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Brexit Deconstructed: UK will be left outside as Europe gets things done

Can Britain ever fully escape the EU? Photo: PA / Andrew Milligan - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The EU and UN are held together by compromises and fudges; so some of their critics do have a point. But JAMES BALL asks; does that mean Britain can back out of the mess?

If you’re trying to defend internationalism – the idea countries should work together, look outwards and not inwards, and build closer relationships – then one of the biggest barriers to managing it is those institutions themselves.

Building a system of international law, to take action on a global scale, is an idea that seems unassailably good – until you look at the realities of the UN. And for some, the idea of cooperating on trade, security and other matters with our neighbours across Europe seemed a good one – until they saw the reality of how the EU operates.

However much we love the EU, or however much we don’t want the UK to leave it (these two are not necessarily at all the same thing) it is probably worth acknowledging such critics do have a point. By its very structure the EU is held together by compromises, by fudges, by checks and balances, which can, almost by design, lead it towards inaction and inertia. Like any organisation, the EU needs a civil service to operate it, people to run the day-to-day and to try to enact the decisions made elsewhere, and to try to guide and steer the political processes, making sure they’re compliant with the law. In the EU, that is essentially the Commission – though they clearly have a bigger and more visible role than similar administrations elsewhere. The Commissioners themselves are nominated by the countries which make up the EU, and approved by its parliament.

Given the very public concerns in the UK and other countries about the EU becoming a superstate, or overriding national sovereignty, it is no surprise that the countries which make up the EU have made sure their national governments have a very strong role in its running. This is the EU Council, made up of all 28 member states. Decisions here often require overwhelming majorities (if not unanimity) from member states, meaning consensus can take a long time, and many rounds of negotiations, to achieve.

Finally, we have the EU parliament – the chamber in which MEPs sit – which serves as a more directly democratic wing of the EU, with a role which has been beefed-up since the Lisbon Treaty passed. Thanks to differing electoral systems compared with the ones which pick national governments, the make-up of this chamber is often very different to the make-up of the parties sitting at the EU Council.

The result of these different institutions, their different composition, their different goals, and the need for such high levels of agreement to get anything done is often either inaction, or the politics of boondoggles: this EU institution will be placed in this country if they’ll vote to support this bill; a new division will be set up to look into such-and-such an issue close to the heart of another floating voter.

The result is that to keep the EU operating with any kind of efficiency – and to try to make talks among this group of nations have any hope of success – is that the Commission often needs to try to railroad procedures to get things done, as in the case of Martin Selmayr. The German-Belgian, a man more than once referred to as the EU’s answer to Rasputin, has just succeeded from his position as Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff to become the bloc’s top civil servant, a role preciously held by the little-known and largely apolitical Alexander Italianer.

Selmayr’s sudden rise last month has proved wildly controversial – it has just been roundly criticised by MEPs, though they fell short of suggesting he stand down – as it was the result of a string of internal machinations, since Selmayr’s formal rank was too junior to allow him to stand for the role. As a result, Selmayr spent one day working as deputy secretary-general, meaning he was now allowed to apply for the top job – and then get it.

Selmayr’s reputation comes as a result for his desire to try and help the EU actually get things done – to force decisions made at the top to actually happen, despite the EU’s often crippling and creaking bureaucracy. ‘He’s an autocrat because he thinks the EU will fall apart and die unless someone actually runs it,’ explains one EU-watcher. ‘The European public hasn’t decided whether it wants the EU to be effective, which requires what Juncker’s lot call a ‘political presidency,’ or whether it wants it to be a consensual democracy of 28.’

The same source does, however, doubt whether such concerns over the EU’s appointment processes from Brexiteers are wholly sincere. ‘Some of the ‘shock horror’ from Brexiteers about the promotion is slightly confected,’ he adds. ‘I mean, do they really care about the institutional rules of procedure? The integrity of the institutional civil service? Really?’

Garvan Walsh, CEO of Brexit Analytics, says: ‘The Selmayr issue is serious, but it’s hardly unusual: consider how the British government tried to appoint Toby Young to the universities regulator, or how Howard Davies, was appointed to chair a Government-owned bank, while he was still responsible for an ostensibly independent review into its airport policy.

‘It’s not that Europe is hard to reform, but reform was used for years as code word for dismantlement. There’s not much support outside Britain for the kind of reform Brexiteers want, which is to dismantle the EU and its supranational institutions.

‘Indeed quite a lot of the bureaucracy stems, ironically, from a desire to stamp out the fraud that Brexiteers claim is endemic.’

Herein lies some of the problems for those who would cite either the EU’s inertia or its tendency to put would-be strongmen in the centre of its administrations as reasons to leave it: the alternative forums for international action are far weaker.

Trying to change the basis of world trade rules through the WTO is a creakingly slow process that requires the consent of more than 100 nations: its current round of trade talks are now in their 17th year with little sight of any resolution – hardly a hopeful sign for the UK.

In the UN things are virtually as bad: agreeing any kind of substantive rather than symbolic action requires the consent of all five of the permanent members of the security council, meaning that Russia, China, the USA, France and the UK all hold a veto on all action, meaning most meaningful decisions are dead from the get-go. And those five countries each hold a veto on any change to their rules.

Against that backdrop, the EU is trying to balance being able to get things done with representing the interests of individual member states, and not running too far roughshod over any of them.

Clearly that is a messy series of compromises, but it’s not one the UK can simply back itself out of.

The UK will continue to be situated just off the coast of Europe. Its economy will continue to be hugely impacted by every decision the EU reaches (or fails to reach). Its grindingly slow, horse-trading negotiations will continue to shape our future.

We’ll just no longer be in the room as it happens. We’ll be outside, looking in and hoping. That may not be the vision of ‘taking back control’ that Leave voters hoped for.

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