Back to School
In the 1960 film School for Scoundrels (not the abhorrent 2006 remake), an affable young man, outmanoeuvred in love and life, takes up a course at the School of Lifemanship.
It promises to teach him ‘how to get ahead without actually cheating,’ by taking lessons from some masters in the devious art of stacking the pack in your favour.
In one scene, the naive Henry Palfrey loses in tennis to the ultimate cad, Raymond Delauney. Delauney has the upper hand from the outset, choosing the better end, persuading Palfrey to serve into the sun, and constantly undermining the young man’s confidence while cheerfully appearing supportive.
The result is a foregone conclusion: game, set, match, and the hand of the spectating crumpet, to Delauney.
There has been much written in recent months about Britain’s influence in Europe.
We speak of vetoes and Luxembourg Compromises, of budgetary alliances with Northern European partners. In less practical terms the broader ‘in or out’ debate polarizes. Meanwhile prime minister Cameron talks of the EU as if it were an etch-a-sketch which you can simply shake and start over to create the picture you want.
But most, if not all of this chatter, is a distraction.
And most, if not all of it, would be moot, if Britain would only take a few lessons in Lifemanship.
Because Downing Street and Whitehall have a long history – as long as the country’s EU membership – of being utterly outplayed by the Delauneys the other side of the net.
For a country that thinks it has such a proud diplomatic legacy around the world, and with a Foreign Office that thinks that it’s the mutt’s nuts when it comes to sitting at big important international tables, Britain’s record in ‘getting ahead without actually cheating’ is pretty poor in Europe.
It’s been oft cited that Britain has, on occasions (such as now), not exactly made the most of the opportunity to nominate a commissioner.
Foreign Relations is not the same cherished position that Lords Soames and Brittan held for the UK at EUHQ, ever since trade was stripped from the portfolio.
Downing Street can be excused for having a short memory. King Charles Street cannot. And when it came to the most recent round of nominations, one should have expected a Sir Humphrey somewhere to clear his throat and ask:
“Foreign Affairs, prime minister? Are you sure? A *courageous* decision if I may say sir.” “Whatever makes you say that?” “Remember Patten? Ferrero-Waldner?” “No.” “Well… quite, Prime Minister.”
But getting a plum position in one of the few seats of actual power in the commission is only the half of it.
New Labour parked Peter Mandelson in the trade spot in 2004. But Mandy sauntered in with an unpopular liberal agenda, waved it ineffectually around a bit before an unreceptive crowd, and then took the next train home.
He didn’t play the meta-game, and seemed blissfully unaware at times that such a game was, indeed, even afoot.
If an EU nation is to exert its influence on the EU project from within, it has to be much more subtle than Mandelson was (subtle at all would have been a start). And some of the UK’s biggest European partners understand that only too well.
The commissioners themselves, deftly chosen and placed, can go a long way to serve their national interest (and this is, after all, still a European Union of nation states).
This can be in their own portfolios, as long as it’s not too obvious. There’s a good reason why there have been no great advances in reforming how to manage film and music rights in Europe. The regime is an embarrassment to a single market, and sticks out as one of the last sectors to still be drawn up along rigidly national lines. It’s to blame – with a complicit and lazy media industry that hides behind the law – for the infuriating experience of trying to use the internet to watch TV or films or to buy music in much of Europe.
The French IP ‘industry’, and – yes – its cultural one too, has arguably the most to lose if you break down those barriers. Michel Barnier has dutifully spent four years kicking that particular can down the road. One last hefty punt, and he can leave it to the next administration, and any prospect of reform is years away.
Similarly, in the previous commission, having a German in charge of the ‘industry’ portfolio did the car sector no harm.
But the commissioners can exert influence across other dossiers, too, and regularly do.
And that seam of potential national influence runs deeper into the “belly of the beast,” as Jeremy Irons called it last week. It runs through the ‘cabinets’ that advise the individual commissioners and their president, and even down into the commission staff itself, where having a well-placed senior official whose allegiances may naturally sway towards the country of his or her birth, can nip a legislative nuisance in the bud.
And if all else fails, should a draft law displease a national capital, a well-timed and well worded phone call from a national leader to the commission president can make nuisances mystically disappear. BM wrote in uncharitable terms about one such incident in 2006. And, oh look, it’s France wanting to delay copyright reform …
It’s not just France, of course.
Germany, too, has mustered its people in Brussels and Strasbourg over the years to see off legislative unpleasantries.
The way German MEPs abandoned party affiliations to vote along national lines to block a proposed Takeovers Directive in 2001 – which would have exposed VW to foreign buyers – was one such example.
The way Berlin somehow managed to get the dossier within the European Parliament assigned to a German MEP, Klaus-Heiner Lehne, was deft.
But the way Germany has suppressed plans to legislate for class actions has been a masterclass in political engineering. As the last bastion of EU industry, in which the big players haven’t always obeyed the rules, Germany fears its companies could get clobbered with US-style lawsuits if the plans go ahead.
With sympathetic forces in strategic positions, a proposal that was supposed to see the light of day under the previous administration four years ago, is now rusting somewhere in the long grass. Berlin even had the luck – or strategy – to find someone who wasn’t German to be the anointed naysayer at the commission’s top table, Luxembourger Viviane Reding. And she is now in a position which – she has made sure – has a certain amount of policy reach over the issue.
And if and when a watered down directive, or recommendation, or guidelines, or white paper, green paper, purple paper, non-paper, whatever, does emerge, German factions of the European Parliament – lead by that man again, Klaus-Heiner Lehne – have already put down markers that the House may not be welcoming.
It’s manoeuvring such as this that Britain is missing out on.
Such tactics could have seen off any need for chancellor Osborne to be outvoted on bankers’ bonuses.
Perhaps a well run campaign going back several years could have resulted in a seven-year budget – and CAP spending in particular – better suited to muffle the critics.
And ultimately, over many years, a well-established and cleverly exploited vein of such influence could have even helped shape a union more in line with Cameron’s etch-a-sketch picture of what the EU should be, heading off any talk of leaving the bloc.
Instead, Britain has spent many, many fruitless years serving into the sun, while the scoundrels at the other end cheerfully holler “hard cheese dear boy” with every passing tennis ball.
Game, set, match, AND the girl, to them.