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To the priests of ancient Egypt, the complexity of their writing system was an advantage. To be one of the few who understood the mystery of writing made a priest a powerful and valuable man.

This article, “The EU: Authoritarianism Through Complexity”, is by George Friedman who used to be chairman of Stratfor and now is chairman of a body called Geopolitical Futures.

Reading it made me think that the old term “priestcraft” might be due a revival:

The British team consists of well-educated and experienced civil servants. In claiming that this team is not up to the task of understanding the complexities of EU processes and regulations, the EU has made the strongest case possible against itself. If these people can’t readily grasp the principles binding Britain to the EU, then how can mere citizens understand them? And if the principles are beyond the grasp of the public, how can the public trust the institutions? We are not dealing here with the complex rules that allow France to violate rules on deficits but on the fundamental principles of the European Union and the rights and obligations – political, economic and moral – of citizens. If the EU operating system is too complex to be grasped by British negotiators, then who can grasp it?

The EU’s answer to this is that the Maastricht treaty, a long and complex document, can best be grasped by experts, particularly by those experts who make their living by being Maastricht treaty experts. These experts and the complex political entities that manage them don’t think they have done a bad job managing the European Union. In spite of the nearly decadelong economic catastrophe in Southern Europe, they are content with their work. In their minds, the fault generally lies with Southern Europe, not the EU; the upheaval in Europe triggered by EU-imposed immigration rules had to do with racist citizens, not the EU’s ineptness; and Brexit had to do with the inability of the British public to understand the benefits of the EU, not the fact that the benefits were unclear and the rules incomprehensible. The institutionalized self-satisfaction of the EU apparatus creates a mindset in which the member publics must live up to the EU’s expectations rather than the other way around.

The EU has become an authoritarian regime insisting that it is the defender of liberal democracy. There are many ways to strip people and governments of their self-determination. The way the EU has chosen is to create institutions whose mode of operation is opaque and whose authority cannot be easily understood. Under those circumstances, the claim to undefined authority exercised in an opaque manner becomes de facto authoritarianism – an authoritarianism built on complexity. It is a complexity so powerful that the British negotiating team is deemed to be unable to grasp the rules.

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38 comments to Priestcraft

  • Paul Marks

    Liberty and democracy are not the same thing – but the European Union is indeed the enemy of both liberty and democracy, and it pretends to be their friend.

    My curse upon these liars.

  • TimR

    They assume the complexity of the rules is to their advantage. If their adversary does not share that opinion and just cuts the Gordian Knot, what then?

  • Fred Z

    I say once again that the real term limits we need are on bureaucrats.

    10 years and you’re out, never to work for any level of government ever again, directly or indirectly as employee, contractor, consultant or via any firm.

    Apply it to everyone from janitor to president or prime minister, and especially to experts on the Mastricht treaty, who need to be expelled into Bauredel after the 10 years.

  • Peter Whale

    The rules are simple their interpretation are whatever the EU deem it to be. Give us the £100 billion.

  • Paul Marks

    If a law or Constitution is too complicated, or too vague, to be clearly understood by an ordinary person – then it is at best useless, more likely horribly damaging, and should be scrapped. As Tacitus put it – “the more laws there are, the more corrupt the state is”.

  • Pat

    So according to the EU remainers haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.

  • In their minds, the fault generally lies with Southern Europe, not the EU; the upheaval in Europe triggered by EU-imposed immigration rules had to do with racist citizens, not the EU’s ineptness; and Brexit had to do with the inability of the British public to understand the benefits of the EU, not the fact that the benefits were unclear and the rules incomprehensible.

    So, in the judgement of the EU “It’s not me love, it’s you“. Yeah, no. Goodbye.

  • Jon

    Every now and then I read something that just perfectly encapsulates what I’ve struggled to articulate for ages in a myriad of discussions with friends and colleagues. This is such a column.

    I’m not sure that the outcome (a simple negotiating position = simple negotiations) flows from the premise because the addiction to the complexity is so strong in these people. I hope he’s right, but I fear he’s wrong on that part, but the first section on opacity and authoritarianism is perfect.

  • Former French President François Hollande, October 2016:

    Britain must pay a price for Brexit: There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price.

    Although it is true – indeed obvious (and often noted by brexitters) – that

    – Eurocrats have immense belief in their erudition, and in the ignorance of any dissenters,

    – EU laws/rules/regulations are so numerous, so ill-drafted and so able to conflict that to understand them fully is impossible,

    – the actual practice of EU officialdom often departs much from this mess of rules and is (by intent) known only to the insiders,

    nevertheless it is also true that the EU’s constitution and laws have always been a “what you can get away with” kind of thing. (From a thousand examples, I’d note the financial rules on countries joining the euro, which were carefully defined – and then casually ignored.)

    Thus while the Eurocrats are the just the kind of people to make themselves believe that brexit negotiators don’t know what they are doing (and that Eurocrats do), I’m not sure they are bothering. I suspect my Hollande quote better expresses their actual thoughts.

  • CaptDMO

    “Well, you see…um, LOOK, it’s COMPLICATED!”
    No, no it is NOT.

  • Mr Ecks

    Every time they even speak a piece of stupid shit like that the British team should leave for three days and have some relaxation.

    Just say “Look –we’ll see you in 3 days Every time you do or say something which indicates that you are not genuine negotiators prepared to negotiate then there will be another 3 day break. Until you either get serious and settle down to work or 19th March 2019 rolls around. Whichever arrives first. We won’t put up with any of your shite at all.

    See you in 3 days.”

  • John B

    A gunboat will clarify any situation: particularly during negotiations.

  • Roué le Jour

    The EU seem to be under the impression that we are negotiating our surrender and the nature of the reparations.

  • staghounds

    The inner workings of the EU aren’t FOR you, citizens.

  • Derek Buxton

    There is a total lack of knowledge about the EU and yet it is fairly straightforward. A memo written by an English Civil Servant working in Europe between the wars sent out a memo calling for a single state, and envisaged it being run by bureaucrats…for bureaucrats. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the second World War for starters. But these Office types have long memories and in their tiny minds, this was an opportunity not to be missed. They then got their heads together and found a way to get there, founded a single bureaucratic state all their own. But knowing that Great Britain would not wear a sell out, they resorted to corruption, lies and more lies. Heath bought it and accepted it as the EEC, the European Common Market. The Country let him, but we were not told of this double cross, giving away our fish stocks as a common good. And from this began the great swindle that morphed into the EU as it grabbed more and more power, breaking most of its own rules as it went along. It was never intended as a Free market, or democratic and libertarian, it was a closed shop run by the bureaucrats for the bureaucrats in the interests of Germany and France. Long story, short version but with a book on the subject for deeper study, not by me!

  • Watchman

    Derek Buxton,

    You may have missed the accumulated layers of hopes and desires put on the EU by those traumatised by war, protectionists, free-marketeers, trade unions, social justice warriors, eco-activists, those against states, those wanting a more powerful Europe to bolster their state (there is a logically consistent, if rather strange, form of nationalism that suppports the EU – it makes sense if you are Belgian or Slovenian I guess) and probably many others.

    As the EU has never really had to deliver like a democratic government has to do, it has simply built all the conflicting demands into its procedure with no need to clear house, hence the inherent complexity. It is not simply a system designed by bureaucrats, but a system run by bureaucrats for the sake of a huge number of different lobbies.

    And therein lies the problem in negotitating – our government lacks direction, so has no single vision to cut across everything else, and is therefore caught up in the discussion of minuatae which is required to deal with the interests each group has heaped on the structure, rather than just simplifying things by stating our offer and dealing with counter-offers in terms of how they fit with the direction the government is taking. Government might be bad, but government with direction is at least better at doing things…

  • Watchman

    John B,

    I just checked, and I think a small gunboat could get to Brussels (and would only have to pass through Belgium, which as any fool knows is an easy thing for any military to do), so you might have a point.

    Although you can get quite a large gunboat to Westminster (hmm, there’s one for Kickstarter), so this may not be the best diplomatic move.

  • Bob H

    This is why we must completely sever our relationship with the EU. Then we must renegotiate a new relationship from the outside.

    To try and untangle and separate the bits of our legal relationship we want to leave intact is a recipe for disaster and later betrayal.

  • Alisa

    I think that Watchman has it right. However:

    It is not simply a system designed by bureaucrats, but a system run by bureaucrats for the sake of a huge number of different lobbies.

    It is still, ultimately, run for the sake of those same bureaucrats – as does any system they run. The different lobbies are for the most part paid not much more than lip service.

  • bobby b

    Here in the USA, there’s confusion about part of this.

    The EU says you should pay $X for the privilege of leaving, as you have participated in the process and taken on your own rightful share of ongoing EU debts by doing so. You say you should pay less.

    What are you negotiating FOR? What do you get in return for whatever amount you decide to pay? What’s the downside of walking away?

    Is it simply, pay $(X-n) and get this level of relationship with the remaining EU, or pay $(X-2n) and get some smaller access? As in, we’ll pay you this much to remain friends of a certain closeness?

    If it’s not that, what is the EU bargaining with?

  • Is a demand for tribute an act of war?

    Asking for a friend.

  • What do you get in return for whatever amount you decide to pay? “Is it simply, pay $(X-n) and get this level of relationship with the remaining EU, or pay $(X-2n) and get some smaller access?” bobby b (July 25, 2017 at 7:56 pm)

    ‘Yes’ is the one-word answer. Of course, Niall Kilmartin will write a longer answer. 🙂

    The UK has been a seriously above-average net contributor to the EU budget throughout our ~45-year membership. This is one of several reasons why leavers – and now, I think, a large majority of the electorate – feel the EU owes us, not the reverse (not that anyone expects them to pay of course) and are not intending to pay them a penny.

    I think the UK public’s impression of the EU negotiators’ approach seems to be that we are to promise them first to do all they want and then a second stage negotiation will see what we get in return. (Anyone who knows better either what the UK public think or what the EU’s actual approach is or will be – insofar as that is known – by all means correct me.)

    I think there is also an impression that the EU negotiators may not represent the EU states – not even Germany, so that noone knows who will really call the shots on any deal in the end. As per my comment on July 25, 2017 at 10:32 am, the EUrocrats have a strong interest in imposing costs on us “pour decourager les autres” whereas some EU national governments have a strong interest in maintaining trade relationships that are valuable to their countries.

    IIUC all the EU can offer – that the UK might want – is market access – no, or fewer, tariffs, etc. The EU is a protectionist bloc and when we are outside it, we will be subject to WEA or similar agreements when trading with it, unless better ones are negotiated. As regards agriculture – a big part of the EU’s protectionism – access is valueless to us. Other areas may not be valueless – there was much heated debate during the referendum campaign about whether and how much the city needed to care, etc. Obviously, being outside the EU’s wall has trade benefits as well.

  • TMLutas (July 25, 2017 at 9:09 pm: “Is a demand for tribute an act of war?”

    TMLucas, I believe a demand for tribute is not an act of war in international law, nor would it be an act of war if, the tribute being refused, the EU were to enforce its tariff wall against us in the same manner as it does other extra-EU nations. As to whether we could choose to treat that as cause for war, or demand all our net surplus contributions be paid back under threat of war, etc., well it would not pass article 51 scrutiny, I think. 🙂 (That’s UN article 51, not to be confused with the article after the how-to-leave article in the EU treaty.)

    Since leaving the EU means we become a fully-sovereign nation again, your friend is free to consider whether that would exhaust all our options. 🙂

    I think we will leave with neither side paying the other anything (beyond the 2018 annual budget transfers), and with an intra-EU squabble over trade that will end who knows how – especially as the EU has more issues than just brexit upcoming.

  • bobby b

    “Of course, Niall Kilmartin will write a longer answer.”

    To my benefit. Thank you.

  • Laird

    The Wall Street Journal interviewed Donald Trump today, and in its article on that interview to be published in tomorrow’s edition (released early in electronic form to subscribers), they paraphrase Trump as saying “the U.S. and the U.K. are in talks about a comprehensive trade deal that would be ready as soon as the U.K. exits the European Union.” (My emphasis.) That should get the attention of the EU’s negotiators.

  • Technomist

    Years ago, As part of a conference organised by my employer, I was forced to sit through a lecture by an expert on the legal structures of the EU. It was allegedly in English, but as time went on I realised I could not understand a word she was saying. I looked round the room at the faces of my colleagues – all professional men and women – and they all had the same blank, glazed over look of incomprehension and boredom.

  • The Jannie

    “the same blank, glazed over look of incomprehension and boredom.” That’s how they hope we’ll deal with the exit, too.

  • Sam Duncan

    It became clear to me once the Remainers started their whining about we dumb rubes not knowing what we were voting about that this was precisely why I voted to leave. I’ve mentioned before that I used to be an ardent Europhile*; it was this very complexity that turned me against it.

    I knew how the British system worked – two houses, first reading, second reading, all that stuff; we learned it at school – and I wanted to know how this new system we were entering did. As I began to discover just how obscure and byzantine it all is, I realised that this is all wrong. Technomist is dead right. The EU system is a bit like quantum physics: if you think you understand it, you probably don’t. And if the average citizen can’t understand the system by which he’s governed – he may agree or disagree with it, but if he can’t understand it – then we should have no part in it.

    “As the EU has never really had to deliver like a democratic government has to do, it has simply built all the conflicting demands into its procedure with no need to clear house, hence the inherent complexity. It is not simply a system designed by bureaucrats, but a system run by bureaucrats for the sake of a huge number of different lobbies.”

    And, regardless of all the ill-informed talk of a trade area gone wrong, this is no accident. The bureaucratic “administrative government” thing was the founding idea of the whole paneuropan movement, right back in the 1920s. The United States has individual liberty, the USSR had communism, and the EU has bureaucratic administration unhindered by the passing fancies of the people. Europhiles will deny this of course, but hey, they’re the ones who keep objecting to referendum results. And think they understand the EU…

    *I was young, I didn’t know any better. Hell, I still thought the SDP/LIberal Alliance had something useful to offer.

  • If the British civil servants can’t grasp the rules in order to negotiate an exit, how the **** are they supposed to grasp them in order to comply as a member?

  • bobby b

    Sam Duncan
    July 26, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    “And if the average citizen can’t understand the system by which he’s governed – he may agree or disagree with it, but if he can’t understand it – then we should have no part in it.”

    Playing devil’s advocate a bit, but . . .

    I used to do all of the required repairs on my own cars, motorcycles, boats, planes, telephones . . . you name it, I could fix it.

    All of these items are now vastly more powerful, useful, long-lived, and convenient than they were forty years ago, because their technologies have increased in complexity. All of those items that I could have easily fixed years ago are now generally impenetrable. But it’s their very complexity that gives them their increased powers and capabilities.

    Why should we expect our governing processes to remain as transparent to us as they were years ago in the face of their increased reach and complexity? Aren’t we then just another type of Luddite?

  • Sam Duncan

    That’s actually a really good point, bobby. But if we accept that, then we abandon any pretence of democracy. Just as most of us can’t repair a solid-state digital phone made of microscopic parts and held together with glue, we can’t take part in our government if we don’t understand it.

    In fact, this was, more or less, the idea that the likes of Monnet and Salter developed back in the ’20s: the world had developed beyond the capacity of ordinary people to understand (if they ever really could; remember, in the 1920s, universal suffrage was still in its infancy in Europe), therefore it was senseless to allow them a say in governing it. Government should be taken out of their hands and put into those of calm, thoughtful, professional Administrators, properly trained for the job. The system could be as complex as the Adminstrators desired, because only they needed to understand it.

    And they did, indeed, see those clinging to democracy as luddites. Dangerous ones, at that.

  • bobby b

    But do we need full democratic control over function if we retain that same control over outcome?

    Going back to my strained analogy above, I can hook up a computer to my car and adjust functions such as fuel curves, timing, injector lag and the like, and have little understanding of exactly how I’m actually accomplishing these things.

    But I can recognize desired outcomes in engine output and race results. And so long as I can exert my will and make adjustments and produce outcomes that please me, I’m still in charge.

    Similarly, if the democratic polity has in place competent and skilled administrators, who run the functions of government, but we-the-people retain control to the extent that we define the desired outcomes and can make administrative changes until those outcomes occur, aren’t we still a functioning democracy?

    Salter and Monnet posited a system where the ultimate control – the setting of the desired outcomes and the measurement of success – was also left to those administrators. That was their main flaw, I think – the power to define goals and measure outcomes cannot be left in the hands of the admins – foxes in the henhouse and all that. But if we’re truly in charge, and the system outcomes do serve our desires, do we really need to know all of the steps to get there?

    I can see the dangers – once-empowered administrators tend to never cede that power if they can help it – see the EU – but if they were never empowered to judge their own results or perpetuate their role, we could be making use of another form of technology that we’ve so far shunned.

  • Alisa

    It is a question of the ultimate control and who has it – a question of ownership, really: do your own your car/government, or does it own you? If your car no longer serves your needs, is beyond repair, or is out of control altogether (problems to which any mechanism is susceptible), then you can just toss it aside and get a different one. The same should apply to governments, and the majority of the British electorate tried to do just that: toss aside a mechanism that it perceived as no longer serving its needs, beyond repair, or totally out of control. But unlike a car or a toaster, the EU government is comprised of humans with minds and wills of their own, and as such they just wouldn’t be tossed aside by the people they own – fancy that.

  • Philippe HERMKENS

    1 After Brexit, your next Prime Minister will be Jeremy Corbyn. Good luck to you all..

    2. Against the best interests of its Member states, the EU will diminis the maximum possible UK access to the E Un markets. Why ? Because the EU is now a protectionnist aerea.

    3. It would cause any significant dommages if the next UK government conducts a free trade and low tax policy.

    4. See 1.

  • bobby b (July 26, 2017 at 9:37 pm), the difference between specialised expertise and generalised expertise is discussed in Thomas Sowell’s “A conflict of visions”. As I put it (he’d put it differently):

    – In one vision, various people have specialised expertise in some areas while being ignorant of others. A car mechanic understands how to repair an engine fault, a lawyer can advise how to draft a will to achieve a given goal, etc. Ordinary citizens remain competent – more competent than any third party – to recognise expertise and hire it for specific tasks, ignoring it at other times.

    – In another vision, some people are “the great and good”. They have general expertise – including the expertise to know when their wide-ranging expertise should be substituted for the ignorance of those whom it will benefit.

    Currently, the phoniness of this latter kind of expertise is being noticed by more people.

  • After Brexit, your next Prime Minister will be Jeremy Corbyn. Good luck to you all.

    I am prone to occasional bouts of worstcaseism too but actually I doubt it.

  • Sam Duncan

    Indeed, Alisa. Ultimately it comes down to public choice theory. There’s no such thing as the disinterested administrator who only thinks of the good of his charges. Any government that isn’t open to public scrutiny – and how can we scrutinize something we don’t understand? – will end up being run for the benefit of the governors, not the governed.