Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Open Europe is failing

I for one joyfully welcomed the creation of Open Europe, a eurosceptic think tank funded by leading UK business people. "At last", I thought, "a serious think tank, funded by serious people, taking an objective but critical approach to the EU, and challenging the more traditional Brussels think tanks like the European Policy Centre, the Centre for European Policy Studies, and others. Take a look at the vision statement. While I would criticise it in some minor respects on the substance and style, it optimistically (and I mean that positively) describes a realistic and not unattractive version of the Europe of the future.

But I have been very disappointed by Open Europe's anti-Lisbon Treaty campaign. Whereas the bulk of the organisation's research throws some light, albeit with a strong eurosceptic bent, on real issues and proposes real solutions, the pieces on the Lisbon Treaty, as well as the blog, seem to have been written by a political party and not a serious think tank. The most recent piece of research focuses on the amendments that the Irish government sought, but failed, to get included in the Lisbon Treaty. On the surface, it is detailed, well-researched, and powerfully argued. But anyone with the slightest interest in objectivity would immediately ask whether the Irish experience of treaty negotiation was so different from that of other Member States. Open Europe is a British outfit, so you would have thought that at least some UK material wouldn't be too hard to find and use. But this question does not appear anywhere in the paper. It's clearly meant more as a direct appeal to Irish voters in the context of the second Irish referendum than as a piece of research on how (un)satisfactory the process of treaty negotiation was for various countries. In fact, I can't find a single mention of any other Member State in the whole paper. In other words, this paper boldly takes the Irish experience of the negotiations out of all context, with a transparently tactical objective: getting the Irish to vote No. If Open Europe had been true to its ostensible mission, it would have provided such research for more Member States. OK, so you could argue that it was only worth investing the necessary resources in a paper on the Irish case because only Ireland was voting. But then they should at the very least have included some comparisons with other countries' positions.

In the months leading to the second Irish Lisbon referendum, the blog has plumbed the tabloid depths. Apparently the end (getting an Irish No vote) justified the means. Because I don't know how a serious think tank can take an honest look at its blog and not cringe with shame. Take a look at this piece on a Labour candidate's criticism of the UK government for failing to hold a referendum on the lisbon Treaty. It's fairly factual, but it does stray from a discussion on the merits of the Treaty into politics.

Then there's this post on the organisations that campaigned for a Yes vote in Ireland, seeking to discredit them by pointing out that they get funding from the Commission. When I questioned in a comment why funding from a body that has a treaty mandate to promote European integration should be considered improper, the Open Europe blog team was silent. Only an anonymous commenter accused me of being an "apologist". He/she obviously hasn't read this blog or my comments elsewhere.

This piece came back to the theme of the alleged "issues" with the Commission "paying organisations to come up with policy ideas to feed back into the Commission". Hang on a minute. So are they saying they would like the Commission to receive feedback only from business or from privately-funded think tanks like them? And why do they assume that the feedback the Commission is going to get is going to be "pro-EU", as if the pro- or anti-EU debate was really what people in Brussels spent their time worrying about every day? Why ignore the fact that a lot of the Commission's funding goes, for example, to environmental NGOs? The Commission does indeed get policy ideas from such organisations, and they have indeed been used in Commission policy-making. But these NGOs overwhelmingly provide input on policy, and not on an obsessive questioning of the EU's structural problems.

Here, Open Europe accused Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary of double standards for changing his mind on the Lisbon Treaty, conveniently ignoring the fact that its own white knight, Declan Ganley, had sworn he would retire from politics if snubbed at the European elections (which he was), only to return to the fray despite himself. A pretty obvious case of double standards in my book.

A really appalling example of tabloid journalism was the repetition of the claim made by the Irish Times that Commissioner Wallstrom had told Irish voters that the Lisbon Treaty was going to improve childcare. When Wallstrom's spokesman pointed out that the irish Times had got it wrong and that she had been talking about the Lisbon Agenda and not the Lisbon Treaty, did we get a retraction or an apology from Open Europe for the precipitous overreaction? Not a bit of it. We simply got more aggressive questions implying that the Commissioner deliberately sought to confuse Irish voters by making statements about the Lisbon Agenda in Ireland during run-up to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Don't expect people to treat you as a serious partner for discussions if you question their good faith.

There are plenty of good reasons to reject the Lisbon Treaty. In my opinion, the worst thing about it is that it is so unreadable. The significance of the changes it makes are lost in a morass of legalistic text that no voter could ever understand. It also marks a failure by the Member States to grasp the nettle of reform as tightly as they should have. Some of the positive aspects, such as the simplification of the legislative process or greater involvement by national parliaments, seem like cosmetic changes when set in the context of grandiose new positions and the extension of QMV.

But sadly, here, Open Europe cast aside all pretence that it actually believed that the Irish should be persuaded to vote against Lisbon because it is a bad treaty. Instead, it expressed the hope that posters urging the Irish to vote No in protest against the government would be successful. Is this the message of a serious think tank taking a fresh, oprtimistic look at how the EU can be reformed? No. It's the voice of the worst sort of political cynicism. Shame on them.


Grahnlaw said...


It is right to study "think tanks" or pressure groups with a critical eye, since some of them at least hand out quite generous helpings of critique themselves.

Your post reminded me that I wrote a short series on Open Europe a while back, looking at some of there statements and apologist efforts.

step21 said...

I never get it when people call it unreadable ... especially compared to UK statutes it is so much easier to read.