Thursday, 6 September 2007

Life of a European Mandarin – the intrigue behind sparkling EU facades

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – It sits in the heart of the EU capital with around 23,000 employees from all 27 member states and makes laws that affect almost all aspects of our lives, yet it is rare to get an inside view on what goes on behind the sparkling glass facades of the European Commission.

But now one of its own ‘mandarins’ has written an exposé of life as a eurocrat. Derk-Jan Eppink, a Dutch national who worked in the commission for seven years, has written a 400-page book casting a not too flattering light on the machinations of the commission and its most powerful officials.

Deeming them “footsoldiers in the battle for integration”, Mr Eppink portrays high-ranked eurocrats as being in constant battle between themselves for one upmanship and in battle with their commissioners to make sure they do not stray from the official message – also known as The Line to Take (LTT).

Wayward commissioners who think for themselves are portrayed as the typical mandarin’s worst nightmare. So Mr Eppink’s ‘own’ commissioner at the time, the Dutch Frits Bolkestein, was a problem, being outspoken on several issues – whether they belonged to his own internal market dossier or not.

A bored commissioner is a dangerous commissioner…
Mr Eppink reports on one time when Bolkestein definitely did not use the LTT. It was a weekend. On Monday the head of cabinet came in looking like someone had died. The problem:

“This weekend the commissioner criticised the Dutch prime minister, the French president and the President of the Commission. It’s us against the rest of the world.”

According to Mr Eppink, the head of Mr Bolkestein’s cabinet liked to keep his commissioner’s agenda full as “A commissioner with nothing to do might have time to start thinking for himself.”

A former journalist, Mr Eppink has a sharp eye for the minefield of petty officialdom. He sketches life inside the commission as a constant struggle between the cabinet – essentially there to politically guide the commissioner – and the directorate general who is supposed to draw up legislative proposals.

Both sides want to be a little more involved in the other’s territory but are not prepared to give an inch. A much-favoured trick by directorate generals fearing commissioners will be become too involved in a proposal and perhaps unravel their work is to prepare dossiers so complicated, detailed and long that commissioners have little choice but to sign them off – often not knowing what’s in them.

In one incident, former commission chief Romano Prodi is left sitting waiting in an adjoining room while his chef de cabinet put the finishing touches on an important decision.

The greatest power of the European mandarins, suggests Mr Eppink, is to turn controversial issues into so-called ‘A points’ for the commissioners’ weekly meeting. This means pre-cooking proposals and thrashing them out before presenting an agreed outline to their political masters, to be passed without discussion.

This is how the services directive proposal ‘” a piece of EU legislation that turned into a monster of controversy once it was examined and discussed thoroughly ‘” was initially just nodded through by commissioners.

While all directorate generals vie to get their particular unit’s philosophy through, it is the head of legal service (as far as memory goes back always a Frenchman) who can kill a proposal dead on a legal nicety and the president’s head of cabinet who is thought to wield the most power in the commission – or ‘Princess’ as Mr Eppink insists on calling the EU executive.

Officials making laws
But he also draws attention to the sheer power of unelected eurocrats, who can and do make use of several short cuts to get legislation through – effectively carrying out policy through bureaucratic channels.

“A mandarin might use a written procedure to introduce VAT into a previously exempt sector. If nobody objects, the proposal becomes draft law.”

The best tactic is to introduce a series of written procedures before the summer when nobody is around to block them.

While a mandarin fears the press as an unpredictable tool, it can also be mighty useful for killing off proposals or as a forum for early leaks to get a favourable preview of a proposal in a newspaper.

The Financial Times is the favoured paper for the latter. Otherwise it depends on the proposal.
For example, a DG environment proposal on pollution caused by buses would die a death in the French papers if headlined that the commission wants to privatise the public bus service, or in the British papers if headlined that the commission wants to abolish all double-decker buses.

Into this mix of backstabbing and power comes the additional spice of all the different nationalities.

Italians are summed up as “shrewd, devious negotiators”, the Dutch and the Germans rely too much on arguments and think that is enough; the French use logic, often coinciding with French national interests, while Spanish and Poles are the most difficult negotiators ‘” being proud and prickly. Belgians are dismissed as ideal mandarins with “legendary” adaptability, and a “lack of backbone.”

Out of touch
Introducing the book, he suggests that his time at the commission means he mastered the “intrigue, trickery and deceit” needed to survive as an official in the commission.

Yet Mr Eppink is not dismissive of his former colleagues’ ability. He also does not suggest that they are a malign force deliberately out to drown EU citizens through their laws. But he does say they are out of touch with reality.

They push ahead, pruning and working on the EU ideal, but have failed to consider the unpredictable electorate.

“My problem with European Federalists is not their faith, or their aspirations, or even their ideals: it is their lack of political insight,” he writes.

He believes the European Constitution ‘” rejected by French and Dutch voters on 2005 ‘” is a good example of EU officials’ lack of foresight and understanding.

The book is set to be widely read in Brussels which thrives on political gossip and intrigue inspired by the EU – but it is also likely to be open to the charge that the same sort of in-fighting and pettiness exists in national administrations, which are considerably bigger.
Mr Eppink himself points out that Amsterdam city’s administration alone has the same number of officials as the ‘Princess.’

Nevertheless, it is good to see the commission, which Mr Eppink describes as being fiercely intolerant of “dissidents” or people on the inside being critical, being sent up somewhat.
A little light and humour where previously there was none can only be a good thing. And perhaps bring it closer to the fabled ‘EU citizen’?

By Honor Mahony
This article first appeared on EU Observer.

Life of a European Mandarin (Lannoo), by Derk-Jan Eppink, can be purchased