When "Brussels" gets it right
By Chris Higman, FDP local councillor in Schwalbach, close to Frankfurt am Main, Germany
I was recently at an engineering conference in Nanjing and met up with a Polish colleague one evening for supper. The conversation turned to European politics and Britain's proposed withdrawal from the European Union. I mentioned that one of the problems that I saw was that national governments and national politicians tended to take credit for anything which was likely to be perceived positively by the general population and to blame 'Brussels' for anything negative, even if it had been agreed with other European governments at the Council of Ministers. My friend's reaction surprised me. A wide-eyed "Not just in Poland?" was his reply. Obviously he felt this to be a specifically Polish behaviour, rather than a more general problem across the whole EU. A 20-year old issue in the town of Schwalbach, where I live, illustrates how it happens - and on occasion can be countered.
Until the mid-1990s we all had small 50 litre dustbins made of galvanized iron. Many people did not want their guests at the front door to be greeted by the dustbin, so they installed little concrete boxes in which to keep it out of sight. This was sufficiently popular that one could buy the boxes pre-fabricated at the local builder's merchant.
And then came the wheelie bins. After a short period during which one could use a wheelie bin on a voluntary basis, they became compulsory. This nearly caused a riot in the town - not because of the cost; the town issued the new bins free of charge. But the new 80 litre wheelies did not fit into the boxes at the front doors. A town hall meeting was called and the Deputy Mayor, Ulrike S., into whose responsibility refuse disposal fell, tried to explain the situation. She said that there was little that she could do. This was simply fulfilling a new directive from Brussels. This of course did nothing to calm the situation - even if she had diverted some of the wrath from her own department. The questions merely transformed into ones asking how it could be that Brussels was now dictating the type of dustbin people had on their own property.
At which point Heinz P. got up and said that if anybody in the room bore any responsibility for the situation, it was him. Heinz had been a lifelong trade unionist and was at that time responsible at the union headquarters for occupational safety. He said, he and his colleagues in unions all across Europe had been working for this for several years. The whole purpose was to spare members the task of having to lift the metal dustbins and instead have bins that could be moved easily without back strain and be lifted mechanically for emptying into the dustbin lorry. This would eliminate back damage as an occupational hazard for refuse collectors. In the trade union they were happy that Brussels had finally got around to addressing this problem, which was basically similar all over Europe.
At which point the tone of the meeting changed completely. This was not something dreamed up by a bored faraway bureaucrat, but something needed by real people - even real people in our own town, as a matter of occupational health and safety.
And this is something that administrators at all levels in the European Union still have to learn. There is usually a rational reason behind decisions taken in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, but the only way to gain acceptance for these decisions is to deliver the rationale at the same time. Without that, it is no wonder that people are dismissive of a faraway bureaucracy, instead of understanding who has been pushing for a decision and why.