Carswell downplays Britain’s voice in Brussels

by Luke Lythgoe | 26.02.2016

Douglas Carswell has said the UK is “represented by one twenty-eighth of a eurocrat” in Brussels. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 26 February (listen at 03:50), he objected to the fact that one trade negotiator speaks for the 28 member states of the EU, and insisted that Britain would negotiate more deals if it had its own UK-only trade representative.

Carswell is combining two claims: that a go-it-alone Britain could negotiate more trade deals by itself; and that Britain’s influence in Brussels institutions is generally minimal. On the first claim, the truth is that a medium-sized economy such as Britain would probably lack the leverage to negotiate access with larger commercial powers. On the second claim, Britain is more influential in Brussels than Carswell is insinuating.

The European Commission is run by directorates-general, roughly the equivalent of government departments, headed by top civil servants known as directors-general. Three out of 35 directors-general, plus four out of 41 deputy directors-general, are British – roughly 9.2% of senior positions.

Among the total 23,000 permanent European Commission staff (AD and AST), Brits are less well represented, with only 4.3% of all positions – although for senior staff working on policy or project managing (AD) this rises to 5%. British interests are slightly better represented in some of the key directorates-general for the British economy; in those dealing with trade and digital affairs, British staff account for over 5% of the headcount. Modest British representation at lower levels of the EU civil service is often attributed to low application rates, and language requirements for entry. Even so, Britain’s share of the Commission staff is higher than 1/28.

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    The UK has 73 directly elected MEPs in the European Parliament, or 9.7% of the total. Three of the 23 heads of the European Parliament’s committees (13%) are British. Two of the leaders of the Parliament’s seven political groups – Syed Kamall and Nigel Farage – are also British.

    The UK also has a strong voice in the Council of Ministers, where its voting share is 12.7%. Since weighting is based on population size, only France and Germany have more clout – and it is predicted that the UK population will overtake France’s in perhaps two decades.

    The UK also has the advantage that the EU’s working language is generally English. A Briton, Rob Wainwright, is director of Europol, Europe’s law enforcement agency. Another Briton, Julia Slingo, heads the EU’s scientific advisory body. According to one survey of influential voices in EU energy policy, Germans and Britons dominate.

    In sum, Carswell’s quip about Britain’s weak voice in global trade should not be mistaken for a broader truth about Britain’s lack of influence in Europe. But he is wrong in a larger sense as well. Britain is willing to be represented by negotiators who speak for the whole EU because collaboration advances its interests.

    This article was updated on 22 April to reflect changes in the way European Commission sources represent staff numbers.

    Edited by Sebastian Mallaby

    3 Responses to “Carswell downplays Britain’s voice in Brussels”

    • If you look at GDP, which is what matters, not rank, it is decidedly middle of the road and similar in size to most other Western European countries. The likes of Russia, US, China and EU as a whole dwarf it.

    • British representation in the commission has long been a concern but I wonder whether this is a symptom of general eurosceptism in the UK. The civil service don’t generally see the EU as important or sexy and those that go to Brussels find their knowledge and skills sidelined in most departments on return to the uk. I hope that’s changing