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25 March 2015

An EU explainer for the easily bored: how much influence does the UK really have in Europe?

Frances Robinson tells us all we need to know about how successful Britain could be in a renegotiation of its EU membership.

By Frances Robinson robinson

OK. We’re on the home stretch. I know the EU is different to the Council of Europe, totally get the Parliament and TTIP, so let’s get in there and wrap this up. Don’t worry, we’ll burn through it like a cactus collection.

Say what? Nick Clegg, College of Bruges alumnus and former member of the European Parliament, once set fire to his host’s father’s cactus collection on a school trip.

Oh. And now comes the prickly business of renegotiation. Right, but there are some things that can be done without reopening the treaties, and some which can’t. And there is extremely little appetite for opening up the treaties: cast your mind back a decade to the failed attempt to have an EU constitution, and the Lisbon Treaty that came after. The UK is far from the only country that wants change, but the only one threatening to flounce out.

Can’t we just veto everything, like we did in 2011? Yeah, about that “veto”. When everyone apart from the UK went ahead with measures in response to the eurozone crisis. If you say you want noodles, but your friends want pizza, and everyone goes and gets pizza without you, have you vetoed anything? Or are you just sat at home, eating noodles?

Well, what about the time when George Osborne halved that surprise bill last year? For a start, the UK was informed before, and different bits of the civil service didn’t talk to each other. So it’s a surprise in the sense that if you file your phone bill in the wrong folder and forget to pay it, it’s a surprise. As for the “halving”, the Treasury select committee had a look into it and said that claim wasn’t “supported by published information”.

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Oh. So this is really about spin. Why would politicians break out the brutal honesty when it comes to European questions?

What are some things we never hear about? There’s an EU fund which is designed to help people when jobs get moved abroad, called the European Globalization Adjustment Fund. It can help with training, setting up businesses, etc. For example, last month, France got €6m to help with redundancies at a haulage firm. But the UK’s never applied for any money from it, and British politicians never seem to mention it.

What else? Well, the UK isn’t indifferent to the plight of all workers. When the EU moved to cap bankers’ bonuses, the UK challenged this in the European Court of Justice, and they said – pending a final decision – that the cap should be imposed. So you can argue that the UK got slapped down – but it also depends on how you feel about bankers’ bonuses being capped at 100 per cent of their annual salary (or 200 per cent with shareholder approval).

Interesting. There’s a need for reform though. Absolutely. The Common Agricultural Policy and regional spending are the obvious areas for tweaking. And one of those is where many want to see change is the European Parliament’s trips to Strasbourg. All 751 MEPs and their assistants decamp nearly every month from Brussels to Alsace for their voting session, at great financial and environmental cost.

Typical MEPs! Not at all. Parliamentarians themselves have voted to change this, in a campaign chaired by the UK’s Edward McMillan-Scott, but France took them to the court to keep the meeting close to the gewurztraminer and foie gras. The campaign continues.

So it’s an example of the British starting a sensible campaign to improve how the EU works, getting widespread backing from lots of other countries, and then… Mr McMillan-Scott lost his seat in the last election.

So in a way, it’s a question of engagement. Exactly. And the UK is severely under-represented. Look at the commission. In the seventies, a wave of British civil servants joined the commission when we went into the EU. And although employees officially leave their national identity at the door, the Brits are often praised for being pragmatic and focused. But now that generation is about to retire and they’re not being replaced: we make up 11 per cent of the EU population, but only 4.3 per cent of EU Commission employees.

What? We haven’t left yet! No, but there’s a recruitment crisis: although the salaries and perks are attractive, to become a fonctionnaire, you have to take a set of exams known as concours – in your second language.

Merde. Right. David Cameron went and asked Jean-Claude Juncker’s predecessor, Jose Manuel Barroso if we could have special treatment for this (on top of all the other exceptions and opt-outs). The answer was non. Obviously Cameron could also do something about taking learning languages seriously in this country, so we could pass them without extra help, but that’s a digression.

Well, British civil servants can influence things in the council! They can, if they know what they’re doing. There was a special EU unit in the National School of Government, training 1,000 civil servants a year to influence EU policy. It was shut down in 2012, and the experts who worked there now advise other countries.

Hmmm. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the EU Parliament has more influence over what legislation looks like, right? So I bet our MEPs are sticking up for British interests. Well, to do that, you have to turn up and vote in the committees. Those from a certain purple-and-yellow political party rarely turn up, or if they do, tweet pictures of themselves having a snooze (don’t worry, John Prescott was on hand to make a “youkip” joke). This obviously means the UK isn’t exerting as much influence as it could on the process – but then if your stated aim is to leave, why would you bother?

So long as we don’t get stuck talking about treaties. When setting out plans for the referendum, David Cameron said, “I believe something very deeply . . . That Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it.” If he cares that much, he could start by being honest about what’s actually at stake.