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

By and

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

The highly qualified civil servants at the EU Commission wield tremendous power, but their frequent lack of political savvy has turned many Europeans against them. SPIEGEL profiles the EU's executive in advance of the European election.

It's barely nine hours into the new working week, and the European idea is, at least figuratively, already in need of a new bailout package. A handful of officials sit at a square table in the office of the European Commission's chief spokesman, discussing the fact that the press, as usual, hasn't been very friendly in recent days.

One press officer notes that a report is circulating in French newspapers claiming that the European Commission has issued a new regulation on how high children are permitted to climb on ladders. It's obviously a misinterpretation, he says -- the Commission will have to issue a correction. Meanwhile, the British media is fulminating against Brussels' red tape, even though the rules in question were imposed by the British. It seems yet another correction is needed. Finally, they address the Financial Times' editorials on the state of the euro zone. "Predictably skeptical," says one official.

Moods only seem to brighten at one point during the meeting, when they discuss an interview EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger gave the Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper. In the article, Oettinger argues that the number of EU Commissioners -- 28 -- may seem high, but a country like Germany has 180 ministers and state secretaries at the federal and state level. The headline of the interview is a direct quote from Oettinger: "In Brussels, People Work Until 8 p.m. on Fridays." There's eager nodding of heads in the room. At least they got that right, one says.

Afterwards, the civil servants disperse into their honeycomb-like offices, where alerts constantly tell them when something critical about "Brussels" pops up in Google News.

An Indefinable Mishmash

This is just a glimpse into the everyday schizophrenia at the European Union's Brussels central nervous system. The Commission's 33,000-plus employees are overseen from Berlaymont, a 13-story high, flashy building in the heart of Brussels' European District. The European Commission is an enormously powerful institution, but it is a strength that its workers try their best not to flaunt. The halls here are, instead, permeated by the fear that it could lose its power.

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Photo Gallery: The European Commission: Fact and Fiction
The Commission is an indefinable mishmash of government and public agency -- one that conducts foreign policy like a foreign ministry and regulates competition in the manner one would expect from a national cartel office. Most of the policies and directives that are ultimately applied in national law in European Union member states originate with the European Commission. And because the Commission has responsibility for monitoring adherence to European law, it also has the ability to levy billions of euros in fines. These punitive measures can be applied against Internet companies like Google or Microsoft if they go afoul of EU competition rules, but also against a state like Germany if the Commission finds it has violated regulations by, for example, providing an illegal state-funded bailout of a company like carmaker Opel, whose days appeared to be numbered several years ago when its US parent company General Motors hit the worst of its crisis.

The Commission is a highly attractive place to work: For every position it fills, it receives hundreds of job applications from across the Continent. If a high-flying 27-year-old lands a job there, then it is not unusual for him or her to be negotiating issues relating directly to the interests of a powerful CEO or government leader -- a phenomenon more typical of a place like elite global consulting firm McKinsey. If they succeed in working their way up to the highest staff positions in the Commission, civil servants in Brussels can even manage to take home more pay each year than a German chancellor -- largely due to higher allowances and lower taxes.

A Focus on Modesty

But the focus among Commission employees is on modesty. They're fond of mentioning that, in contrast to other European leaders, their boss, Commission President José Manuel Barroso, doesn't have his own jet and flies on commercial airliners. Official state meetings are held in a "reception hall" whose leather furniture is so shabby that an Asian visitor once offered to send more respectable furnishings. They also like to brag that the Commission, which has administrative responsibilities for around 500 million EU citizens, has only about the same number of employees on its payroll as the city of Munich.

There's also good reason for EU officials to diminish themselves to the outside world. They're fully aware of the extent to which they have become the scapegoats of a Europe that has become increasingly unsure of itself amid the global financial and European debt and euro crises. The center-left Social Democrats, conservative Christian Democrats, business-friendly liberals and euroskeptics with parties like the upstart Alternative for Germany -- whether in Berlin, Athens or Rome -- all seem ready to pounce on the Commission's eurocrats in the run-up to the European Parliament elections, which commence next Thursday. They allege the Commission members are overzealous in their work, slapping regulations down on everything from pickles to shower heads.

The subject came up in the most recent televised debate between the two leading candidates in the elections for the European Parliament, Christian Democrat candidate Jean-Claude Juncker, and Social Democratic Party contender and current president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. On multiple occasions, Schulz angrily stated that he was "not a eurocrat," a word he considers to be a pejorative.

People don't seem to want to differentiate. Even if EU member states or local communities are responsible for pushing new regulations, it's easier for many to just blame Brussels. They don't seem to care much that it sometimes makes sense to forge single, EU-wide regulations out of a tangle of national ones -- rules that, for example, eliminate steep roaming fees when people travel from one European country to the next or standardize mobile phone charging cables. Whatever gains the applause of national voters always seems to have the greatest currency.

Inevitably, entities subjected to such great external pressure turn inward, and over the decades, the eurocrats have developed a true esprit de corps. They view themselves as misunderstood people who are the only ones capable of protecting the European idea because, they believe, they are the only ones who understand it.

'Tunnel Vision' and 'Overeagerness'

Few are more familiar with this dichotomy than Johannes Laitenberger, 49, Barroso's chief of staff. He has a youthful face, a receding hairline and wears the kind of muted suit that officials on the European Commission seem to purchase by the dozen when they start their jobs. Laitenberger was born in Hamburg and raised in Portugal. When he and his boss are alone, they speak Portuguese.

Laitenberger is also fully perceptive of how many people imagine everyday life in Brussels to be. "They think we all drive eco-friendly cars to our giant offices and consider among ourselves each morning how we can create new regulations for the citizens of Europe," he says. Laitenberger openly admits that there is the occasional bout of "tunnel vision" or "overeagerness" in his administration, but he says that EU regulations generally address issues for which legislative debates are already happening at the national level. He also notes that key decisions can only be made by the commissioners -- with one representing each member state -- and that legislative proposals must be approved by both the European Parliament and the European Council, the powerful body representing the leaders of the 28 member states.

"As EU officials, we work like sailors," he explains. "It's the politically legitimated commissioners who stand on the captain's bridge, and they are very visible to everyone."

But how visible are they? Politicians like Androulla Vassiliou, the Cypriot commissioner for education, culture and multilingualism, or Maros Sefcovic, the Slovak commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, are hardly household names. The current organizational arrangement -- one commissioner for each member state -- will remain in place because the 28 EU nations scuppered the original plans to reduce the number of seats on the Commission. This means that the cacophony created by many unknown, inexperienced commissioners will likely continue.

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1. optional
jdiehl6 05/15/2014
Positions of power held by folks ignorant of the people they are supposed to represent are a danger to themselves and the people
2. For whom they are working for..
Milopoulos 05/16/2014
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?
3. The EU
Eurasius 05/16/2014
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.
4. The European Commission is not a democratic institution.
Inglenda2 05/16/2014
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.
5. Misleading
Braqueish 05/16/2014
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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