Another Question from Quora that attracted a must read answer

Barney Lane
Barney Lane, Pro-Europe, Pro-Brexit

I guess everyone has their own story. Here’s mine in a nutshell. I’ve described the personal journey in more detail in another answer.[1]

I used to be very pro-EU and Britain’s membership thereof. I graduated in economics and purposely chose a career that would use my academic credentials in a field with some involvement and influence in the development of EU policy.

Consequently, I am and have been since 1999, involved in EU regulation, law, economics and policy, in the telecoms industry. I have worked in that professional capacity — in consulting and industry — for 19 years. I’ll be going to Brussels for an important industry conference at the end of November and will write to my friends here in a blog post, as I did for the same event last year 🙂 [2]

I’d decided the EU wasn’t right for the UK, its institutions and its style of politics, some years before the term “Brexit” was invented.

In essence, it was seeing how business is done in Brussels, up close and personal. It’s hard to summarise in a few words but it’s essentially about how the game is played. It’s about their objectives, priorities, and the nature of the real power brokers.

Interestingly, my father had worked similarly closely with Brussels institutions as the UK Government’s lead trade policy representative in the 1970s and 1980s. We came to the same conclusions, quite independently, at different times.

If the term “Brexiteer” had existed in 1985, my father would have been one by then. John Major would have called him a “bastard”. I thought my father’s attitudes were awfully crusty, out of date and against a vision of internationalism that at the time, I thought was the way forward. I was happy to compromise my own country’s nationhood, in order to achieve the closest possible union with our neighbours.

It was my direct experience of the nature of that union that over a period of years, changed my mind. It’s really difficult to summarise years of career experience in a few words but here is a very basic summary of what changed it for me. Please note, for brevity’s sake, I have simplified a lot. The reality is more subtle and nuanced than it may appear from the below, though no less real.

How business is done. The EU’s integrationist agenda reigns supreme. You have to understand this before you understand anything about how to get things done in Brussels. All other concerns are subservient. If there’s a way the EU can seize more power by means of a Directive, it will. And it will do so regardless of whether the consequences are good or bad.

Some people think major cessions of powers are only agreed in Treaties. Not so I’m afraid. They come at us left right and centre, all the time, via Directives and Regulations, which the EU is constantly passing. The UK has to implement them. It has no choice.

The concepts in every Directive originate mainly from within the EU Commission. The process is rather opaque. Once finished, the draft Directives are handed to a rapporteur group within the EU parliament, which is led by an appointed MEP. They are supposed to take soundings from affected parties. I have frequently asked for a hearing by rapporteur groups. I have never received a reply.

Once the rapporteur group has done its report, the draft Directive passes from the EU Parliament to the Council of Ministers. In theory, member state government representatives are supposed to represent their country’s interests. In reality, the only people who carry much power are the rotating presidency and the Commission. The Directive eventually gets railroaded through in an all-night session following a lavish dinner and piss-up. Any fundamental objections are bought off by a bit of weasel wording and everyone ganging up on the outlier until they’re forced to give in. By 5am they will give in because they are too exhausted to maintain resistance.

The recent lobbying success I’m most proud of came at the stage when a key Directive was being considered by the Council of Ministers. It was about something particularly egregious that at the last minute had been stuck into the draft Directive by the Estonian Presidency, following pressure by the German government. The amendment was only a subtle change in wording but it HAD to go.

I got everyone in my team to write to the telecoms minister in their respective countries, objecting to the last-minute change in the strongest possible terms. Every telecoms minister wrote back to my colleagues saying they agreed. The amendment got the kibosh. And thank goodness for that. It was the most absurdly self-serving try-on imaginable, by the German government.

I beat the German government. That’s cool. But it was the exception that proved the rule. (Actually it was the stupidity of the proposal that lost rather than anything that won).

Who calls the shots. The ones calling the shots are the ones that play the game. They are, admittedly simplying:

  • the big corporates with huge lobbying budgets that prepare massive events at grand venues, stroking the egos of the Commissioners. They include a keynote speech by the Commissioner, followed by an arse-kissing speech by the corporation’s CEO praising the ground he walks on and lauding in religious terms, the EU’s fine vision and moral mission
  • governments who are willing to play the game. These are the ones that buy into the EU’s integrationist agenda and work hardest behind the scenes, to promote it. Conceding your country to irrevocable subservience to the EU’s mission buys you the right to a bit of horse-trading here and there, on other things

If you don’t play the game, you and your views are demoted. The British just don’t play the game like this. It’s fundamentally not within our culture to do so. Our entire system of governance is based on the idea of transparency, accountability, delegated authority and limiting the role of vested interests. This is why it’s so difficult for many British people to understand how the EU really works.

If you tell a British company it should bet the farm on twisting the EU Commission’s arm to change its standards to disqualify rivals, it just won’t. It seems wrong. We win or lose fair and square.

We do not buy into the EU’s religiously-inspired integrationist agenda and never have. At the start of my career, I was told that in order to get the EU Commission’s attention on an idea, you must sell it as a method for the Commission to spread its tentacles further. But it’s hard for us to do that because we don’t fundamentally agree with it. It’s like asking a vegan to tuck into a 3 Kg sirloin steak.

These cultural and behavioural traits disqualify us from having much of a say at any stage in EU policy development.

The one nuclear option we have — the veto — is steadily being diluted by qualified majority voting. The veto must be used sparingly as it has strong repercussions. Remember the row and the anger that ensued when David Cameron vetoed the EU’s budget proposal? This was a prime example of why the veto is almost never used.

Now in British political terms, the above is equivalent to:

  • all policy originating from the Civil Service, there being no politically-elected government with any practical ability to initiate policy
  • the Civil Service having an agenda that’s primarily about growing its own power, at the expense of any other priority
  • having no ability, political or otherwise, to change what our Mandarins are doing, in any direction save that which increases their power still further
  • Mandarins behaving in a way that becomes increasingly, visibly and unashamedly authoritarian, with every year that passes.

It doesn’t seem a particularly ideal way to develop law, economics and policy, does it? When there’s a single agenda that dominates all other concerns, you’re going to get some pretty bad decisions. That should be obvious.

The EU’s policy failures were outlined with great clarity by Roger Bootle in his book “The Trouble with Europe”.[3] I recommend a read. They were also outlined by some economists in a report, ironically commissioned by the EU to celebrate its success.[4]

When I read Bootle’s book I almost cried. It was so on the nail as to be almost disconcerting.

Bootle, the authors of the report mentioned above and I (as well as a number of others) have one thing in common. We are economists who’ve seen close-up and understood intimately how the EU works. We’ve seen its failures in detail and called them out. It’s not for nothing that economically speaking, the EU has for decades been the worst performing economic bloc in the entire world.

Now, one cannot be too naive or purist about this. There is no perfect system of governance. Ours is far from perfect. There are multiple comprises, large and small that need to be made to get things done. I therefore recognise that the EU form of governance is a plausible one for people who are aligned with its objectives and methods.

But we, the UK, are just not.

If someone else had written the above in the 1990s and I read it, my pro-EU former self would probably have said, “yeah well, I still think we should persevere with the EU”. I’d have discounted the arguments that the differences between us were so fundamental that we couldn’t make it work. I’d probably have argued, “yes but through experience we can learn to become a bit more like them to get results, and perhaps they might adjust things a bit to accommodate different styles such as ours. Let’s learn to play the game!”

I definitely wouldn’t say that now though. One has to face up to the fact that the nature of the relationship we have with the EU has fundamental economic, political and cultural challenges. If you have to change to make a relationship work, the relationship is wrong. As they say, the personal is the political.


[1] Barney Lane’s answer to What influence did the Remain or Leave campaigns have on your Brexit vote? If there had been no campaigning, would your vote have been different?

[2] Barney’s blog

[3] Why the EU isn’t Working, How It Can be Reformed, What Could Take its Place: Roger Bootle: 9781857886306: Books



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