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

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

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

Foto: Mark Renders/ Getty Images

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.


Photo Gallery: The European Commission: Fact and Fiction

Foto: Jochen Lübke/ DPA

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.

'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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