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June 06, 2005

The Storming of the Berlaymont

Posted by Hector Boffey

As European governments reel with shock at the size of the French and Dutch verdicts on the EU constitution, Gerhard is visited by a disturbing vision of the European Union's final days.

Good morning, Gerhard.

I am afraid there's nothing good about it so far, Maurice. I have just had the most terrible nightmare.

You have my sympathy, my dear friend. Mercifully, I seldom endure such tortures.

Let me tell you about it. In my dream I was walking to work, just as I did this morning. It was a still and cloudless day, quite unusual for Brussels. But as I approached the Berlaymont I could hear shouts. As I got nearer, I could see a large crowd carrying anti-EU placards and hurling stones and anything else they could lay their hands on. Some way off I could see President Barroso struggling to reach the entrance to the building. He had just left his vehicle and was protected not only by his usual phalanx of body guards but by a strong police presence. But he was making little progress as he was pushed first one way, and then the other. As he struggled to keep upright he was pelted with eggs and rotten fruit. By this time I could see that the crowd was growing larger and angrier. I could see some police officers quietly retreating down the Rue Froissart, while some just took to their heels and ran.

Gerhard, your dream was obviously very realistic. The officers were clearly living up to the highest traditions of the Belgian police force.

This is not a matter for levity, Maurice. It was a deeply disturbing experience. As Barroso disappeared from view I could see Claud and Manuel from Competition, and Stanley from Energy, their faces pressed against the windows and contorted with fear. On the roof I could see Margot Wallstrom trying to assuage the crowd below, but she quickly became hysterical, and instead of pacifying the rioters hurled abuse at them and began to throw down items of office equipment a photo copier, an answering machine and even the bust of Jean Monnet from the 10th floor. This was quickly followed in close succession by the portrait of Robert Schuman from the Commission dining room. Words passed her exquisite lips that suggested that those below were a verminous rabble entirely comprised of sexual perverts, words which I need hardly point out are incompatible with the dignity of her high office, and of which I never thought her capable.

As Commissioner for Communications Margot is responsible for maintaining good public relations. When advising on her appointment I suggested that she would bring originality and flair to her post. I stand vindicated in my judgement! What happened then?

Nothing. I woke up in a cold sweat, Maurice. I tell you it was a ghastly experience. And although it may sound silly, I can't help thinking that there is a prophetic element to all of this.

There, there Gerhard. I can see that you are still upset.

The truth is that there are plenty of reasons for thinking that things are going from worse to worse. It's been a very bad month for all of us at the Commission.

Indeed, it has. The French said no to the Constitution, the Dutch said no even more emphatically,, the euro plunged on the currency markets, every bit of economic news to emerge from the IMF, the OECD, the ECB, not to mention every independent economic forecasting outfit and our own research staff, painted a black picture of Europe's economic future. Behind the scenes everyone pointed an accusatory finger at everyone else. That traitor Blair fell into a cold funk and refused to sacrifice his career on the altar of the European idea when he declined to press ahead with ratification. Yes, Gerhard I can understand why you fear the worst.

So much is at stake, Maurice.

I know exactly what is at stake Gerhard: the best public sector salaries in the world, lavish expenses which bear no relationship to actual expenditure, a special low rate of income tax, free places at international schools for our children, a remarkable array of legal immunities, near total job security, sensational pensions, private medical facilities including Viagra on tap, access to a million pound mixed sauna, endless travel opportunities, and as many invitations to lunch and dinner as any man might wish for. And best of all, power without accountability. But, of course, we cannot count on all of this forever.

I knew it, Maurice: you share my fears!

Not exactly, Gerhard, but there are reasons for concern. After all, all political institutions are imperfect and none lasts for ever.

Can I take it that you will apply your considerable intellectual capacity to the problems we face and recommend radical change.

Certainly not, you may assume no such thing, Gerhard. The problems we face are not minor design defects but fundamental flaws and contradictions in the European project that lie beyond even my own intellectual powers to resolve, although I would appreciate it if you did not repeat a word of what I have just said. Were you to do so, I would immediately be sent to Limoges after which I would suffer a fate even worse than of Marta Andreasen.

But you will be asked for your advice, Maurice.

I shall give it. I shall say ratification must proceed, that we must try harder to listen to the electorate (without of course actually doing so), that although the economic news is poor we can look forward to an upturn in 2006, that the Lisbon goals can still be met (by the simple expedient of moving the goal posts) and that it our duty to preserve a unique social model which is the envy of the world.

But Maurice, on your own admission, Europe isn't working. Catastrophe must follow.

Certainly, my friend. But we have not arrived at the point of disaster quite yet. Things are not working and they will go on not working for some time to come. How long do you have to go until retirement?

Ten years.

Hmm. I have only three years to go, which may explain my greater sense of equanimity. But let me reassure you as far as I am able. The present crisis will be followed by a short-lived compromise between member states, which in turn will be followed by a deeper crisis, which will be followed an even shorter-lived compromise - and somehow the show will be kept on the road until one day . In other words, we confront a messy situation, and it will get progressively messier. But the European project will not collapse tomorrow and I am reasonably confident that it will be still intact when I depart for my retirement home in Antibes, where, of course, there will always be room for old colleagues. So there is no need to look nervously out of the window. There are no rioters not yet, any way - and Margot is currently in the sauna (where she is writing yet another speech about the democratic deficit), not on the roof. Here, let me pour you an aperitif.

Thank you, Maurice. Salut!

Sweet dreams, Gerhard!


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