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08 March 2013

Alice in an EU Wonderland

Alice went off to Brussels recently; she’d heard that the European Wonderland was even more full of exciting new things than she’d found in the little English version she was used to.

When she got there, her guide appeared; he was going to explain things to her.

The first thing they saw was a very haughty-looking woman, sweeping past with a huge entourage of acolytes. “Who’s that?” Alice asked.

“Ah, that’s our Diplomatic High Representative. She’s terribly important. She’s in charge of all our relationships with foreigners. You know, making sure they all understand our policies, and telling them how we do things. That helps them out, because otherwise they may be trying to use their own ways.” He sucked his breath in through his teeth, making what Alice thought was a rather rude noise, “That would never do; they need to know how we do things, so they can forget their primitive ways.”

“Gosh,” Alice said, “she must be really clever and important. Who are all those people with her?”

“Ah, those are her translators and interpreters. The foreigners don’t all speak English, so she has to have people to explain what she’s saying to them.”

“Can’t she speak other languages, if she’s the Diplomatic High Representative?”

“No, no, she’s far too important for that. Much better this way.”

Alice wasn’t so sure. She worked hard at her language lessons, because her teachers told her it was really important to be able to communicate properly in the world. “But doesn’t it make it terribly expensive, having all those extra people?”

“Expensive? Who cares about that?” He smiled benignly at Alice. “Anyway, compared with the High Representative’s salary, it’s peanuts. Don’t you worry your little head about it.”

Alice wasn’t convinced, but agreed when her guide suggested moving on to the treasury. She had heard that there were some exciting goings-on there.

They walked in, and saw rows and rows of very serious looking men sitting at desks with computers and calculators whirring away all around them.

The guide pointed excitedly at one man sitting at the end of a row of desks. “He’s really clever. He came up with the best wheeze ever, just a few weeks ago.”

“Ooh,” said Alice. “What is it? Do tell.”

“Well, you know how lots of people in Wonderland have been worried about how much bankers get paid in their bonuses?”

Alice nodded; she also thought that multi-multi-million pound rewards were a bit silly.

“Well, he’s worked out how to stop that happening.” He stood back, beaming at her.

“Wow! He must be clever,” Alice exclaimed. “What is he going to do?”

“Simple, really. All the best ideas are simple,” her guide said – a touch patronisingly, Alice thought. “We’re going to make a law that limits how much bonus anybody in a bank can get. That’ll sort it out.”

Alice just stared at him. “That won’t work. Even I can see that. I know how bankers’ ‘total compensation’ works. They get paid a salary, which is fixed, and then a bonus, which is discretionary – that means it’s not fixed,” she added, in case he didn’t understand, since he’d been in the Brussels Wonderland so long. “So if you tell them that the bit which used not to be fixed now has an upper maximum limit, all they’ll do is accept that, and at the same time increase the bit which is fixed to a much higher level. So overall, they’ll still get the same. But the fixed cost base of the bank will have increased, so it will have much less flexibility in difficult times. What a stupid idea. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to let the shareholders decide? It’s their money, after all, not the Wonderland government’s. I think they’ve just decided to do that in the Mountain Wonderland. They’re very smart there.”

Just then, there was a commotion. A nondescript little man rushed past. Everybody except Alice went down on one knee and bowed their head to him.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“Ah, that’s the President. Like your Red Queen, except here we don’t believe in hereditary titles. His son won’t take over, not like in your Wonderland.”

“Oh, will there be an election to replace him, where all the citizens of EU Wonderland can vote? What a good idea!”

“Election? Election? Stupid girl. Why would we bother with an election? We’re all far too important for elections. We’re appointed. Now clear off, you’re nothing but a little troublemaker!”

Alice thought that was unfair, but went off home all the same. Perhaps her own Wonderland wasn’t so weird after all, compared to what she had seen.

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