He flapped his arms in some sort of funky-chicken spasm; he huffed, puffed and jittered on camera like a demented Muppet, but Romano Prodi was a joy to interview as European Commission president (1999-2004), as he always understood the first rule about broadcast media: that it was entertainment driven.
A buffoon most of the time, maybe, but his aloofness to major world events and even to the rotting bodies lying around him was almost as remarkable as Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But that’s enough “fiddling” for just now…
His comment during a TV interview for an American network in 2003 still brings a smile to my face, returning to me as I often stroke the shaft of nostalgia in the Belgian capital. “My job is to re-connect Europe’s citizens with the European Union,” he said, with the eager look of an Albanian pedophile waiting for the school bell to ring.
“Ah but Il Presidente,” I stirred in the plastic studio seat which seemed to go well with my even-cheaper suit. “Surely you don’t mean: ‘re-connect’…but simply ‘connect’”?
Back then, it seemed that Rome was burning. And here’s the “fiddling” bit: The EU project had just been inherited by the former Italian President -- who I am quite sure didn’t take the job of European Commission chief simply to secure immunity against prosecution in his own country, following a nice little carve-up of the state owned electricity company, when he was in office. No, surely not.
Cynicism aside, though, taking on the job of Commission president, following the extraordinary downfall of the entire 15-member executive which had resigned under a, well, thunder-box storm of corruption and embezzlement, couldn’t have been easy. It was as though the freemasons’ network which runs the EU decided that things were so bad in 1999, that Europe needed an expert on institutionalized corruption to fix the problem. Or was that “bury it”?
Somebody must have thought: “We need someone who can understand all this graft, someone who can cover it all up, confuse the press, buy off or destroy whistle-blowers…someone with the experience, who knows where all the pitfalls are…” because Prodi immediately built a new anti-fraud unit – which was even more fabulously corrupt than the previous one and seemed to do a brilliant line in bungling all investigations into fellow masons, er, I mean EU officials of other Brussels institutions.
He also gave former UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock the job of Vice President and Mr. Clean Up. But someone should have told the Welsh Windbag Supremo that he wasn’t supposed to clean up for himself! During his five years in the job, Kinnock managed to secure himself a peerage in the one institution – the House of Lords in London -- which he spent an entire career slagging off, not to mention an EU-dynasty for his family, which the News of the World reckoned was worth around £4 million, no? [Dear Neil, no you can’t sue Al Arabiya for that as it is just “opinion,” and therefore acceptable under the UK Defamation Act. And besides, you’ve have enough dough already]. Shut up, Jay.
While on the job, Neil eventually restructured the EU civil service in such a way that made it impossible for officials to blow the whistle in future…while, for the whistle blowers that piped up early during his watch (there was a run on them screaming about hundreds of millions going into the pockets of top officials), our man Neil had a nice little policy involving a bath full of water, two electric cables and dubious FT journalists outing whistle blowers as “nutters” in the pink pages.
Fast forward to the present day and it seems the entire project is suffering from an identity crisis, with a notable lack of confidence felt from Europe’s electorate. Humble citizens, those annoying little f-----s you occasionally bump into in the European parliament, are apparently not interested in the EU executive and its buildings in Brussels. If there ever was a chord connecting them, it has certainly broken, following discourse and gloom around Europe as people tackle their own problems following a financial recession which gave most European countries a kick in the bloody nose, while others it KO’d altogether.
The problem for The EU Elite is that the more-developed countries always had a less idealistic view about the European Union anyway; some had a very strong commitment toward the political union being enhanced by a beleaguered single currency and by markets then following through with paying dividends. The more skeptical amongst them (The UK and the Scandies) didn’t even adopt the Euro but are now paying for its wretched demise. On the other side of Europe, in those countries which had miraculous growth when they took the brown envelope from Brussels – I’m thinking Spain, Portugal and to an extent Ireland – the magic of the fling has gone array, like a love affair which has quickly lost its zap.
The thrill of pushing your young, nubile wife up against the fridge has now been replaced with the misery of watching the old bird get fat watching UK Gold while you thrash one out then clean the bath.
The EU project is in a crisis which has eclipsed all before it. Here in Brussels, I am reminded of it as I enter the funny farm and see close up what those around me can’t see, as they are part of this confounded froth of self glorification and macro-masturbation politique.
Let’s start with those running the outfit and what wise words they have to offer…
European council president Herman Van Rompuy – he who holds a position created by the adopted European Constitution and is said to be the boss of Europe -- says that notwithstanding concern about its long term future, the EU “is still sexy,” despite latest polls showing the popularity of the EU at an all-time low with many predicting the “death” of its flagship, the single currency.
Speaking at a high-profile Brussels conference recently Van Rompuy, a self-professed federalist who looks and speaks like a depressed dentist experimenting with dodgy barbiturates, made a strong defense of the EU. Oh yes he did. The former Belgian PM said, “As long as a club attracts new members it means it is in good shape.” New members? We’re only talking about Croatia here, a former Yugoslavian country famous for being Hitler’s favorite puppet and the only country he annexed where he had total confidence in its people to do a more thorough job of rounding up and gassing Jews than the Fatherland itself.
But what about a quick poll of existing members? Let’s go to Germany and ask people there if they would like to abandon the Euro and go back to the Deutschmark (many did in alarming numbers last year when polled). Or Spain. What’s Madrid’s answer to 20 percent unemployment and an economy so buggered by being tied to the single currency’s monetary policy that it has gone back to the dark ages of mid-70s gloom? OK, it’s not quite donkeys pulling carts but it did announce, this week, an interesting new economic policy of blocking other Europeans from working there.
Apparently, Romanian sex workers are no longer required by Spain’s penniless middle classes. We can all live with that, as, let’s face it, Romanian women are pretty hopeless in bed. But Brussels was not issuing the normal torrential brown-load of press releases on this one…given that it’s a move actually illegal under EU laws, according to EU-funded news Websites, bless ‘em.
And “still sexy”? Assuming the EU was ever “sexy” in the first place, how much credibility can this have coming from a man who’s the living antidote to morning glory and who actually makes Blair-bunged peer Cathy Ashton come across as Europe’s shag of the week? Or maybe it’s just the idea of a shiny new EU institution with a load of EU flags fluttering which floats Van Rompuy’s dinghy. But for sure, the people of Europe are disengaged and that must be a worry for EU watchers.
There is a pattern of discontent that is getting noticed by European leaders. Bailing out the Greeks has seriously damaged the credibility of the whole project and many leading figures are already worried about the next European vote in 2014 being the electoral equivalent of brewer’s droop. Now former boom-economy darlings of the EU, like Spain – which after joining in the mid-80s experienced a massive transformation of its public sector – are now sticking two fingers up to the rule book. This is the beginning of the end, as soon the giants – France and Germany – will be forced to infringe more EU laws just to satisfy local unrest. Then the project will start to look about as stable as a spastic trying to repair a broken TV with a bowl of jelly. It will wobble, in other words, which is the real fear for our man Romple Stiltstkin and his mates.
What would Prodi make of it all? He’d have a trick up his sleeve, like an old maestro, I’m sure. But Cathy Ashton in a basque? Sorry hon, but that’s just not doing it for me.
This is Martin Jay, reporting from the l’hopital psychiatrique Sans Sousi, rue des Invalides, Brussels, Belgium. Back to you Emy, in the studio…
Martin Jay is a veteran foreign correspondent who has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for most major international TV networks. He can be reached at email@example.com for insults, general comments and racist bed-wetting from those who don’t have the intellectual bandwidth to even understand what an “opinion” or “blog” article is supposed to be.