As part of my module on Negotiating Politics, we had a discussion yesterday about last week’s European Council in Brussels, as a real-world example of what they study in the classroom.  In all the discussion about the UK and its role (about which my colleague Alex Warleigh-Lack has written here), it is worthwhile spending some time considering the meeting in more general terms.

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Professor of EU Politics, University of Surrey

The celebrated political philosopher JS Mill said 150 years ago that the UK Conservative party – the Tories – were ‘by the law of their existence the stupidest party’. How right he was.

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Today, I’ve been in Brussels, presenting a seminar on “The New Euroscepticism” as part of the UACES Arena series.  The idea behind the seminars is to bring together academics and practitioners, so that both can gain something from the interaction: a hope that was more than borne out on this occasion.

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Professor Alex Warleigh-Lack

At the European Council summit this evening and tomorrow, David Cameron must face up to a dilemma that has plagued all his predecessors since John Major: can Britain really be at the heart of the European Union while choosing to stay out of many key EU activities?

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December 4th 2011 may yet become known as that particular moment in time when we witnessed a move into a new era in Russia’s post-Cold War politics. As I write, exit polls from the Russian parliamentary elections are indicating United Russia, the dominant political party in the Duma, and headed by Prime Minister Putin, will see a marked reduction in popularity, of approximately 15%, compared to the 2007 elections. So is this the beginning of the end for Putin? And will a more democratic Russia emerge?

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That is the question implicitly posed by Charlie Brooker’s latest TV offering, ‘Black Mirror’, which aired on Sunday 4th December.  Following the critically acclaimed Screenwipe and Brooker’s popular column in The Guardian, expectations for the three part ‘series’ have been high.  And, if the first episode is anything to go by, Black Mirror will provide plenty of controversy.

 

Brooker of course is no stranger to poking fun at power, having long insisted that David Cameron is in fact a lizard.  No, not in the metaphorical sense: literally.  While that may appeal to a niche sense of humour, Black Mirror cleverly and ironically draws in those viewers who quite like the idea of the British PM being forced to ‘make love’ to a pig, live on TV, as well as those who think they are watching critically, ironically perhaps, and intrigued by the questions the show raises about modern technology, politics, and voyeurism.

 

The plot sees ‘Princess Susannah’ captured and held hostage, with a simple, untraceable demand video uploaded to Youtube.  Despite injunctions and aggressive internet policy, the video goes viral and it’s not long before major news corporations decide to break ranks and cover the story.  The PM’s aides report back on the ebbs and flows of British public opinion as the young princess is seen to be in considerable distress.  Inevitably for the fictionalised PM, it’s not long before a situation of ‘if she dies her blood won’t be on your hands’ develops into an inescapable need to perform an indecent act with a farmyard animal, filmed by a man with a handheld camera.  And, after an hour, the show reaches its ineluctable (ahem) climax.

 

There are some great comedy moments; for instance, as he’s walking to the room containing the sedated swine, the PM is urged not to go too fast for fear of appearing ‘eager’ or worse still ‘enjoying it’.  Black Mirror then is a critique of polling and the pandering to public opinion seen in modern politics.  It is also a reflection on contemporary trends in social media and the internet generally, especially the role such technology plays in eroding political power.  But most of all, Black Mirror is a critique of us, the British public.  Not many countries would welcome and celebrate a production like Brooker’s.  And Brooker recognises the positive and negative aspects of this fact.  A strong, liberal, desire to poke fun at power, in order to disarm it, might just be an especially or even peculiarly ‘British’ trait.  Perhaps, however, so is the desire to witness celebrity distress. Brooker’s scenario stands at the logical pinnacle of a trend of reality TV shows, designed to humiliate the famous.  Consider, for example, that it was not long ago one such programme on Channel 5 did show ‘an indecent act’ with a pig.

 

Brooker’s ultimate victory lies in his ability to include the viewer – ironic or otherwise – within the critique he is offering.  Princess Susannah is released, it ultimately transpires, thirty minutes before the PM and the pig are introduced.  Her captor, quite correctly, realised that the streets would be empty at that point, since everybody would be watching a screen in anticipation of the degradation it promised to show.  You (and me!), the viewer, were one of those glued to the TV, awaiting that final scene.

 

Black Mirror is available to watch on Channel 4′s 4OD.

Did you watch Black Mirror? What did you think? tweet your comments to @surreypolitics

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One of the joys of consuming a lot of media is wading through the hubris: from Delors’ ‘confession’ that the Sun was right all along, to Aftenposten’s lead story on Gaddafi’s attempts to buy a Swedish football club.

But one area where I am inclined to agree with the journalists is that this week is a critical one in the European Union’s future development.  From today’s meeting between the French and German leaders, through to Friday’s European Council, if there is not a bridging of differences then it is hard to see how things can be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

The omen are mixed.  On the one hand, there is a greater sense of a ‘grand bargain’ between the main protagonists (notably with some movement by the German government and by the ECB); on the other, some fundamental differences remain.  Couple that to the talk of treaty revisions, and all the problems that will cause with both pro-integrationists (e.g. the European Parliament) and sceptics (e.g. the British government (or, more accurately, Conservative backbenchers)), and one has to have a pretty strong sense of inate optimism to see it all coming together.

I’m fortunate enough to be in Brussels this week, talking on my research, so I hope to be able to talk with fonctionnaires directly about this.  My guess is that even if they have stopped reading the news, they are still feeling the pressure.  Whether that helps or not, remains to be seen.

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