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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Has video killed the EPSCO stars?

Some poor people here spent yesterday watching EU ministers squabble pointlessly over the Working Time Directive at the Employment, Social Policy and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO).

To be honest it wasn't great TV - but the fact that we could watch at all is a big change. If British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had got her way the public still wouldn't be able to watch EU Council meetings, but thankfully Blair let her "hang out to dry", (to the great amusement of Geoff Hoon) and a new era of transparency was (supposedly) ushered in.

Or was it? Telegraph journalist David Rennie has criticised the new arrangements saying that they make it "impossible" for countries to hold real discussions. Instead, deal-making gets done over lunch, or when the cameras are turned off. Interestingly, Rennie argues: "With 25 countries round the table, there is almost no secrecy at closed-door Brussels meetings. Any half-decent journalist can usually find out what happened in a private ministerial meeting within 20 minutes of its end. So the openness is phoney, gains us nothing, and is utterly counter-productive."

There is something in this. But the new access is not a total waste of time - and these kind of arguments must not be allowed to become an excuse to prevent further opening up.

Firstly, as members of the non-press-pass carrying public it certainly makes it a lot easier for us to find out the background details and get a sense of what's going on, if we can watch the meeting. Naturally deals are still getting cut in smoke-filled corridors and over generous Brussels lunches, but at least the ordinary punter can now find out a bit more about what their government thinks on the issues rather than having to rely on press reports.

Secondly - in practice not all deals can be done "in the corridor". With 25 or 27 members you would need a really big hallway, quite apart from anything else. So they are forced (in the limited areas where some transparency now applies) to have at least part of the discussion in public.

So yesterday for example, we could get a sense of the bizzare posturing of some member states, which we (outside the Brussels lobby) would not otherwise have heard about - for example the Luxembourgers describing the opt-out as a "heresy" and the French complaint that their businesses were suffering from "unfair competition" (even though they are subject to a 35 hour week not a 48 hour week, but anyway...).

Quote of the day was from the the German minister who said, "What exactly have we achieved today? We've had a nice few hours together but that's about it." (BTW - you too can join in the fun by watching the meeting here.)

We seem to remember that there were a lot of similar arguments made in the UK about the introduction of TV cameras into the Commons. MPs, it was said, would always be acting up for the cameras and not take the issues seriously. It did take some a while to adjust. But they got over it. Today almost no-one thinks the Commons should go back. Perhaps EU ministers just need to learn to 'agree to disagree' in public...

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