First fix ourselves – then fix Europe

The European Union seems complicated (often incomprehensible), boring, and aloof for most Europeans. However, blaming the mediocre EU political elites, or the successful populists who make a good and often hypocritical career (i.e. Nigel Farage) going against the EU, for the existing situation is superficial.

Before the Greek crisis there was widespread agreement that the EU project produced direct, indirect, and sometimes accidental benefits for all the EU member countries that hugely offset the inherent losses that come with being part of such a Union. Even nowadays the overwhelming majority of experts still agree with this view. Awful communication*, a democratic deficit, and the challenge of finding acceptable compromises among countries with very different agendas are serious problems that contribute to an increased distance between Brussels and the average European. Still, none of these problems justifies the extent to which Europeans seem to be increasingly unable to recognize and support what is obviously one of the best democratic projects ever – the EU.

The EU bureaucracy is an amazing pool of extremely smart, diverse, and talented people. The EU is a top employer in terms of remuneration and job stability. The EU provides the most money for development in the world and is also the main funder of civil society (jobs with most Brussels-based NGOs are both prestigious and lucrative). Top jobs are usually occupied by people with impressive resumes and exceptional qualities.

The strength of a Union rests in its people and its mechanisms The EU’s bureaucracy and EU paid civil society are the people tasked to ensure the success and popularity of the EU. On paper this sounds almost like a perfect situation.

The main weakness of the EU is exactly these people – people that, again, are among the best and smartest in Europe; people that should be the backbone of the Union. Unfortunately, institutionally neither the EU bureaucracy nor EU-financed civil society seem preoccupied with having a strong backbone. In fact, far too often there seem to be no backbone at all, and a strong disinterest in growing one.

I have repeatedly heard terrible explanations from very good people to justify their cowardice, numbness, and overall irrelevance working within the EU bureaucracies. In the end, it often amounts to the suspension of one’s professional ethics, morals, and ambitions in order to continue to receive a good salary and enjoy a comfortable life.

The fact that the “system” is nowadays plagued by conformity, lip service and opportunism doesn’t justify keeping quiet about it and pretending everything is fine. Quite the opposite: it requires people to speak up and force change.

Indeed, among the leaders of the EU bureaucracies, there are still too many cronies of shady but powerful national politicians, some “professionally challenged” people, and a few loonies. They are an ignorable few compared to the bureaucratic and civil society EU elites.

The situation of the EU-funded civil society is similarly problematic. At this moment the typical civil society organisation is trying (understandably) to stabilise and extend its comfort zone. This equates to being likable for donors: lip service, conformity, and good connections are the most often required incentives.

There is significant movement of people among the EU bureaucracies and EU-funded civil society. Ideally that would be a good thing, if it were not for the very strong negative incentives mentioned above. The result is that the two systems mainly enforce each other’s comfort rather than their accountability and efficiency.

Civil society needs to have legitimacy and much better accountability. It also needs to play the role of watch dog and avoid the risk of becoming a transition phase for opportunists and future numb and rationalising bureaucrats. There is a very similar risk with people that transit from jobs within the EU bureaucracies to NGOs. Far too many times ex-EU bureaucrats that became leaders of civil society in Brussels will do their best to justify inaction as a way not to upset their previous and sometimes future colleagues and bosses in the EU bureaucracies.

‘Fixing’ Europe needs start with fixing ourselves, and then the European elites in Brussels. The problems with national bureaucracies and national civil society – especially in Eastern and Central Europe – are similar if not worse than those in Brussels.

We, the civil society activists at the grassroots need to become a lot more accountable and responsible first. We can start by calling bullshit what it is and not promising practices or other ambiguity. We need to call on the mistakes on people in power rather than finding all kind of excuses to cuddle up to them. There is also a solution on making this systemically.

Independent watch dog organisations focused on the accountability, transparency, and relevance of the different EU and national bureaucracies and their actions, as well as of the EU paid and national civil society organisations is the solution. A fraction of the money wasted on irrelevant trainings only on Roma issues could easily solve it.

At the end of the day elites are needed for their courage and ability to reform, not for their abilities to pay lip service to those in power or to rationalize the status-quo.

*An example of awful communication is the recent interview given by the president of the EU. Juncker talked to BBC from a private, luxurious plane. Many Europeans feel that austerity measures are pushed from Brussels.. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32501737

PS. More in detail about the wrong incentives of the EU based civil society here

A sick European civil society – Brussels

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