The tower of babble
Jul 31st 2003
From The Economist print edition
The curious cabalistic language of those who run the European Union
FOR all the lip-service that the European Union pays to transparency, the fact is that the diplomats, bureaucrats, journalists, lawyers and lobbyists who make up “Brussels” are part of a club. The point of a club is to exclude outsiders. And a classic way to do that is to keep generating baffling new jargon which only insiders can understand.
All governments deal in jargon, but the European Union may be the world leader. Its key strategy, honed over many years, is to avoid calling anything by a name that might let an outsider guess what is being talked about. Three forms of code are particularly important: acronyms, place names and numbers. In a national bureaucracy, an informed layman with a talent for crosswords can swiftly decode an acronym. The EU, however, puts all its acronyms through a sort of linguistic Enigma machine, often using English acronyms in French documents and vice versa. Thus the most important outfit in Brussels is Coreper (the Comité des Représentants Permanents), where the “perm reps” (that is, ambassadors) of the countries in the EU do battle over various knotty political and legislative issues.
You might argue that the acronym problem is the unavoidable consequence of a multilingual environment. But probe a little further and the suspicion grows that any confusion is entirely intentional. Coreper is split into two groups: Coreper 1 and Coreper 2. The natural assumption might be that Coreper 1 is the more important body. Wrong. Coreper 2 is where ambassadors meet; Coreper 1 is for mere deputies. Some of Coreper's rituals and names are reminiscent of the quirkier sort of London club. At Pratt's, near The Economist in London, the servants are always called “George” or “Georgina”. Similarly the senior civil servants working for Coreper 2 are always referred to as “Antici”, after the Italian civil servant who first did the job; their counterparts in Coreper 1 are always, for similar reasons, called “Mertens”.
Naming jobs after long-gone civil servants is one way of keeping outsiders guessing. But the EU's most ingrained habit is to name policies after previous meetings. A typical EU briefing might contain a sentence like: “At next month's Gymnich, the ministers will discuss furthering the Lisbon agenda, applying the Copenhagen criteria and expanding the Petersberg tasks.” Translation: “Next month, EU foreign ministers will have an informal meeting, which is called a Gymnich after the first such meeting in a German castle of that name in 1974. They will discuss promoting liberal economic reforms, known as the Lisbon agenda after a summit in Portugal in 2000 where that topic was discussed. They will also examine whether countries asking to join the Union have met the basic political conditions (the rule of law, the protection of human rights and so forth) known as the Copenhagen criteria, after a summit in the Danish capital where they were spelt out in 1993. Another item on the agenda will be whether to expand the scope of military operations that the EU can undertake; these are called the Petersberg tasks, after yet another meeting at a hotel of that name in Germany.”
Calling policies after place names is baffling enough. But if the EU needs to make matters even murkier, it can resort to numbers. Some of its biggest decisions are, for example, made by the 133 committee and the 36 committee—named after Articles 133 and 36 of the Amsterdam treaty. The 133 holds closed-door meetings every Friday to discuss trade policy; the 36 discusses justice and policing. If the EU's proposed new constitution ever comes into force, these article numbers will change, giving rise to the delicious possibility that the committees will keep their old names, so rendering their functions totally indecipherable.
Every now and then somebody in Brussels begins to feel a little self-conscious about all this obscurity and suggests that perhaps the EU should be made easier to understand. This is known as “transparency”—despite brave efforts to call it the “Birmingham process”. Some tentative moves have been made in this direction. Traditionalists still lament the decision to ditch the practice of numbering departments of the European Commission (DG1, DG2 etc) and instead to call them painfully obvious things like “competition” or “trade”. Yet there are limits to how far this practice can go. At the recent convention on Europe's future, some radicals suggested that European commissioners should be called European ministers, since this is a term more readily understandable to ordinary people. But since many such folk might balk at the idea of European ministers, it was deemed safer to go on calling them commissioners, a name that sounds reassuringly like the doorman at a smart hotel.
In any case, commissioners are not exactly like government ministers. That underlines a genuine problem with transparency. Even where the EU gives a policy or a process a descriptive name rather than an acronym or number, the process involved is often so unique to the EUthat its title is still entirely uninformative. Take “comitology” and “co-decision”: the former is the term for the rules governing the hundreds of EU policymaking committees, many of which have different roles and voting procedures; the latter describes those policy areas where the European Parliament jointly makes policy with the ministers of national governments. Any Brussels insider can safely use these sacred terms in the presence of an out-of-towner, confident that he will still be greeted with a blank look.
For all the talk of “getting closer to the people”, that is how many Brussels insiders like it. Like philatelists or train-spotters, the EU's professional followers form a community bound by a shared interest in something that outsiders find both boring and baffling. If you enjoy long lunches discussing “the hierarchy of norms”, “the collapse of the pillar structure”, “the open method of co-ordination”, “the sole right of initiative” and the use of “vertical restraints”, then Brussels is the place for you.
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