“Brussels” is the No. 1 scapegoat of our national politicians, be they proud Eurosceptics or timid pro-Europeans. Well, “Brussels” has had enough, and is keen to Communicate with a capital C about it. Increasingly, Communications are used not only to set out the European Commission’s political vision but to crack the whip on EU Member States, irrespective of their size or geographic location.

François Barry
Consultant

A red herring called “Brussels”

National leaders should be glad the EU exists. Not so much because of the “successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights” praised by the Norwegian Nobel Committee – but because they could not have possibly wished for a more convenient scapegoat. High employment, low salaries, high prices, bad weather … obscure, remote and supposedly undemocratic “Brussels” is the source of all evil.

The EU is far from perfect. We all get that. But when you start having more detractors than Joffrey Baratheon and Jar Jar Binks combined, either you’re doing something really wrong, or you’re the ultimate sitting duck. The Commission – one of many synonyms for “Brussels” – has traditionally kept it relatively cool though, with Commissioners occasionally venting frustration with soundbites, leaving the bad cop role to the European Parliament.

Yet as populism and protectionism rose and political debates polarised between pro- and anti-EU, frustration grew in the Berlaymont and Commission officials traded soundbites with pens.

Less bark and more bite

The Commission got pretty tough on Member States in recent Communications.

“Member States often promote only their domestic approaches as a basis for European rules, which can lead to political tensions. This in turn leads to repeated calls on the Commission to come forward with new ideas but the willingness to follow through is not guaranteed.” (The Single Market in a changing world, 22 November 2018).

“Member States have used sovereignty and unanimity as the basis for their arguments to protect specific national interests to the detriment of the Single Market. […] This often makes Member States overly cautious, dampening ambitions and weakening the final outcome.” (Towards a more efficient and democratic decision making in EU tax policy, 15 January 2019).

The Commission spares no one. When the former Communication blames France, Germany and other large Member States – without naming them – for placing their own personal interest before the general one, the latter lashes out at smaller ones – Ireland, Luxembourg, Denmark, etc. – for the exact same reason.

Rarely have Communications been so strongly worded against Member States. Sure, we’re ending of five-year political cycle, so the Commission has little to lose. Sure, cutting remarks by this or that Commissioner typically draw more media attention than non-binding Communications. But Commissioners come and go, while official documents stay.

A dog-eat-dog Europe

The EU blame game has put the relations between “Brussels” and EU Member States to the test over the past few years.

Just look at two of the last flagship Communications issued by the Commission before the European elections: Further strengthening the Rule of Law within the Union‘ (3rd April 2019) – Hi Poland! Hi Hungary! – and ‘Communicating Europe’ (expected this week). The underlying message: let’s not leave the monopoly on communicating about the EU to opportunistic national leaders who bother less and less about our democratic values. Bonne ambiance.

The Commission can relax though. National leaders have found new scapegoats, nearly as obscure and remote as “Brussels”: other national leaders – Hi Italy! Hi France! Plus, sleeping dogs are never really asleep and tend to wake up at election time – you thought we were passed the Greek-German feud? Think again.

That must mean more breathing space for “Brussels”, right? It would, if only “national leaders” was not yet another synonym for “Brussels” (ever heard of something called “the Council”?). And this, absurdly, is where the EU blame game turns schizophrenic.