The leaders and laggards of member state EU representation
by our secret columnist in Brussels
It is commonly known that different countries have different stances when it comes to representing their nations through the EU. But, less widely-known is the diversity of styles adopted by permanent representatives and ministers - our resident satirist Schadenfreude reveals some interesting behavioural truths
How do the national European Union machines work? Ultimately, everything depends upon how much agreement there is among them about what should happen next. The quality is mixed. In Germany, inter-ministerial coordination is undeveloped. Schadenfreude once congratulated a German official on a constructive performance. He was surprised, stating: "An agreement? No that was the Economic Ministry talking - the Foreign Ministry disagrees."
The French are well organised, with an inter-ministerial committee on Europe and a competent staff. It produces powerful briefing which French Ministers, with the strong French oral tradition, make good use of. They have had to learn English, the lingua franca. The British are the paragons of coordination. The Cabinet Office in the United Kingdom oversees the analyses, the briefing and the lines to take. Unfortunately, the ministers are not always up to using the material and may stray into improvisation.
Spanish officials are trained up to the eyebrows. They are graduates of a 'diplomatic academy'. It used to be suspected that their training in negotiation used 'list A' – things we want - and 'list B', things we do not care about. On list B, they argued long and hard before conceding and used the credit therefore earned to move on list A. The Greeks started with a profound suspicion that the others were out to do them down. They simply declined to believe that what the European Commission and the European Council Secretariat were telling them. They feared the barbarians, even bringing gifts.
The Dutch are a muddle. There seems to be little coordination in The Hague. This makes it difficult to work with them because the basis is unsound. The Italians tend to believe that their permanent representation in Brussels has all the answers and all the relevant information. It is given a free hand and uses it effectively. Irish officialdom is highly educated. With a relatively narrow range of interests – until the crisis hit – as long as agricultural support was secure and cohesion money was coming in, one of the preoccupations was not to become too close to the British. Joining the eurozone was an example, but staying out of the Schengen agreement on passport-free travel was inevitable when Britain stayed out. Geographically, it should be South Ireland but the rule is that apart from historical names, a country is whatever it calls itself. Unless it is Macedonia, or 'The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' as the Greeks demand. Irish Gaelic is an official language, but not a working one.
Several members work in loosely coordinated 'clubs'. Visegrad brings together more or less the Eastern European Members. Romania has patched up the spat between its president and its prime minister and should have more time for EU business. Most of the Visegrads are still in the learning phase until they have run a presidency. Benelux is equally loose, with the Netherlands coming together with Germany over bail-outs. Luxembourg runs the Eurogroup. The British are very loosely with the Maltese and Cypriots in a 'common law' group. Club Med is not a group of this kind but a slightly derogatory term for the southern members.
The Danes, ultra democrats, work under the tight control of their Parliamentary (Folketing) Europe Committee. It effectively dictates the positions Denmark should take, without much flexibility. This is not as bad as it sound since the composition of committee members roughly corresponds to government coalitions. There is no single EU style. There are some rule books but they are mainly descriptions of procedures in the council and its relations with the European Parliament.