Thursday, 3 October 2019

Rotten to the core

I've commented before about there being five EU presidents, none of which (I think) we can get rid of. I admit one is the president of the European Central Bank, which doesn't really count from that point of view. People who know a thing or two have told me that the Commission is the EU's civil service and, since we can't get rid of civil servants in the UK through the ballot box, then I'm barking up the wrong tree. I had accepted that this was a fair point, until I read today an academic piece that attempts to properly kibosh my argument. Except that it doesn't.

Eponine Howarth of the LSE has published an article titled "Is the European Union governed by 'unelected bureaucrats'". Eponine has an LLB, i.e. a bachelor's degree in law, so will know a lot more stuff than me. She says the claim shows a "deep misunderstanding of European executive politics". (Guilty, though I've been in the Berlaymont many times and seen some of it for myself, which I think counts for something). While the EU Commission staff, some 33,000 of them, are indeed unelected and bureaucrats, Eponine points out that this is fewer civil servants than run a major city, like Paris or London and the UK nationally has 440,000 civil servants, all unelected, just like those of most other governments. She gives the example of Michel Barnier, the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, who is responsible to the Commission and to the 28 member state governments. She describes the main role of the Commission, lead by its president Jean-Claude Junker, as being to propose legislation, manage the implementation of policies and funds and represent the EU in bilateral or multilateral trade agreements. The European Commission is also “the guardian of the Treaties” and can take EU Member States that infringe EU law to the ECJ (European Court of Justice). The Commission acts under powers delegated by the member states represented in the European Council. If you are interested in the detail the article, referenced below*, is quite short.

But hold it right there, Eponine. The Commission's main role is to propose legislation (the italics are hers, not mine).  That is not the way the a national civil service works at all. Sure, they produce all sorts of position papers and float ideas which, via Sir Humphrey influence, they might manage to persuade ministers of the crown to adopt. And anyone who has read Ken Clarke's description of "the blob" will know how much power they can wield and how much inertia they can summon up when they dig their feet in. But fundamentally the ideas for legislation here come from election manifestos. 

Eponine undermines her own argument further by pointing out that, not only is agenda-setting delegated to the Commission, "the Commission .... has the ability to change the direction of the original policy outcome, despite following the broader policy directions imposed by the heads of state in the European Council." Yes the EU Council has to approve the resulting legislation, but the initiative is with the blob.She then describes the accountability mechanisms which I would simply comment don't seem to be very effective in changing anything very much.

The power to take member states to court also seems to me a complete confusion of roles, totally unrelated to the role of a civil service.

So don't kid yourself, the EU is indeed run (or at least driven) by unelected bureaucrats. 

The reason I was researching this was a piece in the weekend's newspapers about the incoming EU Commissioners, due to take their posts at the end of October. They include some strange characters**:

  • Ursula Von der Leyen, who is due to succeed Junker as president of the Commission, faces a grilling from the German parliament over allegations of mismanagement and misspending during the five and a half years she spent in her last job at their defence ministry. 
  • Laszlo Trocsanyi, a former Hungarian justice minister due to be in charge of the EU's further eastward expansion (eh?) had his candidacy vetoed by the EU's Parliament's legal affairs commitee last week. He was blocked because of concern that the law firm he founded had been granted contracts by the Hungarian state while he was in government together with his role in extraditions to Russia
  • Romanian Rovana Plumb, set to become transport commissioner, is under scrutiny because of loans she had taken and whether they could be repaid in an "open and transparent manner". But she was already notorious because of claims in the Romanian media that, in 2014, she "forgot" to declare her Audi Q7 car which had been registered in Bulgaria in an apparent attempt to avoid a special tax on 4x4s - which she had introduced herself as transport minister.
  • Sylvie Goulard, a former French defence minister and ally of President Macron. She is a suspect in a case involving fictitious jobs when she served as an MEP.
  • Dubravaka Suica, who has amassed a large property portfolio in her native Croatia, which she has dismissed as "fake news"
The Romanian government may replace Plumb but the Hungarian PM is reportedly ready to fight over Trocsanyi. But MEPs were angry that the legal affairs committee was told to hold a further hearing with these two candidates. While purportedly because of a "minor procedural error" they saw it as an attempt to pressure them to reconsider their verdict.

It's not all bad news for the candidate commissioners: Belgian authorities have dropped an investigation of corruption and money laundering into Didier Reynders, their country's commissioner nominee.

This bunch of candidates is all too typical of the third rate or plain dodgy politicians for whom member states use the EU as a route to put out to grass. And, while in principle member states can object, it doesn't get them far and they don't have a veto: look how far David Cameron got in 2014 trying to block Junker.

So I disagree, Eponine. These people hold huge influence over the future direction of the EU and individual member states can effectively be railroaded. They occupy positions that are quite unlike our civil servants, they are unelected and we can't get rid of them.

Of course, Remainers argue that the EU isn't perfect and they accept it needs reform. We've tried that for 20 years and failed. But we can get out of this inefficient, bureaucratic and arguably corrupt quasi- state: by removing ourselves rather than them.

One of the real problems with Brexit is that the Commission is driving things for the EU, not the member states. The commission has a vested interest in keeping the UK in the EU and in showing others that it's impossible to leave. Because that's what keeps them in the style they are accustomed to.

If I understand what people in the EU and Ireland are saying tonight about the latest UK attempt to get a sensible deal, decoded it means "you can't actually leave. You can sort of leave but not leave (i.e. stay in the single market and customs union). Or at least you can't really leave and also keep the United Kingdom intact". Because that's what it amounts to. If that is what they mean I say "just try us, chum".


** from "Bad start for the new EU chief as two of her team get the kibosh", Sunday Times 29 September 2019.


  1. An alternative last para could read 'If we understand what people in the EU and Ireland are saying about the latest UK attempt to get a senseless deal, decoded it means "you can't be serious". You have put up a ridiculous deal so don't expect us to take it seriously. Oh at least just admit that your deal is one you want us to reject so you can get your no deal Brexit, because that's what it amounts to. If that is what you mean we say "just try us, chum".'|:-)

    1. Fair enough, let's do it. After a bit of turbulence the UK will be fine, apart from some folk horribly inconvenienced in Northern Ireland by the imposition of a hard border by the EU. The EU economy, powered by the German diesel-fuelled motor car economy will falter. Catastrophically high unemployment will get worse in southern European countries trapped in the euro as the Germans will insist debts are paid. Ireland will come off the worst. And all because the EU set an insoluble problem: fix the Irish border before holding the trade talks that could have solved the problem.