LONG-FORM & INVESTIGATIVE WRITING FROM JOURNALIST LEIGH PHILLIPS
One of the things one has to accustom oneself to in the capital of Europe is the thinly concealed contempt for democracy that so many characters have in this town. There is a lot of huffing and puffing and about democracy in Brussels, but the saccharine rhetoric is like one of those prize-winners at an icing competition – mouthwatering to look at but underneath it’s just a cardboard box instead of a real cake.
But I’m not even talking about the hypocrisy of rhetoric versus action, say, as in the EU’s recent approach to the coup in Honduras, as evident as this may be. No, I mean just the scorn toward responsible government found in the vernacular of the Bruxellois coterie of diplomats, lobbyists, think-tankies and fonctionnaires that is as unremarkable and quotidian as the mangling of English found in a commission press release. For all the gilded phraseology and bouquet of prizes that are handed out, guffaws at the amateurishness of the European Parliament, the idiocy of referendum-voting electorates and democracy in general are so common as to be almost unnoticeable.
Western democracies’ as a whole have shifted policy making largely away from contestatory parliamentary chambers, and toward instead technocratic bodies of experts – such as international financial institutions, the European Central Bank and the commission – or entities that may have elected politicians as members but whose decisions are never confronted with the check of a popular ballot – such as the European Council, the Council of Ministers and the G20. Technocratic as opposed to popular decision-making has become such a norm over the last 30 years that contempt for democracy is probably in most quarters even unconscious.
The week before last, in a discussion of the EU’s failure at the Copenhagen climate summit in December and its climate strategy for the coming year hosted by the Friends of Europe think-tank, this hatred for democracy was on full display. But due to this attitude’s aforementioned ubiquity, no one noticed at all.
Some of this will a bit disappear-up-your-own-climate-bumhole jargony, but bear with me.
There’s no gotcha moment here, mind. Just further examples of how European elites would prefer to craft policy far away from the reaches of democratic oversight.
In a recent analysis piece for the EUobserver and the Nordic Council, I argued essentially that the EU was taking the same line as the US in the wake of Copenhagen regarding the sidelining of the UN process in favour of fora that are much more manageable (read: no awkward squad present) such as the Major Economies Forum, the G8 or possibly the UN High-Level Panel on Climate Change and Development, announced by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last September and to be launched early this year. The difference between Washington and Brussels is that the former announces that it will sideline the UN process and then proceed to do so, while the latter will declaim: ‘Why, mercy me, we’d never even think of sidelining the UN’ while doing precisely that.
The man the audience, composed as far as I could see mainly of lobbyists (both industry and green) and journalists were there to hear, Karl Falkenberg, head of the commission’s Environment Directorate-General, pretty much confirmed this.
“The key is which track to negotiate – under the UNFCCC, there is the LCA [Long-term co-operative action - the track that deals with those countries that are not party to the Kyoto Protocol[, the KP [the Kyoto Protocol], and now an informal, additional track, or that might become a track,” he said, the third track referring to the Copenhagen Accord.
“And what do you do with three tracks? Eventually, you want one framework and reduction targets for everyone. We need ideas, concepts about how we go about negotiating this.”
Though all of what he just said means nothing less than the scrapping of the Kyoto Protocol, and the forced inclusion of the Copenhagen Accord, agreed to outside the UN process, Falkenberg was officially adamant that the UN process continue.
“If we want rapid solutions, it’s not good to scrap anything, especially the UNFCCC. A large number of our partners will make it a red line. The Basic countries will make it an absolute red line on the KP and LCA. That’s a very hard position to deal with at the moment.”
But then, in the same breath, he said, misquoting Mao: “But we should look at every other opportunity … Let a million flowers bloom.”
If there’s still any question about how the commission thinks of climate negotiations, one only has to consider the character of Falkenberg himself. Before heading up the Environment DG, he was for 30 years ensconced in the commission’s trade department, and it shows. The commission, and the EU as a whole, essentially views climate negotiations as trade negotiations of another kind, and the same high-stakes, divide-and-rule tactics evident in its trade dealings with developing countries is identical to the way the EU manoeuvres in this arena.
He mentioned that money – that is to say climate finance – is “a big issue” and that there is now a need to find actors that the EU wants to support in friendly countries, especially those in the most vulnerable countries. In the lead up to Copenhagen, we increasingly began to the term ‘most vulnerable countries’ tripping off the forked tongues of rich-country leaders. It sounds cuddly and thoughtful, but the reality is that in focussing on the very poorest of the poor, the tuppence of a few billion euros, even if entirely inadequate for the task at hand, is incredibly attractive. Better a bird in the hand than two in the non-drought-resistant bush. In this way, the wealthy countries hope to peel off a flush of really impoverished states. By jamming a wedge between them and other developing countries, they a) undermine the unity that managed to block attempts to kill off the Kyoto Protocol at Copenhagen; b) are able to wheel around these couple of really-truly pov-o countries as proof that they are The Ones That Really Care while the likes of the G77 and Alba states are climate dilletantes; and c) place most of the emphasis on climate adaptation instead of the much more expensive climate mitigation.
Be prepared to hear a lot more from Europe on the ‘most vulnerable countries’. Already, Brown and Barroso cannot seem to bring themselves to talk about climate without talking about these ‘MVCs’.
Jo Leinen, the German social democrat chair of the parliament’s environment committee and former radical involved in the Anti-AKW- anti-nuclear movement and the peace movement in the eighties, was ostensibly on the other side in the Friends of Europe debate, and he played the role sufficiently well, insisting that the EU remove the conditionality attached to its 30 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction offer, a move we all know the commission is opposed to.
But Container-Jo, as he used to be called when he was in the habit of climbing atop nuclear containers with the megaphone, on the question of negotiations themselves could have been reading from the same script as Falkenberg.
“We need another plan for diplomacy for the next few months, a strategic plan for how to get agreement of the main actors,” he said, underscoring, like Falkenberg, financing for especially “the African Union and least developed countries – not just paper money, but real money. We have to create an instrument for delivering this by Mexico [the next UN climate summit in December], so they have more trust.”
This must be done because “five states could block and those that did are likely to block again because they have another agenda.”
Here, Leinen is repeating the myth EU bods keep repeating to themselves: that opposition to the Copenhagen Accord was limited to the socialist awkward squad of Chavez, Morales and co. He even went on to repeat that horrid phrase I have heard over and over again since I got back from Copenhagen: “Coalition of the willing.”
“Europe has to think about a Plan B, a coalition of the willing – those countries wanting to act to make something even while we wait for the UN a little bit to make a global deal.”
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and in the audience was a slightly potty old dude from the European Ba’hai Business Forum. In this case his hobby horse is clearly the creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which he asked about, mentioning the north/south divide, and whether this was not a solution.
Now I have to say that I’m not really down with the crew of milquetoasts who fetishise the UN. We have to be recognise that the UN is as much a tool of the great powers as any other international institution and should not be set up in our minds as some sort of counterweight to the great powers. Herein lies the frustration I have with one of the arguments against the Iraq war: that it was illegal. It may well have been, but if the UN in the end had given the war the green light, would that really have made everything tickety-boo? Would the imprimatur of the UN mean that the perhaps a million dead Iraqis is now an acceptable death toll?
That said, I am with the General Assembly over the Security Council and were a parliamentary assembly at the UN to materialise, I would think it important to spend some energy supporting such a chamber over the anti-democratic UNSC as well. In any case, as pie in the sky as such a development may be, climate change is the sine qua non of international issues that cry out for some sort of international governance structure.
Elites themselves are under no illusion about the necessity of building such structures and are fast in the process of doing so, cf. the G20, but they cannot countenance the idea that they be democratically accountable to citizens.
And however barmy Mr Baha’i Businessman might have been, he’s not actually wrong in pointing to something along the lines of a UN Parliamentary Assembly as the sort of forum where such international questions as climate change should be addressed.
But responding to the old man, Giles Merritt, moderator of the ‘debate’ and head of the Friends of Europe, guffawed: “Do we need another layer of democracy in the world?”
The room erupted in hearty laughter, especially from Falkenberg. I felt bad for the white-haired gentleman, who, crestfallen at seeing the Important Men laughing at his expense, creaked back into his chair.
Having to answer him, Falkenberg said: “Copenhagen has been rather painful. It was not a negotiating environment. It was more like a ‘happening’, like Woodstock without the mud.”
“And without the sex!” awkwardly added Merritt, but this time to little laughter.
“I’m not sure this is a conducive environment,” continued Falkenberg. “If we see the same sort of ‘happenings’ at Cancun, we will have to seriously rethink this forum.”
But as for moving discussions to a UN Parliamentary Assembly? “I’m all for having parliamentary involvement, but in a parliamentary democracy, there is a division of labour between the parliament and the executive role. If we try to negotiate, Swiss direct democracy style, good luck! I’ll be dead by the time you reach an agreement.”
Democracy at the international level?! Hoo boy! That’s a good one! Oh stop, I’m gonna pee!