It’s an anagram of Herman Van Rompuy, who, we are invited to believe, is president of Europe. He was chosen in a process that combines the transparency of a papal election with the credibility of the few hundred votes cast for Hong Kong’s Beijing-selected chief executive. Indeed, lack of credibility seems to come with the job. Perhaps it’s an essential qualification.
First, he is not president of Europe. Europe is a geographical term, so he can’t be president of that. There is the European Union, but that is essentially an international organization – think of a puffed-up version of NATO largely devoted, even now, to farming and trade – so there is nothing to be president of there, either. He is in fact president (as in chairman) of the EU Council, a board made up of the democratically elected heads of the countries that comprise the EU. They are the not the sort who answer to obscurities called Herman, which is why, after bickering behind closed doors, they picked him.
Second he is from Belgium, a place that only barely counts as a country. My memory is a bit vague here, but if I recall correctly it was at one stage the Spanish Netherlands, a land of compulsory Catholicism and flamenco dancing in clogs. Then it was left to someone’s nephew in a will (or given as a wedding present or something) and it became the Austrian Netherlands. Then, later on in the history course, we did Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna, the age of steam, and the rise of liberal democracy, and eventually the creation of plucky little Belgium because no-one wanted anyone else to own it.
A country was born. Mayo on fries: national dish. A little statue of a boy having a wee-wee: the all-important icon. Three vertical or horizontal stripes in colours not already used by too many others: yet another indistinguishable European flag. It’s not surprising that among the sprawling international bureaucracy in Brussels it is the Belgians who delude themselves that the EU is, is becoming, or will become, a country. They don’t know what a country is.
Most of the rest don’t know what the EU is, or at least what it is for. To the Germans, it was originally a restraining device to wean them off invading France. To the French, it was supposed to be a stage on which they could play out their fantasy of attaining the global supremacy denied them by the UK and US for two centuries. To the Italians, it was a communal piggy bank to be raided when the profligate and overall hopeless country went bankrupt.
It started off as a free-trade group, designed to integrate the French and German agricultural and industrial sectors. Today, it is a classic example of bureaucratic imperial expansion, with pretences to authority in areas like immigration, labour rights and defence. To its enemies, these expanded competencies are like cancerous growths eating away at national sovereignty. The EU’s Belgian and small number of other fans see the eradication of national governments as the whole point.
In practice, much of its institutional activism and expansion is symbolic as much as anything else. The arrival of the UK and, later, ex-communist countries of the east have made the organization too unwieldy for Franco-German or Eurocratic dominance. More and more national leaders are disillusioned, and their people simply disdainful, at the corrupt, self-serving, top-down arrogance of EU officialdom. The more morsels of sovereignty the EU bureaucracy tries to cram in its mouth, the closer it gets to choking. Belgians and federalist freaks might get excited because the European countries’ ships on anti-pirate patrol off Somalia style themselves an EU naval force, but it is a meaningless label to shut up a few bores. The stark disagreements over involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan show the truth about a single EU foreign policy.
So while the EU’s powers seem to be expanding, the growths are essentially benign. That is not to say they should not be cut out. They are parasitical and irritating. But the creation of this non-job – the office-holder is supposed to rank with Obama or Hu – must finally prove the emptiness of the federalist dream behind the Lisbon treaty. It’s a pretentious, over-idealistic, other-worldly “piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense,” as Castlereagh said of a previous effort. And, while indisputably wasteful and tedious until someone inevitably pulls the plug on it, essentially harmless. Like Herman Van Rompuy, whose 15 minutes – I am looking at the second hand on my watch as I speak – are… now… up.