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What You See Is What You Get

In the last few days, I’ve ended up in Twitter conversations with two British journalists I greatly respect, only to discover that when they look at the EU they see something completely different than what I see. This is not a question of factual knowledge. They know as much about the EU as I do, having covered it for many years. And yet, when we discuss what seem like factual questions, it turns out we see reality in a completely different light, and that has undoubtedly coloured their response to the current mess about the new Commission President.

To start with Gideon Rachman. I like his commentary so much that he had his own category on my old blog. I was particularly amused by his observation that the G20 was so akin to EU summits that it amounted to a European plot to take over the world. And yet, talking about the Lisbon Treaty, he said this:



While this is a familiar charge made by Eurosceptics all over the continent, I would have never imagined someone fully aware of the details to make such a comment. Quite clearly the Constitutional Treaty purported to be a Constitution, i.e. a step change in the history of the Union towards something much more Federal than we have now. For that reason, and that reason alone, voters in the Netherlands and France were asked to give their consent. When they voted no, the Constitution was axed, and we went back to the old way of doing things. To be sure, some of the institutional reforms of the Constitutional Treaty were included in the Lisbon treaty, but those reforms were never the point. In fact, with the possible exception of the Simplified Revision Procedure, these reforms are rather minor when compared to previous reform treaties.

So how can someone “covering [the EU] for 5 years” look at the same set of facts and see something completely different? The only explanation I can think of is that there must be some kind of conventional wisdom at work here. “Everybody knows” that the continental elites don’t respect their voters and ignore referendums, so that must be what they did now. Even at the time that was the line the media generally took: In the past, whenever Ireland or another country voted against a Treaty amendment, they were asked to vote again until they got it right (never mind the renegotiations inbetween), so surely that must be what is happening now as well.

Frankly, this is not a very satisfying diagnosis, and I’m not sure that it is right, but it would explain how that same Gideon Rachman argued this weekend that the best way to save democracy was to ignore the EP elections. After all, if the EU is by assumption illegitimate, the best way to save democracy is to give the EU as little independent room for manoeuvre as possible.

Something similar goes for my conversation over the weekend with the Financial Times’s International Economy Editor – and if I’m not mistaken one-time Charlemagne – Allan Beattie. Over the course of an afternoon we didn’t quite work out which one of us failed to understand the difference between de facto and de jure powers, but what was clear is that he’s not a fan of the European Parliament’s power under art. 17 TEU to block every and any nominee for Commission President that it pleases, for any reason that it pleases.

What I see is a political announcement by the Parliament that it will veto every and any nominee except Juncker. This is not a legal act but a political one, and the Council is welcome to see if the Parliament has the spine to keep its promise. (My guess: it doesn’t, not in the least because the members of the Council tend to be the party leaders of the parties represented in the Parliament.)

What he sees is:





(Just follow the tweets for the full conversation.) So clearly he’s looking at the same bit of Treaty text I’m looking at, and seeing something entirely different. But why? Well, because “the EU is not a parliamentary democracy but a federation with a parliament and an appointed executive”. Of course, if that is your starting point, that’s what you’re going to get. Again, I might write this off as a case of an economist trying to be a lawyer and failing at it, but these are the people that are supposed to inform the electorate about the EU. The Financial Times is the closest thing we have to a pan-European newspaper. It’s bad enough that the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph seems to celebrate that Jean-Claude Juncker is so unknown in Europe, rather than considering it a personal failure:

But that’s the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper never accused of impartial or well-informed reporting on EU matters. But the FT is the paper we all rely on to pick apart Council conclusions.

We can’t very well conclude that the FT is simply wrong. The question is about the slant given to undisputed facts, so fundamentally there is no right or wrong. But what you see is what you get, and if the only media reporting we ever see is written from the assumption that the EU is an illegitimate usurper of power, that is what voters will believe. Having one pan-European newspaper is better than none, but we could do with a bit more pluralism in the European public sphere.

UPDATE: Another day, another FT editor taking gratuitous shots at Jean-Claude Juncker. For some reason, Mr. Juncker’s various decorations are considered extremely funny. More seriously, the author refers to “point 7 of article 9D in Title III of the Lisbon treaty” as if it is something really obscure that no one knew about until today, and he seems to think that we all think Juncker should be nominated because that’s how you “take account” of the election result. For the record: no, that’s not it. He should be nominated because the Parliament have decided they want him, and because they have the power to veto anybody else.


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