BruxBlog #10: Brussels’ Fourth Estate

The European Parliament in Brussels with the Committee of the Regions in the foreground, in the heart of the EU Quarter.

Day Fifty-Five

238 rue Gray

8 July 2010

A warning: This blog gets political, and fast. But consider it a brain-drain. After all, I probably ought to give some insights on the major institution I’m covering for my internship.

But if you’re reading this and you want to skip the political baloney, let’s start with this: I’m well, I’m eating, I’m sleeping well, I’m going to London this weekend, then I’m going to Amsterdam on Sunday to cover the World Cup, and then I’m coming back to cover a meeting of the Finance Ministers, and after that I’m going to eat some more stoemp. It’s tasty.

Okay, the politics:

The incident I’m about to describe didn’t happen to me — it happened to David Rennie, a longtime Brussels correspondent for The Economist — but it certainly did cut to my core, even after such a short time covering the European Union.

Rennie, as he writes in E!Sharp magazine (edited by my fellow intern Amanda Bromwich!), was eating dinner at a gala with a bunch of EU bigshots right after Irish voters rejected the European Constitution in 2008.  Without going too deep into the backstory, the Irish “No” was a big blow to the bureaucratic bubble of Brussels.  Here’s what happened, as Rennie remembers it:

Sitting in a gilt armchair in a paneled stateroom, I was told by the head of a Brussels think-tank that the Irish result proved the idiocy of putting EU treaties to the people. “F***ing voters,” he declared, languidly extending one arm so the hovering steward could refill his champagne glass. “I mean, f***ing voters, what do they know?” I still wish I had walked out.

Let’s be fair — it wasn’t José Manuel Barroso (come again?) denouncing the basic right of voters to, well, vote.  It wasn’t even a mid-tier EU official making such a statement so vile and contemptuous to anyone who calls himself a democrat.

But then you remember that the EU is a supranational behemoth, with theoretical powers matched only by a handful of countries around the world.

And then you remember that the people writing the laws, and the transnational regulations, and the treaties that David Rennie’s “f***ing voters” turned down… were not elected by the “f***ing voters.”

And then you think about the stories you hear from reporters about top EU leaders getting catty behind the scenes.

And then you think about the fact that the only place for leaders to get catty is behind the scenes, since most of Brussels policymaking is done behind closed doors… It all adds up.

They call the media “the Fourth Estate,” a reference to a time when we were a powerful voice against monarchy. Well, in Brussels, it feels sometimes like you are covering one gargantuan benevolent dictatorship. The “f***ing voters” don’t care what happens here, just so long as it doesn’t screw up their identities as “Belgians” or “Irish” or “Maltese.” And the monarchs in this benevolent dictatorship — the European Commission, really (in U.S. terms, think “The Executive Branch”) — work so hard to present a united policy front that we never see public debate open up over important issues.

But what’s frustrating to me is that it’s not clear to me that the media actually assume their roles in “the Fourth Estate” — as independent voices, unbiased, critical when necessary. Our program director likes to recall the time when he asked critical questions at a press conference and was rebuked by fellow journalists, “What’s wrong with you? Why the tough questions? Aren’t you here to build Europe?

Granted, this is just an intern’s point of view. I don’t know all the movers and shakers, and I don’t know how things really work here. I don’t. But I understand now why people are so skeptical of the EU, and so skeptical about ceding their national powers to such a powerful overarching institution.

I mean, would you trust this man to lead your country?


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