Tom Spencer's Blog

“If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?”

With apologies to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, I am increasingly struck by the parallels between Public Affairs, the British housing market and the state of European integration! The prolonged recession and the growing sense that there is likely to be no immediate relief, eventually forces people to get on with life, rather than waiting for the spectacular gains that they expected in the good times. New initiatives in the public affairs world have been frozen by fears of a further collapse or a triple dip recession. The British housing market has frozen solid. The only movement is that caused by money fleeing from other parts of Europe. Similarly the apparently endless European dimension of the financial crisis has undermined the credibility of European Summits to come up with workable answers. What is more it has chilled the mutual respect that is essential to the confidence necessary to find European solutions to shared problems.

As I write Surrey remains in the grip of an icy east wind that has frozen spring in its stride. Increasingly bewildered citizens murmur about Narnia and the Snow Queen. Have we all unconsciously passed through the back of a wardrobe? Have we so massively disrupted the weather systems based in the Arctic that we are to be punished in this icy way? Such weather does not just inhibit daffodils. It freezes out initiative, original thinking and the housing market.

For some years now EPACA (the European Public Affairs Consultants Association) has asked me to be one of the judges of their annual essay competition, open to the under-thirties. The contributions are limited to three hundred words and have been of a remarkably high standard. This year I suggested the title for the contest “How can Public Affairs Professionals contribute to getting Europe out of the Crisis?”. The winner was Ariane Pond-Hubert of Sarah Biontino Consultants with an essay that focused on the contribution of European public affairs to confidence in matters European. Her essay elegantly makes the point, also made by other contributors, that public affairs professionals have a finely honed knowledge of the European system and are in regular contact with both stakeholders and European officials. The pubic affairs corps in Brussels has a vested interest in the return of confidence. Within limits they can actively contribute to the return of the creativity and risk taking that is essential to solving Europe’s problems both big and small.

I have been writing about transparency and politics in the European Union for at least the last twenty five years. Every year I now give my post-graduate students at Brunel University a lecture on the history of the debate about registration and the control of lobbyists in the European Union. it was a major subject in the books which the ECPA published. I was never convinced that Commissioner Kallas ever really “got it”. The main speaker at the EPACA lunch was Commissioner Šefčovič. I am ashamed to say that I had not heard the Commissioner speak in the flesh before. Listening to him was a revelation. Here was a man totally on top of his brief. A man who was confident enough to debate with himself in public the strengths and weaknesses of his position. Originally a Czechoslovak diplomat, he survived the difficult early years of the Slovak Republic and now outshines his western European equivalents. He would clearly like to complete his transparency brief before the end of this Commission. At the EPACA lunch, he juggled with the triple conundrum of voluntary v mandatory; bringing in the Council of Ministers; and finding an acceptable legal base. It seems to me that, with a little confidence, all three can be resolved simultaneously. The debate about voluntary v mandatory is a proxy for doubts about whether the Transparency Register will become a permanent feature of European life. Such doubts about its existence would be resolved by incorporating the Council of Ministers into the system. They are after all the Co-Legislator under the Treaty of Lisbon. Lisbon split the Council into three entities – the European Council with a supervisory role, the Council of Ministers as Co-Legislator and the European External Action Service. I would start by extending the Register to include lobbying the European External Action Service and the Agencies. Efforts by third country governments to influence Union policies are just as much lobbying as similar efforts by companies or NGOs. I would then talk to the Lithuanian and Greek Presidencies about the possibility of celebrating the end of this quinquennium by the extension of the Transparency Register to include the Co-Legislator where lobbying on European issues takes place in national capitals. I would not formally involve the Council Secretariat, as they are by long practice good at reaching out to all those needed to support an appropriate compromise. I would leave the Heads of State and Government in the European Council untouched by the requirement to register. Transparency crises are developing in many Member States such that eventually even Prime Ministers will see the utility of having similar regulations at national, European and global levels.

Commissioner Šefčovič’s confidence stems from the fact that his current brief contains Inter-Institutional Relations. I have long believed that we do not need to wait for a new treaty to provide us with a specific legal base on which mandatory participation and consequent fines could be based. The increasing sophistication of Inter-Institutional relationships would surely now allow for something stronger than a gentleman’s agreement, but that fell short of a full scale inter-institutional agreement. In evolving the necessary intellectual freedom to take the next step, the Commissioner might choose to supplement formal consultation, in which all the stakeholders will feel duty bound to represent their established positions by something more playful. He might opt for an exercise in scenario thinking and game playing to come up with some new ideas. From the 1979 direct election of the European Parliament, Transparency has served Europe well. However it should not be elevated to such that it overrides the need to find solutions for Europe’s policy problems. The advocates of transparency should cash in their chips now while they have both the man and the moment.

John Bowis, a fellow member of EPACA’s Professional Practice Panel, and I performed a double act at the EPACA AGM. He announced the results and I presented the diplomas, and, for the winner, a metre long cheque for 2000 Euros. Such double acts between John and I go back to the early 1970s when we were both involved in Centre Right student politics. He has been both an MP and an MEP. He is now the Chairman of the Conservative Europe Group, which is shaping up as the central pillar around which pro-European Conservatives are rallying. He is living evidence of the contribution which public affairs-aware politicians can make to good governance. Conversely he is now evidence of how an understanding of the political ethos is essential to good public affairs. John and I have attempted to put the tools of good public affairs practice into operation in the service of maintaining Britain’s membership of the European Union after the In/Out Referendum which David Cameron has bequeathed to the nation. Far too much ink has been spent on why the Prime Minister found himself compelled to offer his ungainly speech in January. Even more ink is being expended to try and guess the outcome of the 2015 General Election and how it might impact on a subsequent Referendum. It is better to concentrate on what needs to be done now to give the pro-Europeans in Britain the best chance of carrying the majority of the country with them. All three main Parties will go into 2015 promising such a Referendum. For entirely understandable reasons the Labour Party will wait until the results of the Scottish Referendum in October 2014 are known. In all this constitutional quagmire the gravest threat to Labour is the possible loss of their Celtic majority. Without Scotland Labour can never again govern alone in the UK.

Good politics suggests that we should start by a public affairs assessment of what we would need to know. After four months work the result is a wiki- paper contributed to by twenty four experts. It makes a stab at identifying “What needs to be Done?” by the political Parties, the social partners and the other key players. One of the first conclusions of the analysis is that much of the expertise about Britain’s membership of the European Union is to be found in the British community in Brussels, rather than in London. With the combined help of Brits in public affairs agencies, NGOs and European Institutions we are developing both ideas and techniques. Stakeholder Mapping, innovative use of social media and other public affairs techniques will shape the 2017 Campaign, which will differ in many ways from its predecessor in 1975.

In pursuit of understanding the appeal of UKIP and the charismatic Nigel Farage, I attended a debate in Southsea in mid-February between the UKIP leader and Roy Perry, the former MEP for Hampshire. Both speakers, in a debate hosted by a local school, were well known in the Portsmouth area. They presented a dramatic contrast in speaking style. Roy Perry had the best facts, but Nigel Farage had perfected a populist style of rhetoric, well honed to rouse the blood, but in a reassuringly English way. Nigel is the consummate public school debater. He had a silver spoon career in the City as the son of a stockbroker. Nowadays he presents himself as the little guy struggling with the grandees of the European cause. He would no doubt have squirmed had he been at the Conservative Europe Group AGM when he would have heard Nicholas Soames, MP extolling what a perfect gent he was and reminiscing about how Nigel’s father commanded the regiment in which the ebullient Mr Soames had served. He has probably peaked too early and the UK media are busy building him up prior to a subsequent immolation. The jury is still out on comparisons between UKIP and the Five Star Movement in Italy. To do violence to Tolstoy, perhaps we might say that “happy mainstream parties are all alike; while every unhappy extremist party is unhappy in its own way!”

After six months immersed in the issue, one thing is at least clear to me. The future of Britain’s membership of the European Union is intimately linked to the future of the Union itself. If we can identify what it is that apparently repels many otherwise sane Brits from the language and practice of Brussels, we may well be able to identify the wider malaise of Euroscepticism and extremism which has taken hold across the mainland.

Two recent meetings in Brussels give me cause for optimism. The European Public Affairs Action Day, organised by Dods, has grown over three years to acquire a liveliness and social significance in the public affairs world of Brussels that bodes well for the future of public affairs in the European Quarter. The formal sessions are perhaps inevitably dominated by consultancies shouting their wares, but this very competition guarantees a vigorous quality to the social space around the sessions. For my Brunel students this was the public affairs world that they had heard of, but never experienced. Such is the nature of confidence.

Jack Jacometti has campaigned with unfailing energy for the European Commission to consciously improve its resilience in the face of potential multiple crises – the so-called “Perfect Storm”. In pursuit of this goal Professor Anne Glover, the Chief Scientific Advisor to President Barroso, summoned a substantial number of Directors General and Cabinet folk to the eleventh floor of the Berlaymont to review what they were doing to increase resilience. However her brief went further. She invited them to ask what they would want to put in front of newly elected Commissioners in late 2014. Furthermore she wanted them to identify the barriers to any such development, and in co-operation with external stakeholders, to prepare support for solutions at this early stage. In the jargon this is described as acquiring “proof of concept”. Like the daffodil such a gathering is a harbinger of spring and a reminder that the fundamental rhythms of the European Union have survived the cruel and unusual circumstances of the last five years. Once we have taken on board the results of the German Elections in September, the rhythm of institutional renewal will take over. As in 2004 and 2009, success will go to those who understand the public affairs opportunities of the transition year. Let us hope that 2013 will see a new spring for the European idea, a new lease of life for European public affairs and a new home for the Spencers.

Tom Spencer

4th April 2013

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