22nd Mar 2018


Travelling circuses are not worth the carbon

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received - in the days when I worked in 'organisations' - was to find a public telephone box and call yourself up. Pretend you are a customer, ring in, and make some enquiries, perhaps a complaint. You will then obtain a very different perspective on your organisation to the one that you see from the inside.

This sound advice comes from the management guru Robert Townsend. He was writing in the 1970s but his advice is no less relevant today; and to large public organisations as much as small private ones.

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  • Why can't the treaty be signed in Lisbon by the Portuguese Presidency and then brought to Brussels to be signed by everyone else? (Photo: wikipedia)

From the comfortable, leather-upholstered chairs, clustered around the boardroom table, life tends to be painted in the colours the directors would hopefully wish it to be. It is easy for them to be taken in by their own importance.

The surroundings in which major public and private leaders live much of their lives - induces its own 'folie de grandeur.' So common sense occasionally flies out of the window. And symbolism flies in to replace it.

Especially prone to this madness are those in the higher reaches of government, perhaps because such people live in a rarefied atmosphere free from normal constraints.

Staff are always on hand to organise and prepare and shield; to write speeches, brief on meetings, organise food and refreshment, to set the diary, to arrange travel and generally to insulate the office holder from the routine pressures of life.

This apparatus of power sets the same seal of approval on all decisions and perceptions. Symbolism and substance can thus become easily confused. The public, however, is rarely duped. As Lincoln's saying implies - you can only fool some of the people, some of the time.

The picture gained from the inside looking out may thus appear radically different to that of those outside and looking in. As in the story of the Emperor's new clothes, those on the inside may not be able to spot the confusion, to see the idiocy of actions that appear plain as a pikestaff to everyone else.

Symbolism of the first order

One such idiocy is the proposal now for European leaders to sign the Reform Treaty in Lisbon during, or just before, the December meeting of the European Council meeting in Brussels.

The sensible counter-proposal - to also hold the summit in Lisbon - has apparently been turned down by the Belgians who do not wish to create a precedent for breaking the relatively young practice of holding major European Council meetings in the European capital.

So the current proposal is that the other 26 leaders and their various staffs should fly to Lisbon merely for the purpose of a signature, a few photographs and perhaps a state dinner. Then all will return to their aeroplanes and jet north again to Brussels. This is symbolism of the first order.

When the Union is rightly urging, not only its own citizens, but the entire world, to reduce unnecessary carbon emissions, this vast job creation exercise is idiocy of the first order.

Why, for heaven's sake, can't the treaty be signed in Lisbon by the Portuguese Presidency and then brought to Brussels to be signed by everyone else? It can still be called the Lisbon Treaty - if indeed the name is important - for it really could be called anything at all.

The old Shakespearean principle that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, applies equally to treaties.

Anyway, let us hope there is time before December for sanity to prevail. Indeed, if our leaders were really to grasp the message that the European public are not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of travelling circuses generating vast amounts of carbon; if they wanted to demonstrate that they had truly repented of their fondness for symbolism, for royal progressions and their accompanying baggage trains, then they might even consider a late codicil to the Lisbon Treaty.

This would remove the relevant provision in the Treaty of Amsterdam that requires the European Parliament to hold its plenary sessions in Strasbourg and leave members of the European Parliament free to choose where and when their deliberations should take place.

Should they then choose - perhaps because of a misplaced fondness for Gewürztraminer and Foie Gras - to keep the Strasbourg seat with the enormously expensive monthly oscillation it entails (both in money and carbon terms) to and from Brussels, then the rascals could be held to account by their electorates and voted out accordingly.

Testing Sarkozy's statemanship

Of course, any proposal that the Parliament should give up its Strasbourg seat would test President Sarkozy's statesmanship. Could he put the interests of Europe above those of France and end something that is that is the greatest of all triumphs of symbolism at the expense of substance?

But who knows what returns such a gesture might bring? He would then be free to call in any number of favours from his colleagues in the interests of protecting French agriculture and preserving la vie française from the depredations of globalisation.

He would also be in a stronger position to persuade his colleagues to adopt his proposal for the 'Mediterranean Union,' by which he sets much store. A future empty hemicycle could even provide the new body with a temporary home at least.

But much more than this, European leaders could use such a codicil to the Reform Treaty to show that they had in fact listened to the people. That they had stepped outside their air-conditioned offices and put through a call to themselves to see how difficult they had made the public's task of being heard.

It would also be a small token to indicate that even if it were the case - as the former French President, Mr Giscard d'Estaing, argued this week - that the Reform Treaty had been engineered to avoid referendums - European leaders were nonetheless prepared to listen to the people.

That they were prepared at least to make a nod in the direction of the popular will - to make a gesture in the direction of the citizens.

And it would show that in asking us to make sacrifices for the sake of climate change, the Union was also prepared to make sacrifices itself. Not only by axing the junket to Lisbon, but of that far greater and greedier talisman: Strasbourg itself.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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