them. It seems destined to be a best-seller in Brussels.
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