The European Union may be a zone of sluggish economic growth but in one branch of manufacturing – the production of jargon – Brussels has no equal. As the UK referendum approaches, we will hear unprecedented quantities of it.
David Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership was conducted in four ‘baskets’. On previous occasions these kind of subject headings have been known as pillars (such as ‘the justice and home affairs pillar’) or competences.
Some of the jargon proves surprisingly durable, despite – or perhaps because of – the vacuity of its meaning. Thus ‘subsidiarity’, which was coined by sherpas when John Major was negotiating the Maastricht Treaty, has been revived by Cameron. It means that decisions should be taken at the level closest to the individual citizen, but for reasons that no one can remember the normal English word ‘devolution’ was not considered suitable. Sherpas, incidentally, refer neither to mountain guides nor to the Leyland vans used by the Royal Mail in the 1980s, but to civil servants who do the work on EU negotiations, and who are essential to jargon productivity.
Transport metaphors are popular with European bureaucrats. The Union used to be likened to a bicycle, because it had to keep moving forward or else it would fall over. At other times it has been a train, in which all the carriages have to travel together or risk being derailed. Then again it has been a motorway with lanes moving at different speeds. Major used to insist that the UK was in the fast lane, but the joke was that he was doing 30mph and a German Mercedes was flashing its lights behind him.
Cameron’s wonderful new deal, which, he often tells us, offers the ‘best of both worlds’ (those worlds being, presumably, totally in and very slightly semi-detached), has spawned some alarming metaphors. There is the emergency brake, which is not something you want to use on a bicycle, or a train, or a car. Meanwhile, the Chancellor has also spoken of a handbrake to be used to prevent the euro countries deciding things against the British interest. It is almost as if the whole point of this renegotiation is to bring the EU to a halt.
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