In any dealings with the EU you have to get used to the fact that there are several power centres. Lobbyists know this very well. No sooner are they out of the Commission, having tried to persuade officials to propose some piece of legislation, than they are scurrying off to the Parliament to persuade MEPs to pass it. In some ways the EU resembles the US, with a strong emphasis on the separation of powers and the checks and balances that go with it. In practice this means you can cut off one head of the hydra (for which read ‘persuade people that you have a good idea’) only to find that another raises its head, blows out a few flames and suddenly ‘Puff!’ your idea goes up in smoke.
ACTION spent time in the Mickey Mouse bar in June, persuading MEPs and their assistants of the virtues of its ideas (see Blog One). It went well, and this particular head of the hydra even began to purr a little. But then the pilot project went off to the Commission, and suddenly another head came into the frame, one that was willing to purr last year (it gave us a ‘B’) but had decided by 2015 that it was in snorting mode and wanted to give us a ‘C’. We were apparently suggesting something too close to a pet project of its own, involving ECOWAS (an association of West African states).
Now the ECOWAS project is not like ours at all. It involves emergency reserves for emergency situations, not a system for maintaining food stocks to curb price volatuility over the medium-term, in good times as well as bad. In other words, ours is a project with resilience, a project that doesn’t just deal with a crisis situation but gives people a means of continuing in the good life. We were in DEVCO (the part of the Commission dealing with Development and Cooperation) and one of the most important principles of good development policy is that giving someone a fish feeds them for a day, while giving them a rod feeds them for a lifetime. We think our system of food reserves is a rod.
The meeting with the Commission left us wondering whether we had a chance of succeeding, because if the pilot propject goes back to the Parliament with a ‘C’ round its neck for a final decision in September, we are unlikely to get final approval from Budget Committee.
We shall see about that. In the meantime we have tried to make our case known at Commissioner level (through a member of Neven Mimica’s cabinet) and we have also been in contact with one or two regional groupings who might be interested in taking up the idea and pressing for it. In hydra terms, this is equivalent to causing some confusion in the fire-breathing head and getting a gallant knight to prod the beast from outside. Later in the summer we shall know how successful we have been. The EU is a wonderful animal despite its many heads, but it moves at tanker speed and can be slow to adopt new ideas (or even to see the point of old ones). Polite persistence is the key, making contacts wherever you can.
Just think of how Jean Monnet did it.
Mark Corner, President of ACTION for Food Reserves