Vice-president of the European Commission visits Puffles (or rather Cambridge University)


A speech clearly targeted at an audience outside the room, but what was it like inside?

It’s not every day that the Vice-president of the European Commission rocks up to your home town, so me and Puffles popped round to see what it was all about. Commissioner Viviane Reding’s speech was about Great Britain and the EU – are both drifting apart? (See the transcript here).

The first thing that struck me was that the Master of Selwyn College, Roger Mosey who used to be the Editorial Director of the BBC said that often on The Today Programme on Radio 4, they would often put a pro-EU type on to debate with an anti-EU type and light the touch-paper. This for me helps explain why all is not well with the programme. The ‘tradition’ of debate in the UK – repeatedly referred to by Commissioner Reding, and the structure of it, is becoming conspicuous by its shortcomings in an increasingly complex world.

“Drifting apart – who’s driving these flying umbrellas?”

Because for me, drifting implies movement in a direction without any sense of control. UK foreign policy on the EU has drifted because Cameron has allowed himself to be influenced by his right wing more than his Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. This explains the number of post-2015 commitments made by the Conservative Party, in particular on an EU referendum.  A failed tactical move – it didn’t silence his critics within his party, it was also a strategic error in that it has destabilised the economic outlook. Why would a firm want to decide whether to invest in the UK until it knows the outcome of both the Scottish referendum and also whether the UK is going to have an EU in/out one?

There’s also a big problem on the EU side too. The institutional structures have demonstrated themselves incapable of responding to the economic crises faced by Eurozone members. Not only that, the calibre of politicians within the EU Commission – not helped by how they get appointed – is so limited in the face of the problems they have to face. One of the few in recent times who has exceeded all expectations – including mine, is that of Baroness Ashton. At the time I saw her as a political appointee of Gordon Brown, appointed to do his bidding. The response from Europe was lukewarm to say the least – but she proved all her doubters (including myself) wrong with her success on the Iran negotiations – see here. My point on how EU Commissioners are appointed remains: Patronage is in the hands of national governments, not in the hands of parliaments or the people of Europe.

Delivering an academic speech in a second or third language

That was the task facing Commissioner Reding. When she mentioned she was Europe’s Justice Minister but did not have any formal legal background (she’s a journalist by profession – but with a doctorate too!), I raised eyebrows because of the UK’s experience with Chris Grayling. But I think that’s where the comparisons end because Reding hasn’t gone out of her way (as far as I know) to alienate an entire section of the legal profession she in part oversees. (Grayling achieved this).

In terms of delivery, I can’t pretend the speech electrified the room – it didn’t. At the same time, I felt the title a little vague. Although one of the headlines is about Reding’s call for a ‘United States of Europe’ (one that she said the UK would be a close ally to, but being outside the Eurozone would be outside a USE but still within the EU as-is), she could have focussed more on what her vision for that USE would be. For example:

  • What would the institutions look like?
  • How would they be different to what they are now?
  • What shortcomings would the institutions of the future overcome?
  • What problems would these institutions solve?
  • How would they solve these problems?
  • How would these institutions relate to national and local institutions?
  • How would these institutions of the future become more transparent and accountable to the people in this digital age?

Also, for me it was a big shame that more local people were not aware of the event and/or chose not to come along. Again, it’s not every day you get an EU Commissioner on your doorstep.

Turning her political guns on Conservative politicians

The only UK politicians to be mentioned by name or job title were Cameron and Osborne. The big issue here being the City of London. Reding did not touch on the much-reported dependence of the Conservative Party on donations from those in the finance industry – for example here recently. I didn’t get a sense of what a solution to the impasse between UK vs EU regulation of international finance would look like. My principle is that if your firms are multinational, their regulator needs to be. How you turn that principle into policy is incredibly complicated. But I take the view (especially on the back of the banking crisis) that UK institutions do not have the capacity to face down the strength of the finance world. Remember it was that world that corrupted an entire academic field – economics. That’s why sound morals, ethics and values (subjective as they are) of and in institutions matter.

“So…where are we drifting to?”

Depends which way the wind is blowing – and who is creating that wind. In the UK, much wind is being made by Euro-sceptic politicians and in the print media. Because this has happened over years – decades even, it’s had an impact on political discourse. It’s not been helped by the pro-Europeans. For me, there are two big reasons (amongst others) for this.

Being seen to defend the status quo

The actions of the European Commission of the late 1990s – the one forced to resign en masse in 1999 (see here) is still in the political memory of many current politicians. In the years since then, has there been sufficient improvement in the functioning, transparency and accountability of EU institutions? How do you communicate a vision for Europe that is not one all too easily portrayed as a gravy-train for loaded Eurocrats? The privileged audience – and I count myself in that group – were not representative of the population in general. Educated, knowledgeable and interested in the subject area we were, but this reflected in who showed up. Cambridge University is an institution with an international reputation. Accordingly, you get a very international cosmopolitan audience – especially at post-graduate level. Many of these people I guess will end up working in international institutions later on in their career. But how does that compare to the lives that, say, people working at the local supermarket at the end of my road live?

This feeds into Reding’s point about the EU being relevant to ‘the people’ rather than just the small group of interested parties. The same goes for politics generally – local and national. Just as a select few go to local council meetings or follow Parliament in detail, how do we make politics at all levels interesting and accessible to a much wider audience? Cllr Alice Perry makes this point within a Labour Party context here.

Not having a positive exciting vision for a future Europe – & failing to solve contemporary problems

You can’t inspire people with a positive vision of a future Europe with the current institutions when the current institutions are seen as part of the problem for too many people across the continent. Think of the Euro-zone countries that have struggled under EU bailout conditions such as Greece and Ireland. If EU institutions impose such conditions on ordinary people not at fault for the finance crisis (& failing to bring to justice those that are), why would anyone want to like the EU? That’s not to absolve the national politicians or financial institutions from their culpability there. But it comes back to the point about what the relationships should be between which institutions. Again, easier to say this should be sorted out than actually doing the sorting out.

That’s one of the reasons why the looming European elections in May 2014 matter. I was fortunate to meet the lead candidate for the European Greens, Ska Keller in London recently. (See here). She was one of the few people I’ve met who seemed to have not only a positive vision of what she wanted the EU to become – in particular in relation to climate change and social justice, but also the energy and dynamism to help make it happen. But it needs lots more people like her in politics in general for us to move away from the traditional pro-anti EU spats towards something much more constructive. One that deals with the problems that people are actually facing, rather than getting distracted by straight bananas and the Eurosausage.

“Anything on the UK-EU debate?”

It’s part of a wider malaise in politics in the UK. Reding was right to complain about the distortions from both politicians and the media. But then to what extent have EU institutions made it easy for their detractors to run rings around them? Large traditionally-structured institutions are vulnerable in this digital world.

How do you get that informed electorate at a really really basic level? By that I mean where voters can read & understand the basics of what each party in their region is standing for, being able to put questions to them and then casting their vote accordingly. (Ie an informed vote). Remember that not everyone is educated to university level and not everyone has the time to scrutinise in detail what each party’s policies are. How do you then do all of this in an environment where party politics and their brands are absolutely toxic?

On those, I genuinely don’t know the answers.



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