European Union Faulted for Limiting Voices

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BRUSSELS -- During heated wrangling late last year over the size of a new long-term budget for the European Union, Notre Europe, a Paris-based policy group, wanted to make its voice heard. So it put one of its researchers on a small radio station in the French city of Nantes to answer questions and promote its vision of a "more effective" -- and bigger -- budget controlled by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The exercise in what appeared to be an energetic public debate had a catch, or two, however. The radio station, it turns out, received more than $100,000 from Brussels last year, according to official European Union records. Notre Europe itself had received more than $650,000 from Brussels last year, nearly half of its total budget.

"The whole thing is surreal make-believe: people who get E.U. funding talk about how wonderful the E.U. is and then lobby for it to get more money," said Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a privately financed research group based in London that is offering $135,000 for the best plan for a British exit from the Union.

At a time when Europe is struggling with soaring unemployment and the enduring euro crisis has raised existential concerns about the 28-nation bloc, there is scant debate in Brussels over the critical issue of whether the solution to the Union's problems lies in "more Europe" -- meaning greater political and economic integration -- or less.

"They end up just talking to themselves," said Martin Callanan, a British member of the European Parliament who heads the assembly's Conservative and Reformists, a group of lawmakers that, unlike some hard-core "euroskeptics," does not want the European Union dismantled, but does want Brussels' authority trimmed in favor of national governments.

The effect is not only a tightly circumscribed discussion about what might remedy Europe's crisis, say Mr. Callanan and like-minded critics, but also a rising disenchantment with "the European project," the six-decade-long push for economic and political integration.

The European Commission says it does not tie funding to any particular point of view and provides money to a wide range of groups, including ones that do not see eye-to-eye with Brussels. "The E.U. funds think tanks to stimulate thinking and research on the European Union and its policies by outside bodies," said Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a spokeswoman for the commission. "We vigorously reject that those we fund are always pro-E.U."

Yet, a survey of public opinion released in July by Eurobarometer, the union's polling unit, found that more than two-thirds of Europeans feel their voice does not count in the European Union, up from 52 percent when the question was first asked in 2004.

The European Commission acknowledges it has a problem engaging with ordinary people and worries about the need to rally public support and to close what it calls a "democracy deficit." To that end, it declared 2013 the "year of the European citizen."

It also invited representatives of 16 putatively independent policy research groups from across Europe to share their views at a closed-door working lunch on Sept. 2 with its president, José Manuel Barroso. All have received money from Brussels.

According to the commission's own records, the groups received a total of $9.2 million last year from the same organization whose policies they assess and seek to influence. The European Parliament, also based in Brussels, has its own pot of money, part of which goes to fund some of the same policy groups -- and also the radio station in Nantes.

"There is a fundamental problem with this whole situation," said Mats Persson, the director of Open Europe, a research group based in Britain, calling it "an obvious conflict of interest." Mr. Persson, whose privately funded organization is highly critical of what it views as wasteful spending and needless regulation by the European Union, was not invited to share his opinions with Mr. Barroso.

The director of Notre Europe, Yves Bertoncini, who did attend the meeting with Mr. Barroso, conceded that accepting money from the European Commission might create suspicions that "he bought my breakfast and my lunch so I'll be kind to him." But, he added, "it doesn't work like that."

"We are in favor of European construction, but after that there are very different views about how this should be done," Mr. Bertoncini said.

Other research groups that receive European Union financing also challenge policies set in Brussels and disagree on whether austerity, the largely German-dictated focus of the bloc's response to the economic crisis, has been the right course.

But none call for a radical rethinking of Europe's direction as demanded by so-called euroskeptics, who are united by a fierce hostility to any further surrender of sovereign powers to Brussels and mostly want Brussels to roll back its political ambitions and focus exclusively on facilitating free trade.

The European Commission has itself conceded that Europe's policy institutes rarely produce any bold new ideas.

In a study last year, the commission noted that such groups' research "tended to be rather 'mainstream.' " It did not cite financial dependency as a possible reason for this or consider the work of research groups deeply hostile to the status quo.

One such group, New Direction, which describes itself as a "euro-realist think tank" and receives financial support from the European Parliament, published a report by Lithuanian researchers last month that found that 86 percent of the $2 billion that the European Commission gives annually in direct grants to nongovernment organizations, or NGOs, goes to ones headquartered in Brussels.

When Mr. Barroso invited research groups to share their views in September, he told them he was looking for outside ideas to help shape his "state of the union" address, an annual report on the European Union's achievements and challenges.

Those who attended were asked not to reveal who said what during the discussion. But several people who took part said the session mostly stuck to uncontroversial issues and sensitive but highly technical matters of little interest to the general public, like a proposed banking union.

Groups that receive grants say the commission imposes no restraints on their research but applicants for the biggest financing program are required to explain how their work will help "bring Europe closer to its citizens and encourage European integration."

"Just look at the uniformity of views," said Mr. Callanan, the Conservative and Reformists leader in the European Parliament. "Which one of the groups funded by the commission says let's give power back to the nation states? They never say this. That would be heresy and that would be rewarded by cuts in funding,"

Ms. Ahrenkilde Hansen, the Commission spokeswoman, denied this and said financing in no way depended on reaching predetermined conclusions.

The European Commission, mindful of widespread public dissatisfaction with, or indifference to, its work, announced in July that it was starting its own news agency at an initial cost of 3.2 million euro, or $4.3 million, to provide "independent" news about what it does.

The project was swiftly scrapped, however, after an outcry from the International Press Association, an organization representing Brussels journalists, and euroskeptic members of the European Parliament, who labeled the proposed news agency "Brussels Pravda."

At a cost of $4 million, the commission has also begun a series of 50 "citizens' dialogues" between ordinary people and senior Brussels officials. "I want to see a real debate that engages all citizens," Mr. Barroso told the inaugural dialogue at Dublin's City Hall in January. "That is why we are here today."

The audience at the Dublin event was arranged by the Irish branch of the European Movement, a partly Brussels-financed organization set up in 1948 to promote the goal of a federal Europe, a cause that now has little support in Ireland, or any other country, but still has some ardent supporters in Brussels.

Ms. Ahrenkilde Hansen said the event was open to anybody who requested in advance to attend. "There was no screening by any thought police," she said.

Some questioners were critical of Brussels for its emphasis on austerity as the cure for Europe's economic ills, but all were respectful and, on occasion, gushing in their support for the European Commission's work, particularly that of Viviane Reding, a commission vice president from Luxembourg who took questions from the floor and spoke of the need for a "United States of Europe."

As the citizens' dialogue unfolded politely in Dublin's City Hall, an impolite protester, Ronan Duffy, stood alone in the rain outside holding an Irish flag scrawled with the words: "NO EU rule in Ireland." Fuming at what he called "that charade" inside, he said: "I don't feel like I'm a European citizen. I'm Irish. This whole thing about being a European citizen means nothing to me."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 15, 2013 2:01 PM


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