TCS Daily


Scratch-and-Win Politics

By Robert Spain - February 10, 2006 12:00 AM

So another protracted event finally drew to a close last Friday. Millions of Europeans across the continent had their interest piqued and watched anxiously the goings-on that would affect their future. The tabloid and high-brow press competed with each other for simplistic coverage masquerading as news. And at the end of it all most of us were no better off.

No, this was not another long, drawn-out European Union summit which would once again defer meaningful reforms. It was the Euromillions lottery draw, which had an estimated jackpot prize of £125 million. But given the manner in which it was conducted you could have been forgiven for thinking that Brussels played its part: the rules of the game were changed at the last minute, and the main winners were two Frenchmen and a Portuguese, one of the EUs poorer, net recipient countries. In fact, the only way to be sure that the European Commission were not involved is that there is no rule mandating which countries must win what proportion of the prizes in which order, and Prime Minister Tony Blair did not leak offers to give up any (British) jackpot money in order to offset the budget rebate and Common Agricultural Policy.

Still, the lottery could show the way forward for the EU, currently bogged down as it is with debates over its future. Think about it: this is a non-football pan-European project which Britain is actually committed to and even enthusiastic about. The lottery recently and efficiently expanded from its core members without all the problems that have arisen from EU enlargement. Discrimination is legal between states, thanks to a rule insisting prizes must be claimed in the country of purchase (so holidaymakers are excluded). Despite expansion, membership is currently limited, so West European money will stay within the West European block, and no members complain about how much/little others contribute. This is despite the fact that tickets cost 10 percent more in Britain than the EU: €2 in members of the euro, £1.50 (€2.20) in Britain (and SFr3.20 (€2.05) in Switzerland). Surely this is a situation European Commission President José Manuel Barroso would envy.

The lottery seems the ideal model for Europe. It's a grandiose project which actually involves citizens, not just their democratically elected (over completely different issues) representatives, and it involves giving people back their own money after taking out a chunk for administration. And there is lots of money. One of the lottery's successes, in Britain certainly, is that some of the profits have been diverted to "good causes". While originally this entailed poorer people subsidizing the re-development of cultural institutions favored by the upper classes, such as the Royal Opera House (£60 million), there are real concerns, as recently expressed in Parliament, that it is being used to plug holes in fundamental government budgets - such as buying MRI scanners for hospitals (£93 million). After the EU budget summits of late, such funds would be a blessing.

Cynicism aside, the EU has encouraged reform in Europe's newly independent states by holding out the prospect of membership as a reward for good governance. Similary, former Soviet countries were initially offered membership of NATO's "partnership for peace" rather than of NATO itself in a geo-strategic bargain to encourage a secure post-Soviet space. Some have now acceded to NATO itself, signifying independence from Moscow.

So - hypothetically speaking of course - could the lottery be a modern day version of EU membership, something that could seriously affect relationships across the continent and beyond, or will it remain more akin to the Eurovision Song Contest: a camp joke, which the wrong people always win?

Probably a bit of both.

If the lottery and its membership were under European Union control, another carrot could thus be offered to our continental neighbors: the right to gamble on a level playing field with Luxembourgers, Belgians and citizens of Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, France and the UK. One can see revolutions on the streets of Minsk as Belarusians realize that President Lukashenko is hampering their chances of winning "the big one". The normalization of trading and cultural ties, obtaining their liberty and freedom would pale next to the incentive of the winnings on offer. Forget hard power, ignore soft power: this is mass greed power.

Even it is trivial in the global context - it's hardly likely to feature highly in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea, let alone Iran - this does not mean it could not be a useful prestige tool, akin to the aforementioned song contest. Prestige counts in politics, and this would be prestigious enough to be worth announcing shortly before election-day - if it was suitably well choreographed. And given that the lottery confers rights but little obligations, it would not be contentious in the long-term, like, say, a divided Cyprus, which clouds numerous other issues while remaining stubbornly unresolved.

The lottery is unlikely to become a serious foreign policy tool any time soon. But the rollovers, especially the recent one, have become events as serious as football's European Cup, and look likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. And one day, who knows?

By the way, I didn't win anything last week, either.

Robert Spain is a writer and failed gambler living in Europe.  

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