Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

Emperor Van Rompuy

The European Union is an absolute state in the costume of democracy

Brussels —

The Eurostar train takes two short hours to reach Brussels via the Channel Tunnel from London, and I have an imperative need to do this journey to investigate the political and psychological mysteries of this city. A treaty has come into force whereby, in common with about 500 million other people in Europe, I find myself compelled to live under a new head of state. The European Union has created the office of President of the European Council, and a Belgian by the name of Herman Van Rompuy occupies it. In the minute and fiercely divided political circles of his own country, apparently, he has the reputation of being a natural-born bureaucrat, but otherwise nobody has ever heard of him. For all I or anyone else knows, he may be an estimable fellow, but we have no way of judging, and whatever we might think is anyhow of no consequence. The European Union comprises 27 countries, and their heads of state or governments met behind closed doors in Brussels to pick this man, as in the conjuring trick that involves pulling a rabbit out of a top hat.

Confusingly, another EU official, the Portuguese José Barroso, is already installed under the slightly different title of President of the Commission, but neither I nor anyone else can guess what the relationship between the two presidents will turn out to be. Moreover, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state to whom we British owe allegiance. The last country in which a monarch and a president held office simultaneously was the Uganda of Idi Amin, and that did not have a happy ending.

The 27 European heads of state or government who imposed the new treaty and Mr. Van Rompuy upon the rest of us are in the throes of an immense gamble. They appear to believe that they have finally completed the foundation of the United States of Europe, the federation of their dreams. But on the rare occasions when Europeans have been allowed to vote and express genuine opinions on this project, a handy majority have time and again rejected all idea of federation and the treaties that establish it. The gap between the EU elite and the general public is everywhere huge and widening. In the absence of support on the street, the EU has no choice except to fool as many people as possible for as much of the time as possible.

In the run-up to the latest treaty, for example, the EU elite — and compliant European governments, with two or three honorable exceptions — resorted to the full range of bribery and threats and lies to ram through acceptance (and therefore the comedy of Mr. Van Rompuy’s sudden apparition). Referenda that went against the treaty have been either ignored or, in the case of the Irish, unscrupulously overturned. The three major political parties represented at Westminster promised to allow the British to have a referendum, only for them all to renege on that promise. A slow-motion power grab has been accomplished. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, one of the most informed observers on the ways of Brussels, puts it succinctly: “The EU has crossed a subtle line. It is no longer legitimate.”

In old days, I had been to Brussels. Nothing much used to happen, and eating was the chief activity on offer. The town was rather charming, with a good many neoclassical buildings and a slightly decrepit Ruritanian feel to it. The buildings of the EU belong to quite a different world, as is presumably the intention. Gigantic modern blocks proclaim that power has indeed been grabbed, and it is irresistible. These several edifices rise in monumental modernism above their surroundings, on a scale designed to intimidate and to give an impression of permanence, much like the pharaohs with their pyramids. The headquarters of Mr. Barroso’s Commission dominates a slope, functional glass layer upon functional glass layer. As though it had somehow melted under heat, this particular building curves in the middle at an angle of about 60 degrees, to colonize yet another slope. From the street, the entrance is invisible, as though nobody but insiders had access.

The Commission is the real powerhouse of the EU, a monolithic bureaucracy of over 20,000, either nominated by themselves or lent to the EU by their national governments. In an unprecedented reversion to absolute rule as practiced in the 17th century or so, the Commission enjoys the monopoly of initiating legislation and then overseeing its execution; in other words, it is both legislature and executive. None of its members are elected, but in view of their privileged functions, they are in effect politicians rather than the civil servants they pretend to be.

I have lived my whole life in the conviction that parliamentary democracy is the surest defense of the individual and freedom. Now that I have been conscripted without any say into Mr. Van Rompuy’s Europe, I wanted to see for myself the Brussels parliament that supposedly speaks for me. This building is somewhat hidden by surrounding houses, and there is no grand or overall view of it from any distance, though its vast crowning semicircle of glass breaks over the skyline. On the same site used to stand the town’s first railway station, and the heritage lobby fought to preserve its façade. Blocked in, flat, and useless, it serves as a perfect metaphor for the institution now behind it.

There, at the far end of a wide, bleak courtyard, is the EU’s answer to Nicolae Ceausescu’s megalomaniac governmental palace in Bucharest. The architects, identified as the local firms of Atelier Espace Léopold and VK Engineering, have laid out an almost endless vista of wings and walkways, with that central skyscraping block, box upon box as far as the eye can see, all glass and tyrannical right angles, strictly featureless. The entrance ought to be straight ahead, but you have to go down a staircase and enter from the far side, as though the building had been reversed to face the wrong way — another perfect metaphor.

This parliament has slightly more than 700 members, and Daniel Hannan has been one of them these last ten years. The child of British parents, he was born in Peru but educated in England. A Thatcherite, an Atlanticist, a free marketeer, a cosmopolitan, and an eloquent writer and speaker, he belongs to the Cameron generation that is in the process of reviving the Conservative party in Britain. All this, and particularly his determination to devolve power to the people, pits him sharply against the entire federalizing and centralizing EU project that is draining the vitality and identity from the continent. He accepts with good humor that he is considered a Public Enemy by the empire builders who are his colleagues here. A recent speech of his attacking Gordon Brown was oratory at its best, and the video of it immediately went round the world, giving him a justified reputation as someone able and willing to speak truth to power. (Brown was present, and his face was a picture.)

This most unorthodox guide gives me glimpses of bars, banks, a swimming pool, even a supermarket, all within the EU complex. Striding in the corridors are blonde women in camel-hair coats and expensive boots, and young men with glasses pushed for casual effect just above the hairline — some of the 55,000 lobbyists interacting with the bureaucrats, which is how decisions are taken in this absolute state. The names of half-forgotten politicians have been emblazoned on hanging boards or over doorways, signifying hopefully that the present has respectable roots in the past. “Policy Department B. Structural and Cohesion Policies,” runs a typical notice indicating workaday routines; nearby is “Policy Department C. Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs.” We walk round floor after floor of committee rooms, offices, and the semicircular arena where the parliament could meet but rarely does. (The French have always insisted that actual voting must take place in a duplicate parliament in Strasbourg, involving the absurdly expensive movement to and fro once a month of members and truckloads of paper.)

Uniquely among parliaments, this one lacks the power to scrutinize or reject bills put before it by the executive — in other words, the Commission. Often some 200 a day are nodded through in a Strasbourg session. Members are chosen through an unnecessarily complex system of proportional representation and party lists, so they do not represent constituents to whom they are accountable. For fear that members would naturally be prone to defend their national interests, the parliament was set up to be transnational. Parties from the 27 countries align in blocs that claim a shared political outlook, self-described as Right or Left. There is no proper opposition, nor could there be when this parliament does not answer to real people debating and mediating issues that matter to them, but only to the abstract entity of “Europe.”

The EU elite knows all this, says Daniel cheerfully. They realize that none of it is compatible with democracy and don’t believe a word they say. They talk about “consulting civic society,” but this means listening to bodies they themselves have set up and financed. Like Communist apparatchiks after the invasion of Prague in 1968, he says, “they don’t pretend to have any appeal but ask just to go on administering. They’ve lost self-confidence; resistance to this treaty has left them vulnerable. Remember how the Hungarians opened the Iron Curtain and allowed East Germans to pass? Nobody could have predicted that this would be enough to bring Communism down. Something similar will happen to the EU. Eventually Britain will leave, and others will too.”

Why isn’t he in the House of Commons instead of partaking in this illusory parliament based on conjuring tricks and a parody of absolute monarchy? He answers that the Westminster parliament is submerged in expense-account corruption and crisis, and nobody in his right mind would wish to be in it at the moment. It’ll take great strength of mind and political skill to discern and then seize the moment to break up the EU. If Daniel Hannan turns out not to have the character for such a historic role, it will have to be someone like him.

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