European Elections: Polls

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The role of the Commission in the Union

For the EU Open Day, Grahnlaw, a fellow blogger, asked: "What is your response to the continuously spread allegation about unelected elites in Brussels making 80 per cent of our laws?"

Without giving a full lecture on the European Union, let me first summarize a bit the situation.

On the one side, you have the well-know 3 major actors of the European Union:
  • The European Commission
  • The Council of the European Union (Member States)
  • The European Parliament

On the other side, since the Maastricht Treaty, The European Union is built on 3 distinct pillars:
  • European Community
  • Common Foreign and Security Policy
  • Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters
As more and more treaties got signed the EC got more to do and the Europarliament got reinforced.

As to answer Grahn's question, the EC has (absolutely) no prerogatives on the two last pillars. It is the Member States (through the Council) with a sprinkle of Parliament who make the show in those topics. I have no statistics, but I sincerely doubt the 80% figure, just due to this fact.

We play only in the first pillar. On this, it was agreed democratically that Member States will relinquish some powers to the Union (not to the European Commission, to the Union). And if you have read my previous posts, we can't go rogue: we either have the MEP or a committee on our back. Even if we have great autonomy, the Council has the last word in the vast majority of cases.

One truth must be told high and loud. In our dear Union, the Council is the main legislative power! Not the Commission, the Council... So I totally agree on one of your comments: "the Commission has weakened by the shift of the 'institutional balance' towards the Council".

So what do the Brussels Elites do for a living? We are not as powerful as some Eurosceptics would like to believe. We draft policies in our first pillar and we make sure that Member States don't deviate too much from the treaties. We are definitely not elected officials, we are technocrats.

Last but not least, at the European Commission, officials works for their respective Commissioners, who vote on decisions as a college. Commissioners are not elected but they are selected by member states (after lengthy and complicated negotiations) and approved by the Parliament.

So let's make things clear: More than often, the Brussels Elite are accused of messing up with national sovereignty; unfortunately, when you look in details at the law-making process in the European Union, Member States do a non-negligible part of the work and when the Commission is in charge, it has democratic watchdogs. People should not fall that easily on this populist belief. We are just an easy scapegoat for many governments to justify their failure.

Q&A: Committees in our daily work

Julian Frisch asks: "How do these committees affect your (personal) daily work in the Commission? Do have frequent contact to member states' experts from these committees?"

It really depends in which DG you are working in. In my case, I would say that we do have to deal with a committee quite often. There are regular meetings with the Member States experts, but they are definitely not our direct bosses. With time, you start to preempt their comments... It is all about national interests, so pretty obvious to guess.

Regarding the quality of the experts in the committees, it varies a lot. Once again, it relates to national interests. They make sure they have knowledgeable people in areas dear to their agenda. You can also imagine that some countries are more inclined to protect their own interests, for example those with large industrial powers, let say.

Accountability at the European Commission: the role of the Member States

In one of my previous post, I tried to explain how we, Officials at the EC, are accountable to the Europarliament. Well there is another layer of accountability towards Members States this time: Comitology.

So you would think that the EC who is getting more and more autonomy could just act as a rogue beast and passed any legislation it wants to. WRONG! Member states are watching us and they make sure, very carefully, that their parochial interests are preserved.

Basically, the EC has the right of initiatives on a large number of topics (eg agriculture, internal market, competition, etc.) but since the 60's, Members States have developed Comitology. In short, there are now more than 250 committees that scrutinize our works and depending on the topic, the EC cannot issue a regulation without the assent of the oversight committee.

I will take two examples:
1) In the Regulatory Procedure, with regard to health for example, the EC can't do a single thing without the agreement of the Committee. If the committee rules against, the Parliament can be consulted. And at the end, the Council of the EU has the final word, ie Member States.

2) In the Management Procedure, with regard to the Common Agricultural Policy for example, the EC can ignore the committee's opinion. Still the Council of the EU has the final word.

As a conclusion, it is clear Member States have a good idea of what we are doing. If they don't and say that EC is coming up with a surprise piece of legislation, then maybe they should be more active in the different committees. I hope it is becoming clear to you what is the role of the EC in the Union. My next post will deal with that question and answer the question of Grahnlaw, a fellow Euroblogger.

Q&A: Diversity in the Workplace

From a reader: How well are the different nationalities represented among the fonctionnaires? Are there quotas? Does the current system work or are there tensions?

Let me first say that working at the EC is a blast when it comes to diversity. I can't think of any other employers who can bring so many nationalities at the table...

Having said that, it is obvious that there is not a fair representation of nationalities among the Fonctionnaires. There are several reasons to that. First, you can't expect to have as many Luxembourgeois as Germans. Demography is a major factor explaining the representation of large countries such as Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Second is History. Founding members (Germany, France, Italy, Benelux) are also well represented because you still have the old fonctionnaires in place. Also, there is Geography, with Belgians quite present for a small country but tend to concentrate in lower levels and admin (IT, accounting, etc).

So overall, it will be a while before we get a more balanced EC (remember, you can't fired Fonctionnaires, so you have to wait a long long time...)

Nonetheless, all the nationalities are there. The countries who joined between the 70's and the extension to the East are now well present and very active. In particular Scandinavians who have a strong sense of Public Service.

The EU10 and EU2 (those who joined in 2004 and 2007) are gradually getting integrated but we don't expect many Latvians or Slovenes, of course due to demographics. On the other hands, Poles are getting there in force.

There are no quotas or no quota policy (or if there is one, it must be top secret). I am pretty sure there won't be one anytime soon. However there is definitely a push to get more officials from EU10 and EU2 and very recently more management level officials from the new countries.
One way is we are informally asked to favor new countries when we have candidates with the same qualifications.
The other way is how the recruiting is being done. Simply, to be recruited, you of course need to be a "laureat de concours", and most of the concours these past 2 years are being restricted to allow only EU10 and EU2. As a result, if you want to recruit a new official, you will get in majority CV from new countries. This in fact do create a lot of tensions: old nationalities are complaining to be treated unfairly, they argue that the quality of the service is declining (Unions say that often lately).

It's hard to take a position on this topic. The question is in fact exacerbated by the decreasing numbers of concours, when the EC was asked to cut costs during the Kinnock Reform. For sure I don't agree that new officials from EU10 or EU2 are less capable, that they had it the easy way. Idiots are very diverse, and they come from the 27 countries!

Eventually, what really blows my mind at the EC is the linguistic capabilities of the Beast. The vast majority of Officials under 40 speak at least 3 languages. And if you get the younger ones you see people talking fluently 5,6 or even 7 languages without being a translator or an interpretor. That you get nowhere else.

European Institutions Open Day: All you wanted to know about working at the EC and never dared ask

For a change, I would be interested to get some inputs on my blog.

As not to hurt some of the nationalities, 8th of May is worked at the EC, but in exchange we rest on the 9th of May, which is the European Day. On this day, we also open doors to the public.

So if there is something you would like to know about working at the EC, feel free to ask and I will see if I can provide an answer or an insight.

Of course, the request has to be realistic!

Post your questions in one of the comments.

Nervous Breakdown: How Signatories can drive you NUTS!

There has been huge improvements in terms of transparency at the Commission since the resignation of the Santer Commission. For those who don't remember it, Santer and his team resigned in 1999 under allegation of fraud. There was not a single scandal in this episode, but arrogance and opacity at the EC really got on the nerves of the European Parliament and the fall of the Commission got crystallised by the fraud focused around on two commissioners, Cresson and Marin.

On big change was the creation of OLAF, the Anti-Fraud DG with a large amount of independence. Another, more subtle, is a reinforcement of the letter circuit.

Until very recently you had ADONIS, which is basically an electronic archive of letters. Let say you send a letter to the Commission, the letter is read, scanned in the system, and attributed to a service. the dogma is: All letters in ADONIS need an answer! May it be a letter from a head of government, a letter from a citizen, a firm, a lobby... So a fair amount of our work is to answer those queries in strict delays.

On the other side, you have the signatories. Of course, a Commissioner or a Director-General will only answer directly a very small number of the letter. The rest is send to low-level officials for an answer. With the letter comes a signatory where you have the circuit. Can be quite long depending on the number of signatures, visas, authorisations, for information, etc. steps on the circuit. Assuming a letter signed by the Director General himself, starting from the writer, it goes to your head of section, then to the head of unit, then to the assistant of the director, then to the director, then to the assistant of the director-general and then to the director-general himself. If at any point, one is not happy, comments are made and send back to the writer for a new round in the circuit. Depending on the urgency of the matter, you would see secretaries and internal mail running around to beat the deadlines.

Recently the two systems merged into a new IT system: ARES. Why ARES? because in the Greek Mythology ADONIS was killed by ARES... You can't invent things like this. It must have been a Greek personally in charge of IT names!

As any changes happening in an administration, the level of anxiety increased substantially with a lot of training. IT honestly replaces a lot of paperwork and movements, but the system is not yet clear to anybody....