Abolish the Chatham House Rule

Today I attended an event at the Brussels office of Carnegie Europe, “the global think tank”, as the banner behind the stage proudly – and in my view justifiably – proclaimed. Carnegie Europe is without doubt one of the most engaging and thought-provoking platforms for debate on EU and world affairs in the European capital.

The topic of today’s debate was “How to fix EU democracy”. That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for the last 20 years, so when the Carnegie invitation to attend arrived in my inbox, I immediately accepted. A new paper entitled Emotional intelligence for EU democracy by Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI) and Stefan Lehhe, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, served as basis for the discussion. It is well worth a read, as it comes at this problem from a different angle than the usual “give more powers to the European Parliament” or “give powers back to the member states” approaches, and it contains some interesting and creative solutions.

One of the ways the EU can rebuild trust, according to Grabbe and Lehne, is by “upgrading technology to enable greater citizen participation”. So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the Carnegie office and found myself in a conference room without mobile phone coverage and a locked Wifi network, listening to moderator Thomas Carothers (Carnegie vice president for studies), announce that this event would be held under the Chatham House Rule. I am told that one of the panel members, which in addition to Grabbe and Lehne also included German MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (ALDE), had asked for the event to be held off the record.

The Chatham House Rule is an anachronism, although I am not sure there was ever a good time for it. Basically it allows (senior) politicians, officials and others who hold positions of responsibility to say in semi-private what they cannot or will not say in public, for fear of being held to account.

Secret meeting of Civilis with other leaders from Trier, by Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Secret meeting of Civilis with other leaders from Trier, by Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The absurdity of applying this rule to a conference on the EU’s democratic deficit, at which Twitter and Facebook were touted as powerful means of engagement with citizens, seemed lost on that particular member of the panel. But how can voters reconnect with EU politics if they cannot even be privy to debates about how democracy itself should be organised?

The Chatham House Rule divides society into us and them; into people who can be trusted with sensitive information and opinions, and those who can’t. It provides a get-out-of-jail-free card for public figures who are too wimpish to state their true views on the record, but who are nonetheless keen to make sure that fellow members of the elite appreciate how clever and insightful they are.

Supporters of the Chatham House Rule say that without it, policymakers would be less frank in expressing their views, leading to the wrong conclusions being reached and bad decisions being taken. I think it is exactly the other way round. Allowing public figures to say one thing in public but do another in private, is a recipe for ill-informed, illegitimate policies which only (and at best) serve the interests of the Chatham House Rule elite itself. Getting rid of it will do more to restore public trust in our political institutions than any number of closed-door conferences can ever hope to achieve.

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