My hassles with Brussels

25th February 2005 at 00:00
You'll no doubt be all too familiar with the arguments in favour of our membership of the European Union. No? The main points, generally mentioned are that we don't want another war, our sovereignty doesn't matter very much anyway in this age of globalisation, and, in any case, Europe gives rights to workers.

Then, as any bar-room Europhile will tell you, there's something about the advantages we would get from having the Euro. I think this is to do with not having to change your money for a dirty weekend in Paris.

Of course, another of the EU's biggest selling-points is the single market.

You remember. This was the reason we signed up to the thing in the first place.

It seems that the market is more single for some types of business than for others. Look no further than the tendering process for prison education being carried out by the Learning and Skills Council.

Under EU law, public-sector organisations must give bidders across Europe a fair shot at winning contracts . They generally do this by putting tender details on a website called the Office Journal of the European Communities.

This is done by sending the details to "Officer in Charge" of the Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

But the Learning and Skills Council did not do this with the prison tenders, which prompted one of my chums in prison education to to give me a call. Had the LSC dropped a clanger?

Apparently not. It seems prison education is regarded as a "residual service" - and is therefore exempt from these regulations. Only "priority services" have to be advertised across Europe.

In a vain attempt to discover the logic behind this distinction, I attempted to extract some information from the European Union - the journalistic equivalent of searching for the Holy Grail. I put a call into the EU's London office for an explanation. None was forthcoming but I was referred to the Brussels office where, after being put on hold, I was treated to some Vivaldi. A male voice answered briefly, followed by more Vivaldi. Then I was told to ring a number in Luxembourg. No Vivaldi this time. Just a noise which sounded like a computer modem.

So, back to the Brussels switchboard which, after still more Vivaldi, explained the EU has loads of press officers and communications people - but it was difficult to know which one to put me through to.

Bemused by my bafflement, the telephonist asked if I inderstood how the EU worked. "I didn't before today", I admitted, "but I'm getting the picture."

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