I am in Germany once more — just. The train has reached the end of the line at the town of Perl and I am about to cross the Moselle river into Luxembourg.
Another day, another border, although this one is just a little bit special. On the Luxembourgish side of the water is the village of Schengen: If I can cross any border in Europe hastle-free then it’s this one.
Schengen, you might already have guessed, is the place where in 1985 the Schengen Agreement was signed. Over the next two decades, borders between EU member states were gradually abolished and the process is ongoing: Romania and Bulgaria will be the next places you can visit without your passport.
As EU projects go, the Schengen Agreement has been an overwhelming mixed success. I don’t need to show my passport as I walk across the bridge here but that doesn’t mean I should leave it at home in the kitchen drawer.
The agreement says that the German and Luxembourgish police are not allowed to stop me at the border but that they are well within their rights to carry out routine checks either side of it. In reality this means that here in the middle they can’t do anything, but a couple of feet either to the left or right and they can ask me to show my ID.
That’s under normal circumstances. Under exceptional circumstances they can throw the border back up with a minimum period of notice because the agreement allows any member state to temporarily reintroduce controls at any time.
The French did it as a response to a heightened terror threat; at the time of writing Germany has resurrected its border with Austria in order to deter the influx of refugees.
Terrorism and refugees. There you have the two biggest criticisms of the Schengen scheme in one soundbite. On the other hand, so says the EU, freedom of movement is one of your fundamental liberties as a European.
Today, all that is academic. It’s a sunny Sunday morning and there’s not a police officer in sight.
There isn’t much of anything in sight actually. Schengen is little more than a street surrounded by vineyards. It has a pub and a Chinese restaurant and, because this is a Luxembourgish border town, there’s also a cut price booze and fags shop masquerading as a grocer’s.
There’s history here too, mind you. Victor Hugo stayed here and painted a picture of the castle. Having parted with a euro at the gift shop for a postcard of the finished ouevre, I now understand why he took up writing. Predictably, the EU have also marked Schenghen out for distinction in the shape of a museum.
The museum is what I’ve come to see — and it’s not out of the question that I might cross back into Germany with a six-pack from the shop under my arm — but there’s an ulterior motive behind this detour into Luxembourg. This is the home country of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission — and I want answers.
I want to know what it is that the EU actually do — and I suspect I’m not alone in wondering this. I have the feeling that — whether we are pro or contra European integration — the EU as an institution, its processes and ambitions, are still a bit of a mystery. As such, I’ve come here to have it out with Jean-Claude.
I walk around the museum and take in as much information as I can. I pack my rucksack full of free brochures and pamphlets with the full approval of the curator, but have to wait until his back is turned before I snap off a picture of the curious-looking map on the wall.
Somebody has stolen the Netherlands and somebody else has moved Ireland out into the Atlantic. I presume the EU are meaning to get that fixed. They also have a machine where you can print out your very own Schengen passport as a souvenir; it’s out-of-order.
I thank the curator and ask where I might find Jean-Claude. Luxembourg is a small country I reason; everyone must know everyone else.
“Oh” he says “well he normally takes the dog out about now, and after that he’ll more than likely pop into the pub for a swift half. If you go there now you might catch him.”
Two minutes later I am in the Bar du Pont. Sure enough, the president is there, watching the cycling on TV and tearing up betting slips.
“Monsieur le Président” I say in my best formal French. I know he’s picky about this kind of thing.
“Oh call me Jean-Claude” he replies. His English is excellent. “Do you know anything about Scandinavian football?”
Together we pick out five likely home wins in Sweden’s Allsvenskan Premier League and put together a pretty solid ten-euro accumulator. We get along well and I feel confident enough to ask him the first of my questions.
“So just what is the difference between you and Donald Tusk? I mean which one of you is actually the president?”
“We both are” he says, his face unflinchingly straight “and so is Antonio Tajani”.
I order two more beers. This is going to take some time.
“Okaaay…” I say “…three presidents. America has enough trouble with one. So why do we need three?”
“One for the European Commission, one for the European Council and one for the European Parliament.”
“Okaaay…” I say, putting pen to beer mat for the first time “and so you’re the president of the…”
“Aren’t they the ones that pass diktats over British bananas and so on…”
“If you like. We actually never said anything of the kind about bananas, we’ve got better things to do with our time. But it’s our job to see that the EU’s projects actually get carried out. Consumer protection is actually one of our central aims.”
“But you are unelected aren’t you. I mean, I didn’t vote for you.”
“You did actually. I get sworn in by the largest party in the European Parliament and you vote for them in the European elections. It’s a bit like the prime minister. You didn’t actually vote for Theresa May, did you?”
“Too fucking right I didn’t!” I reply “Sorry Jean-Claude. But yes, you don’t vote directly for the PM in Britain”
“And you don’t vote for the civil servants either, do you? Or do you have elections to decide every four years to decide who works in trading standards?”
This is the trouble with politicians. Too clever by half. I discretely remind the president that it’s his round.
“And so the European Parliament…”
“…vote on the stuff the Commission decide. A bit like the British Parliament votes on the stuff the Cabinet put forward.”
“A bit” I say “and so Antonio Tajani’s a bit like the speaker in the UK parliament?”
“A bit” says Jean-Claude. “He’s got a little more clout than that, but yes, one of his jobs is to chair the debates.”
“And it’s the Commission that tells them what to debate. So what you’re saying is that the Trading Standards Office tell the parliament what to do? That’s…original.”
“Something like that. On the other hand, parliament can vote to fire us at any time. We’re about much more than just trading standards by the way.”
“Gimme just a second here…” I cover the beer mat in my scrawl and continue my notes on a napkin. And what about Donald Tusk?”
Jean-Claude takes a deep draught of his beer. I can tell that this one is going to be complicated so I order two more.
“Donald is the president of the European Council.”
“The Council of Europe. Right. I’ve heard of them.”
“No, the European Council. The Council of Europe has nothing to do with us.”
I’m reminded of my namesake in the Monty Python film. “The Judean People’s Front?! Fuck off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea! The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fuckin’ Judean People’s Front! Splitters!”
“The European Council is Donald plus all of the leaders of the member states. Theresa and Angela for example. They make the big decisions.”
“And the Council of Europe?”
“Well that’s a human rights thing if you must know and it’s got nothing to do with us. Russia and Turkey are just some of the non-EU members.”
I think I’ve got the message but I’m hoping there isn’t a test.
I order two plum brandies and tell Jean-Claude he’s buying his own.
I’m deliberately misleading you of course. I didn’t really meet the president — he was down in Strasbourg giving the European Parliament a telling off for going on holiday early.
I did make it to the pub, and spent a good couple of hours reading through all the booklets I picked up. It’s interesting, attractively formatted and lists the EU’s many, many positive achievements in a way that’s easy to read and understand.
The only thing I ask myself is: Why do I have to come all the way to Luxembourg to read it? Why can’t I read it in a public library in North Yorkshire? Or Metz, or Dortmund? Why don’t they do more to get their message out there?
The EU really doesn’t do enough to tell the world why it exists — and that’s dangerous. As an institution it’s neither fish, flesh nor fowl — somewhere between a nation-state, an NGO and a public university. This in itself isn’t a problem: It fulfills a unique role after all. But if it doesn’t communicate what it does then people will naturally be suspicious.
The EU is democratic, forward-looking and has the interest of its citizens at heart but it doesn’t do enough to get this message across. It has to do more to justify its existence. In an age where information travels fast and is not subject to much in the way of quality control it’s not enough to sit on the sidelines maintaining a dignified silence: You have to be on the front line dismissing the dirt-dishers.
If there was one voice that was notably absent during the British referendum then it was that of Brussels itself. I don’t know if Jean-Claude really is a betting man but it’s odds on that somewhere, sometime in Europe, there will be another in-out referendum — and unless the EU learn a couple of lessons from Brexit then I wouldn’t back them to win.
The banana myth is a prime example of where it’s gone wrong. This is a criticism which has been levelled at Brussels for decades and nobody has taken the time to set the record straight.
The refugees issue is another example of the EU failing to fight its corner. The 2015 influx was a shambles, this much is clear — but surely it’s an argument for more coordination and not less.
The EU’s critics often find themselves unopposed; if establishment won’t enter the debate and defend itself then the fringe parties will move in for the kill, just as they did in Britain.
Grrr…I think. I pick up my six-pack at the store and stomp back over the bridge to Germany. As I wait for the train I send an angry text message to Donald Tusk.
The phone buzzes as the train pulls off. The man himself.
I garble angrily into the phone…bananas…communication…justif…HIC!…ation…
There is a short silence.
“Have you been drinking?” asks the president.
“I mean, just what the fuck is a British banana anyway?”