Planet Brussels

Reflecting on his time in the Brussels lobby, journalist Stephen Castle explains the challenges of reporting – and understanding – the European Union.

When the Danish political drama, Borgen, featured an entertaining storyline a few years ago, based around intrigue in Copenhagen over the appointment of a new European Commissioner, it caused wry amusement at the coffee bar of the European Commission. Borrowed from the most famous line in the film, Alien, the title of the episode said it all: “In Brussels, no one can hear you scream.”

The headquarters of the European Union ought not to be the continent’s news equivalent of outer space. For students of politics and economics, Brussels can be a fascinating place, one where journalists can access high grade information with relative ease, and question – and mingle with – decision makers at a senior level.

Yet much of it is strangely unreportable.

It is not that the European Union itself is un-newsworthy. The Borgen episode was aired during the eurozone debt crisis, an event that routinely found its way to the front pages. Yet inevitably, and understandably, editors were less gripped by the deliberations of finance ministers than by events in Greece, where tear gas filled the streets and jobless workers were forced into penury. And, as endless meetings took place in the soulless heart of the European quarter in Brussels, it became apparent that the real power lay hundreds of kilometres away in national capitals, particularly Berlin.

For TV journalists, Brussels is an especially difficult assignment. As one BBC colleague once explained, there are generally two types of pictures on offer. The first was a shot of a middle-aged politician (invariably male) getting out of a car and entering a building. The second was of the same person leaving the building and getting back into their limo. Little wonder that ambitious TV correspondents based in Brussels spent most of their life on a plane to somewhere with better pictures.

For the print or online journalists, part of the problem is the lack of recognisable personalities. For a time, things looked more hopeful for the British press corps on that score with the arrival of that newsmaker in chief, Peter Mandelson, as the British member of the European Commission.

But in the end, even he could not buck the trend. Whereas a clash between Mr. Mandelson and Gordon Brown was front page news, a dispute between the British Commissioner and his German counterpart, Gunther Verheugen, would barely register.

European officials recognized the problem, of course, and would fantasise about a “European media space” – one in which citizens across the EU would read about the politics of their continent, rather than their nation state.

One or two titles had a more international approach, including the Financial Times and my newspaper at the time, the International Herald Tribune, which was popular with Eurocrats because it was published in English (and therefore easy for many Europeans to read) and printed and distributed in many EU nations. Indeed, some EU officials were surprised to learn that it was American and not European-owned; it has now been rebranded as the International New York Times.

But the “European media space” remained largely a fantasy because most news organisations represented in Brussels are national in character and resolutely so in perspective. Some British publications take a doggedly critical approach to all things European. But even those that do not take a critical approach face the very real problem of reporting on highly-complex decision-making mechanisms, created to try to smooth away the inevitable conflicts that arise when 28 different nations pool their sovereignty.

European Union institutions, meanwhile, remain unfamiliar to Britons, particularly the European Commission, a hybrid – part civil service and part regulator – yet with the power of initiative in European law-making. Commissioners, have “cabinets” of their own close aides, yet most of the officials who work in their policy areas report not the Commissioner, but to the Director General of their department.

EU law-making bears little similarity to procedures in Britain where, providing that the Government has a decent Parliamentary majority, it can normally force through most pieces of legislation. Thus a Government announcement is worth reporting, as is any subsequent change of heart or Parliamentary setback.

But when should you report on a piece of European law-making? When it is proposed by the European Commission? The problem with this is that the European Commission knows that it will only get a proportion of what it asks for, and therefore will usually bid high, so that at least something is left at the end of the legislative sausage machine. The initial proposal may, therefore, be only the roughest guide to what will actually come about.

So mostly we waited for the measure to be debated in the Council of Ministers, where the national governments meet. But even here there was always the risk of being asked by the editor, “Is this the final moment?”. The answer of course was often no.

This is because the European Parliament also has a very significant say. And in Strasbourg, the array of political groups that bargain and vote over legislation are unfamiliar to British political alignments.

So even senior journalists in London are often blissfully ignorant of the workings of the European Union. None of which makes life easy for the Remain campaign in the upcoming Referendum on British membership of the European Union, given part of its job is to correct misconceptions, explain what the EU does, which powers lie where and what role national governments play in decision-making in key policy areas.

Then, if they are to win, they also need to make the case for why it is either a positive force or a worthwhile compromise. Can Britain’s pro-Europeans do this before June 23? We are about to find out what happens when British voters finally come into contact with Planet Brussels.