Civil Servants Circled By Foes Misunderstood at the Helm of the EU

The Berlaymont Building in Brussels serves as the official headquarters of the European Commission, the EU's executive.
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The Berlaymont Building in Brussels serves as the official headquarters of the European Commission, the EU's executive.

By and

Part 2: 'Well-Meaning Bureaucrats Who Often Lack Political Sense'


They are up against a highly disciplined corps of civil servants led by Catherine Day, 59, whom many regard to be the most powerful woman in Brussels. The razor-sharp blonde-haired Irish national was appointed secretary general of the Commission in 2005. When EU leaders spent long nights in meetings during the euro rescue, it was self-evident that Day should sit right at the negotiating table with Merkel and other EU leaders.

Colleagues have even come up with the nickname "Catherine Day and Night" because of her tireless engagement. Like many top EU civil servants, Day doesn't feel the need to explain her actions publicly, and she has given virtually no interviews to the media.

She is also typically aware of her own power. "Her word is law," says one senior EU official, who compares Day's role to that of the great inquisitor in Schiller's drama "Don Carlos," a man who holds all the strings in the king's court in his hand.

One of Day's implemented rules is that the Commission's civil servants are only permitted to answer queries made by members of the European Parliament with a maximum of 20 lines. When a member of parliament expressed her doubt that every political question could properly be answered so tersely, the Irish secretary general rebuked: "I have yet to see a question that cannot be answered in 20 lines."

Inverting Brussels' Political Hierarchy

If an individual commissioner is unhappy with her initiatives, Day can make life uncomfortable. When former Health Commissioner John Dalli wanted to create stricter tobacco regulations, she informed his most senior staffer that she would like to see analysis on whether less severe measures could be used. Of course, she ultimately got her way. The fact that top civil servants within the EU Commission have the ability to make a commissioner's life more difficult or keep him or her on a tight rein can at times invert the political hierarchy in Brussels.

Day also coordinates the weekly meetings of the cabinet chiefs, where numerous decisions are made before the commissioners even meet. Lengthy discussions aren't desired in those meetings, according to Günter Verheugen, who was the German commissioner in Brussels until 2010. "Many Commission decisions are made without any real involvement by the commissioners," he claims. "We are partly giving command of Europe over to well-meaning bureaucrats who often lack political sense."

Verheugen quickly experienced just how complicated internal dynamics can be within the Commission. When he entered into office, his chief of staff openly told him that, as director general, he would be the one making the decisions and that the commissioner could take over the public relations work if he wanted. This didn't fly well with Verheugen. The German soon learned that commissioners do not have decision-making capacity over choosing their own personnel and he had trouble getting rid of the man.

The top officials' superiority complex is part of their esprit de corps, tied to serving European unity. Their career paths cross again and again over the years -- they know all the tricks for maneuvering politically in Brussels, while commissioners from national capitals are usually only there for a few years and have to learn things the hard way.

"The role of the Commission is to identify common European interests and act accordingly. And that's what we do," says Jonathan Faull, who's been in the service for 36 years. As secretary general of the European Single Market, Faull has an important role in Brussels. Last year, he managed to come up with the backbone of the banking union almost by himself. He says that he and his close coworkers locked themselves into one of the Commission's typically poorly decorated offices with a blank sheet of paper. They emerged with a mechanism that makes owners, instead of taxpayers, pay for the liquidation of ailing banks.

Uncoupled from National Politics

But the specialized talents of EU experts like Faull also harbor a serious weakness: Their expertise is uncoupled from national politics, where it is public opinion and votes -- and not just theories -- that matter. The bureaucrats' shock at the notion that their long-gestating ideas and suggestions might horrify people can be almost endearing at times.

This is illustrated by the current disagreement over Europe-wide water use in shower heads. EU regulations will likely also soon extend to electricity-intensive vacuum cleaners and new coffee dispensers whose heating pads keep coffee warm for longer than 40 minutes.

Some of these initiatives can be explained in retrospect, but only then. The EU Commission had been tasked by EU member states to lower energy consumption, and in order to reach this goal, the producers of, for example, vacuums were forced to abide by new technical standards. The German government wants to use the European Ecodesign Directive to reach its climate protection goals as well -- "it's even in the coalition agreement," people at the Commission say, proudly, referring to the deal between Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats to govern together in Berlin.

However, as the Green Party discovered during the last German election, when they suggested meat-free "Veggie Days," voters tend to loathe excessive paternalism, and don't want Brussels telling them how much water can come out of their shower heads.

The Commission has an early warning system in order to guard against these problems, but it doesn't always work.

When, for example, the southern EU countries wanted to boost olive oil production, they suggested that Agriculture Ministry officials should ban open olive-oil carafes from European restaurant tables, supposedly to protect customers from substandard oil -- but really to make more money. Then, about a year ago, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper found out about the eager Commission officials' attempt to take over European restaurant tables and, on a Friday morning, the newspaper's article about the project landed on Marianne Klingbeil's desk.

The German spends up to 14 hours a day in her office, evaluating reports -- at least 120 per year, each 30 pages long -- about the possible outcomes of EU legislation. But in this case, she was outwitted by another part of the Brussels apparatus: "When experts from the member states couldn't agree, the Commission immediately stopped this politically."

Does the EU Commission Take People Into Account?

These communication breakdowns often become points of attacks for euroskeptics. "It's exasperating how little this EU Commission takes into account the daily reality of people in Europe," complained Horst Seehofer, the head of Germany's right-leaning Christian Social Union.

In moments like that, the Commission's clerks, who must be able to explain the complex political issues, could benefit from the support of member country government. Instead, politicians in European capitals cities often prefer to rail against Brussels. Former Social Democratic Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück once fulminated against the "EU energy-saving light bulb," even though it was his own party colleague Sigmar Gabriel who initially proposed phasing out the classic incandescent light bulb in Europe.

Even during the euro crisis, member countries celebrated moments of progress as if they were national triumphs while blaming almost every setback on the Commission's failure. The Brussels authority has already been burdened with the unpopular task of supervising countries' economic and budgetary policy -- a trade-off countries made in exchange for euro bailout funds. All EU states had to submit their 2014 budgetary plans to the Commission in October of last year. The plans were then dissected by about 700 staffers at the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs (Efcin), a Commission unit that can request that crisis countries cut health expenditures or pension funds if money is missing from the budget.

Inherently Limited Power

And that case in point also highlights the inherent limits of the Commission's power in Europe. Firmer sanctions against countries who fail to meet the standards must first be approved by the European Council. There, the large member states can organize a blocking minority, which is how France repeatedly got an extension of the deadline to push its budget deficit to below 3 percent of gross domestic product as stipulated by euro-zone rules. President François Hollande said he wouldn't allow interference into his country's matters.

Even Germany long ago stopped being shy about pushing its own interests through, at the expense of the Commission. Angela Merkel's decision to allow an already negotiated compromise on limiting future CO2 car emissions to fall apart -- because it didn't suit BMW and other car German carmakers-- is legendary in Brussels.

As a result, many Brussels officials hope that the winner of the European election could, as the expected new head of the Commission, emerge as a counterweight to Merkel. In the past few months, Schulz, the Social Democrat, has already met with secretary generals, like Faull, who are presenting him with lots of ideas about what the next Commission should tackle -- against the will of some member states, if necessary.

Faull has seen lots of leaders come and go, and seems to be depending, more than anything, on the strength of the apparatus. The Brit says, "I have dedicated my life to the European Union." Like the majority of his 33,000 colleagues, he is expected to stay in Brussels.

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey and Thomas Rogers

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jdiehl6 05/15/2014
1. optional
Positions of power held by folks ignorant of the people they are supposed to represent are a danger to themselves and the people
Milopoulos 05/16/2014
2. For whom they are working for..
Maybe we must agree that the certain eployees are working hard and overtime.The main question which,we the EU citizens must reply is for whom they are actually working for.For us, or for lets say for Goldman Sachs?
Eurasius 05/16/2014
3. The EU
As a citizen of a small EU country who has lived most of my life outside Europe, I hesitate to comment too forcefully on matters pro or contra the EU. However I think that most of your readers will agree that those countries from the former East Block (including the three Baltic States which were part of the USSR) which have joined the EU have fared much better in terms of economic development and political stability than, for example, the deeply sad and troubling case of Ukraine, and other former USSR republics which are outside the EU.
Inglenda2 05/16/2014
4. The European Commission is not a democratic institution.
Neither the European Commissioners, or any of the civil servants working for them, have a democratic legitimisation for the tremendous power, which they are able to wield. Not one of these people has been voted into his/her position by the electorate, but all are able to make decisions which can effect the whole of Europe, without being required to accept any personal accountability for mistakes made. Members of such an organisation, which has no place in a truly democratic Europe, are bound to become targets for criticism. This is especially true, when so many ridiculous and costly rules and regulations are being forced upon the general public, who are expected to pay for, but have no influence on, that which is being decided.
Braqueish 05/16/2014
5. Misleading
An interesting article, but misleading in important respects. While some EU legislation may originate from national discussions, the majority is the implementation of international agreements at the WTO, UNECE, etc. In a real sense the EU has become a County Council body implementing legislation derived at a global level. National parliaments are reduced to parish council status. Alert national citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the democratic deficit as the real power has shifted to globalised corporations, self-serving technocrats and publicly funded NGOs. The views of ordinary people in Europe no longer count for anything.
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