As the Afghanistan crisis subsides, the European question once again assumes centre stage. ‘Surrender’, a tabloid headline proclaimed shortly before Christmas. This wasn’t an exhortation to Osama bin Laden, but rather the Daily Mail’s considered description of Britain’s latest concession to Europe. It had nothing to do with the euro: the polls suggest that the majority of Britons remain dead set against joining. But they also suggest that as a nation we are remarkably ignorant about the EU and its institutions. If we knew more, would we be more communitaire, or even less?

As an anthropologist my own regional specialisation is in Amazonia, but in 1999 I was commissioned to shoot a film for BBC2 about the workings of the European Parliament. It was a venture involving various European partners, including the EU itself, though the BBC was the biggest investor. The commission was for 20 half-hour films, shot by film-makers from all over the EU. With the June elections to the European Parliament coming up, I proposed a film following one of the newly elected MEPs over the first six months of his or her tenure.

Rightly or wrongly, the EU has become a byword for tedium, so if the idea was going to work, our principal character couldn’t be an apparatchik who would simply rehearse the official credo. The MEP we hit on was Nigel Farage, chairman of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Although he was a City metal futures trader rather than a professional politician, he could walk and talk polished sound-bites at the same time. Best of all, and in sharp contrast to other potential subjects from more mainstream parties whom we approached, he made no attempt to secure any form of editorial control.

The Parliamentary building in Strasbourg, gracefully laid out along a minor tributary of the Rhine, is everything British government buildings generally are not: beautiful, airy, futuristic. But if it’s magnificent to look at, it’s exasperating to work in. There is no better example of this than the two intertwining marble staircases that rise like some extravagant model of the Double Helix between the floors around the debating chamber. The problem is that each staircase opens only onto alternate floors. Trying to go up or down one floor is therefore like being caught in some Escher drawing: it seems it must be possible, but in fact it isn’t. The only way to get to an adjacent floor is to cross a bridge over a sort of ravine that separates one half of the building from the other, then take a lift up or down one floor and cross back over the ravine. At peak periods, everybody is doing this, so lifts are a long time coming, and when they come, they’re full. For sceptics like Farage, the Palais de l’Europe is a damningly appropriate metaphor for the European project as a whole.

The architectural arrangements in the Parliament building in Brussels are more satisfactory. The Parliament spends only one week in every month at the Strasbourg building, which was opened in 1999 at a cost of £300 million. The rest of the time it’s in Brussels, in an older building that has recently undergone considerable expansion and refurbishment at a cost of £670 million. What the existence of these two buildings means is that every month, a vast caravan of container trucks moves the effects of the 626 MEPs and their entourage, not to speak of the legions of officials, from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again, the same distance roughly as that between London and Edinburgh. Every MEP is issued with a standard French tin trunk in which he or she can pack his papers. But not everything can be transported, so all the larger pieces of equipment, computers, faxes, telephones, desks and so on, have to be supplied in duplicate. When the Parliament is in Brussels, schoolchildren and other visitors are shown the empty seats in Strasbourg.

Every MEP has an office and secretarial and research staff, all paid for by the EU at a cost of almost £100,000 a year. A phone card doubling as an identity card enables them to talk to anyone anywhere in the world at any length on any subject. (Except, that is, to the States, presumably to curb any Atlanticist tendencies.) Black Mercedes stand in lines outside to whisk them to and from their hotels. And then there are the travel and subsistence allowances. To the predictable outrage of the British tabloids, MEPs recently voted not to implement a system whereby these allowances would be paid only on the submission of receipts. But this is an instance where differences in the culture of government come into play. When MEPs are in Brussels or Strasbourg they are paid a generous subsistence allowance. But as they do not have to show receipts, they can stay in a cheap hotel and pocket the difference. Meanwhile, their travel costs are calculated according to a formula based on the Business Class airfare for the number of kilometres from the Parliament to their constituencies. But to claim the allowance, they have to show a boarding pass. Understandably, therefore, many MEPs have become experts on cheap flight deals. For example, a British MEP could catch an Easyjet flight from Stansted for around £30 but still claim an allowance of approximately £400. Over ten months of Parliamentary business, a weekly flight of this kind could generate a substantial income.

What looks like corruption within the culture of government in Northern Europe can, however, seem to be merely pragmatic when viewed from the South. All MEPs are paid basic salaries identical to those of deputies in their own national assemblies. In Southern Europe, these are generally much lower than those of the North, because it’s assumed that deputies will maximise the perks of office. The notion that expenses should be validated by receipts would greatly increase the load on the generally less efficient bureaucracies of the South. The pragmatic solution therefore is to scale down the salary rather than try and monitor the allowances. So if the receipts proposal had been successful, Southern MEPs would have found themselves at a disadvantage compared with their better-paid Northern colleagues.

The potential for self-enrichment is great. In the film, Farage claims to have worked out that you’d need to earn a formal salary of £250,000 a year to have the income you’d get if you worked all the available angles. Some MEPs have tried to return their unused allowances, but the system of accounting doesn’t have a way of accepting them. Given the lively interest in allowances, we planned to shoot a sequence in the office where expenses are paid. I had been given carte blanche by the charming Danish PRO to film anywhere in the building except in the bars, restaurants and ‘any other situation where the dignity of MEPs may be compromised’. So I proposed to film Farage as he went to collect his moolah from the allowances office. As he opens the door, he turns to me and says: ‘Come and film this, it’s a feeding frenzy in here.’ But just as I’m about to do so, a French official approaches and puts a sheaf of papers over the lens. I ask him why I can’t film. ‘Vous devez savoir mieux que moi, Monsieur,’ he replies.

The Parliament brings together a vast assortment of characters. There are the otherwise politically defunct from both Right and Left, such as Michel Rocard and Charles Pasqua, Mario Soares, formerly Prime Minister of Portugal, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most celebrated soixantehuitard of all. Troops of British Tories displaced at the 1997 general election have found it a convenient refuge while other politicians use it as a way of supporting their ongoing projects elsewhere: Jean-Marie Le Pen and Umberto Bossi, for example, or Ian Paisley and John Hume, who are merely adding a third Parliamentary seat to those they already hold at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A number of MEPs first achieved celebrity in other fields: Dana, the Irish Eurovision popstar, Michael Cashman, one-time star of EastEnders, as well as sportspersons of various kinds: a Finnish world champion rally driver, an Italian mountaineer, a Spanish Olympic yachting gold medallist. Indeed, probably because they’re elected by a system of PR, people from all walks of life are represented. Undertakers rub shoulders with professors of entomology, French working-class Communists with British hereditary peers, theologians with air-stewardesses. But there are also many party workers who have secured their reward for years of diligent service on local councils, in the research department or handing out leaflets in the streets.

The Parliamentary performance itself is quite different from Westminster. The seats fan out round a raised tier occupied by the Speaker and her officials. The Commissioners sit on her right and the MEPs are grouped according to their political fractions, right-wing parties on the right, left-wing on the left, with the leaders of the large fractions sitting in the front rows. Small groupings like the one to which Farage’s party belongs are tucked away at the back. Waving order papers wouldn’t work in such a vast chamber, and MEPs get the right to speak by pre-arrangement, which isn’t conducive to debate. The rules governing the length of speeches take into account the size of the speaker’s fraction, so while the leader of the largest group, the right-of-centre European People’s Party, can chunter on at length, Farage finds that he has to gabble through a densely worded statement because after two minutes his microphone will be cut off.

We’re used to seeing live pictures of debates at Westminster when seemingly important matters are debated by a handful of MPs in the middle of the night. The same happens in the European Parliament, but in the middle of the day. In one scene in the film, Farage is shown sharing his reservations over the Common Fisheries Policy, which currently results, he claims, in more than half of the fish caught in the North Sea being thrown back dead. Of the 626 seats in the Assembly, more than six hundred are empty. On the other hand, a vote on regulations concerning strip-lighting was taken by an almost overflowing chamber. The reason is simple: attendance at certain votes, known as ‘roll call votes’, is necessary to get your subsistence allowances. When obliged to attend in this way, MEPs are not shy about revealing their lack of interest: another scene in the film shows many of them catching up with the newspapers.

Of all the EU institutions, it’s the Commission that has most often been the subject of anthropological studies. Its exact role in relation to the Parliament was something I was rather hazy about before filming. This wasn’t surprising since, as a number of studies show, the central institutions represent a series of compromises between divergent political conceptions of what the EU should be developed piecemeal over a period of fifty years. As a result, both the distribution of powers and the language used to describe them is often opaque.

Comprising 20 Commissioners and eighteen thousand officials to do their bidding, the Commission represents the so-called ‘supranational’ model. The current President, Romano Prodi, has described it ambitiously as a European ‘government’ (he avoids the word when addressing domestic British audiences). But in reality it is quite different in character from a British-style government. For a start, the Commissioners are not actually appointed by the President (though his consent has recently become necessary) nor are they elected by popular vote. Though they are supposed to act in the general interest of the Union and take a solemn oath to that effect, they are nominated by the member states.

The Treaty of Rome gives the Commission an exclusive right to originate legislation, but for this to be enacted into law the approval of the Council of Ministers is required. This body, which represents the opposing ‘intergovernmental’ model, consists of ministerial representatives of all the member states, who spend their time engaged in almost continuous negotiations over the legislation proposed by the Commission. In this forum, each representative is expected to fight his or her own national corner. Only about half of all the Commission’s proposals also require Parliament’s approval. The remainder, including the all-important Common Agricultural Policy, which consumes 40 per cent of the EU budget, is the exclusive responsibility of the Council. It is therefore a very powerful body. But its negotiations take place behind closed doors and to my knowledge no anthropological study or independent documentary film has ever been made about it.

One of the more celebrated anthropological studies of the Commission was carried out in 1992-93 at the behest of the Commission itself, or more precisely of its then President, Jacques Delors. It was conducted by three anthropologists, two French, Marc Abélès and Irène Bellier, and one British, Maryon McDonald. The report they produced has never been published. Off the record, some officials have explained that it was ‘too anecdotal’ and ‘not sociological enough’, which could be construed simply as a failure to understand what an ethnographic study is likely to come up with. But a sceptic might wonder whether the officials didn’t like what they read. A sense of the report’s possible substance may be gleaned from the contributions made by its authors to recently published studies. In Audit Cultures, edited by Marilyn Strathern,1 McDonald writes very interestingly about the conflicting cultures of government in ‘the House’, as Commission insiders like to refer to it, a theme taken up by Abélès and Bellier in An Anthropology of the European Union, edited by Bellier and Thomas Wilson.2 Both essays suggest that the core values underlying the European project have undergone a major shift since the 1950s. For the founding figures, it was a political project from the start. Jean Monnet envisaged an eventual ‘United States of Europe’, with a federal council of ministers, a Parliamentary assembly and a court. As the one-time Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations, Monnet had little confidence in the efficacy of intergovernmental institutions, however multilateral. Only a genuinely federal structure could ensure the rights and freedoms of its citizens above and beyond the limits set by national governments.

De Gaulle didn’t have much time for this point of view, advocating instead the more intergovernmental Europe des patries. But by far the most corrosive influence was the admission of a number of states whose leaders perceived Europe as primarily an economic rather than a political project, or at least presented it to their domestic constituencies in this way. The UK was perhaps the most firm in holding this view, but as one of the largest net contributors to the budget, it couldn’t be ignored. The abandonment in the course of the 1980s of the highly centralised welfare state model of government in favour of a more laissez-faire model, not only by the Thatcher Administration, but in other member states too, reinforced a more economistic conception of the European project.

Maryon McDonald traces the effect that these ideological developments had on the civil servants within the Commission. She describes the tension between Northern and Southern civil service practices, a distinction often characterised by the civil servants themselves as between ‘Nordics’ and méridionaux or ‘Latins’. The latter included officials from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, while the Nordics were most of the rest, with Belgium sitting on the fence. The 1995 accession of Sweden, Finland and Austria swung the centre of gravity decisively in favour of the ‘Nordics’. McDonald makes the important point that such terms don’t represent hard-and-fast national or geographical categories: they are metaphors for the way moral and political perceptions are distributed across geographical and ethnological space in an effort to make sense of the ideological conflicts.

The culture of the Commission in the early years was decisively in the French bureaucratic tradition of top-down centralised planning practised by a technocratic elite. This was the background from which Monnet himself came. The Commission’s officials were well-paid, well-rewarded with other benefits and considered themselves to be in the vanguard of social development, showing the private sector how things should be done. They therefore deeply resented what some of them referred to as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ managerialism introduced by the Nordics, as a result of which idealism took a back seat to auditing and the measurement of productivity. But by the time McDonald came to do her study, the managerialist culture appeared to be winning: ‘If you talked of a United States of Europe now,’ one official said to her, ‘people would just laugh at you.’

In another new study, Cris Shore describes ‘the House’ as ‘a social and symbolic world riven with contradictions, stratagems and political horse-trading’.3 Some of this involves promoting national or even party political interest (supposedly particularly prevalent under Delors). But as the Committee of Independent Experts set up by the Parliament in 1999 discovered, it also includes good old-fashioned lining of pockets and jobs for the boys. Shore reports that some £17 billion was found to have been disbursed on ‘structural projects’ without any accounts being kept. Edith Cresson’s dentist (and Brussels flatmate) was only one of a number of individuals, at all levels, whose appointment was an example of manifest cronyism. He argues that this scandalous state of affairs is not just some random aberration but a consequence of a system in which the Commissioners are not democratically accountable.

EU politicians like to refer to this dissonance between idea and practice as a ‘democratic deficit’. But according to Abélès, the EU also suffers from a ‘symbolic deficit’: namely, a lack of any sense of cultural community based on a set of shared values, symbols and rituals. The effort to build some such sense is a central theme of Shore’s book. Commission officials told him they didn’t imagine that a generic European identity would immediately replace national identities. Rather, they were working towards a time when every citizen would have three identities, like concentric circles: a regional identity, a national identity and a European identity. To this end, from the 1980s, but particularly since Maastricht, cultural policy has been given high priority. The ring-of-stars flag, the anthem, the passports, the car number plates are all familiar examples of attempts in this direction. More substantial initiatives have also been taken, many of them educational: the university exchange programmes such as Socrates-Erasmus and Leonardo, European Youth Orchestras, the creation of more than a thousand Jean Monnet Chairs to promote studies of European integration.

Then there’s the euro. Although the reverse of the euro coins retains icons of national significance, the notes only feature what are held to be generic architectural themes, particularly bridges, doorways and windows, all metaphorically suggesting communication across national boundaries. The lowest denomination shows a Roman aqueduct which, as the value rises, is replaced by a Romanesque doorway, then a Gothic church window and later a Baroque façade. The €500 note (worth roughly £325) glories in a design ‘curiously reminiscent of a typical Brussels office block’.

This sense of supranational European identity as being both empty and deterritorialised is a recurrent theme of the anthropological literature. Abélès remarks that the EU is symbolised by an anthem without words, a ring-of-stars without a centre and a ‘transhumant’ Parliament. Even among the elite of the EU civil servants there is often a confused sense of personal identity. So what prospect is there of the great mass of European citizens ever sharing a common sense of identity? The question is of crucial importance, Shore argues, because if the EU has failed to engender a European public that recognises itself as such – a demos whose interest the political institutions are supposed to serve – what legitimacy do the latter have?

This question was raised acutely in the last sequence I shot for the film. The war cemetery at Verdun lies just off the motorway from Strasbourg to Calais. For Farage, the roots of the European project lie here amid the overgrown, pock-marked hillocks of the battlefield which, in terms of fatalities per square mile, still remains the most terrible killing field of recorded history. He argues that the political process that would result in the Maastricht Treaty began here in 1984, when President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl shook hands overlooking the vast cemetery, and promised that their two countries would never go to war again.

Walking along the seemingly endless lines of graves, Farage says to camera that for him there is a serious danger that dragooning the peoples of Europe into a political union with which they can’t identify, far from preventing violent conflicts, could actually encourage them. For him, the break-up of Yugoslavia is a sobering reminder of what can happen when political union merely papers over unreconciled social and cultural differences.

It’s a provocative argument, over which, even while filming, I expressed some incredulity. But we felt it was important that it should be heard. This was not to be, however. Even while we were in production, BBC executives had become nervous about all the ‘euro-knocking’ that the rushes revealed, and because the film was centred on a leading member of a particular political party, they were worried that they could be accused of not observing the BBC’s obligation to provide ‘balanced’ political coverage. The whole thing was additionally embarrassing because part of the funding for the series had come from the EU itself.

To save the film we shoe-horned in some more obviously dissenting voices. I set up a lunch in Strasbourg between Farage and Richard North, UKIP’s research head, and three leading members of the Green fraction from Finland, France and the Netherlands. In their conversation, the Greens argued eloquently for the necessary existence of the EU. Now that capital operates transnationally, they suggested, we need transnational authorities to keep it under control; if you amalgamated all the bilateral agreements about such things as the pollution of the Rhine, over-fishing, acid rain, cross-border drug trafficking and so on, you would have a supranational agency approximating that of the EU. There were, they admitted, many things wrong, the lack of political accountability chief among them, but the powers of Parliament were increasing. The only way to change the system was from the inside and in this regard, British pragmatism was much appreciated by many members, and English had become, de facto, the dominant language of the EU.

But these efforts at ‘balance’ were all in vain. Although the film was shown in many parts of Europe, including on the EU-supported Franco-German channel Arte, it was never shown on BBC2. Along with most of the other films in the series, it was quietly secreted away on BBC Knowledge, where it was safe from the eyes of the TV reviewers who might otherwise have generated some debate about the issues raised.

Although our film may have offered a platform to a peculiarly Eurosceptic point of view, it left it up to the audience to draw its own conclusions. First-hand experience of the EU has made me distinctly more sceptical. But I remain far from certain that the costs outweigh the benefits. Either way, there can be no doubt that the decision to hide our film away plays into the hands both of those who hope to achieve further integration by stealth and of those who reject it simply on grounds of blind prejudice.

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