IPE Views: The Brussels waffle
Jeremy Woolfe laments the lack of substance in European discourse
One good reason for visiting Brussels is the waffle. Shops with counters opening on to the pavements will pour the egg and flour batter mix and quickly serve the lucky customer with the golden brown comestible. Crisp and delicious!
Not hungry? Well, then, there’s always the political version, readily served in many locations! But this type is too often notable for being bland and anodyne. Sometimes even soggy.
There has to be a reason for this championing of the insipid. Dig into EU history. Go back a couple of decades, even to the infamous Santer Commission, to Prodi, and to Barroso’s two terms. The five-year pattern follows a standard course.
Forthright would-be leaders have expressed their noble intentions. And somehow got believed. And are now set up. The new Commission is elected. Phew!
Then comes the next step … survival. That includes not making enemies. Above all, being politically correct. And, in turn, not doing anything, very much, at all. Because whatever you do do, you can be sure some interest somewhere in the far-flung European Union of 28 member states will find fault.
Commissioners in their first year can get away with little more than familiarisation, assessing the facts, researching what needs to be done, and, of course, contemplation. The mid-years? Aah … discussion, with member state governments, which generally block most initiatives anyway. And the final two can be spent lining up the next job.
Throughout, what matters is trying to continue being liked. Which, among other things, includes making speeches. Friendly and warm? With a sprinkling of sugar? How wise!
But, can you take things too far? Too much of the honey-flavoured stuff? There is evidence that Lord Hill, Jonathan Hill, commissioner for financial services, might have thought he had.
Some outsider, no doubt grubby, had put in a request to a conference organiser for a copy of his speech on the much vaunted Capital Markets Union. Oh dear!
Final decision, the text of the address may be released. But only on strict condition that it may not be passed on to any journalist. That should save the day!
So how did the (finally unearthed) 2,300-word script actually pan out? What’s wrong with opening with flattery? “… a sign of your influence that you have been able to attract such an impressive list of speakers and panellists today” should sweeten up the audience.
And then, who’d object to being told what they surely must already know. I mean, a waffle is a waffle is a what? … a waffle?
So, for instance, we have “… there is the importance of Europe’s local banking system in providing finance for small companies, and mortgages for people to buy their own homes … .”
Nice, of course! So, let’s continue with “… this will not change overnight and nor should it. We have strong local traditions … .”
But gosh, shouldn’t I put in some facts, just a teensy bit of jam to flavour? Aah “… 94% of Europeans say they have never bought a financial product outside their own country …”
Hill adds: “That is one of the reasons why I will publish a Green Paper on retail financial services later this year … I want to turn the telescope round and look at financial services from the point of view of the consumer”.
Tough stuff, eh? A bit more? “And I am aware there is a problem that Solvency II rules discourage investments in some asset classes. So I have asked EIOPA [the EU authority advising rules on pensions and insurance] for advice by the end of June on the treatment of infrastructure investments”.
Solid stuff, indeed! And I’ve only had less than a year since nomination for this job!
But steady on, old chap! And never mind the talk of the town that the present management of the EU is being labelled (by the loathsome sceptics) as ‘No Vision, No Strategy’!
So, let’s wind up with a final spoonful of treacle: “If we ensure Europe’s markets are covered by transparency, choice and competition, I am confident they will serve all of us…”
This should help to keep the Commission party going. Until end of term. In 2019.