European Affairs

Now, a former civil servant of the European Commission has turned out on paper the Brussels equivalent of “Yes, Minister,” an amusing memoir of how things work and don’t work at the Berlaymont headquarters of the commission. Perhaps the Life of a European Mandarin can be worked up into a European-wide sitcom –”Yes, Commissioner” –though to be true to Brussels protocol it would have to be dubbed and aired in 23 languages.

Dutch journalist Derk-Jan Eppink writes from the perspective of the insider he became during a decade (1995-2005) spent on the staffs of two European commissioners, Dutchman Frits Bolkestein and Estonian Siim Kallas. They are named only on the book jacket and throughout the book, with few exceptions and for no apparent reason except perhaps to avoid the accusation of writing tattletale gossip, characters are identified only by their generic titles. Brussels denizens will no doubt know the names and for more distant readers the lack of names adds another element of mystery in an often amusing behind-the-scenes tale of an institution where the name of the game is intrigue.

From its opening pages, this memoir is unmistakably the product of a disillusioned idealist, a man who has become cynical about his field. Consider these points he makes about the pervasive doubletalk (and even double-think) at Commission headquarters:

The European administration is a world of open doors, closed doors, side doors, back doors, revolving doors and even trap doors – enough to confuse even the most highly-skilled Polish plumber! The truth is never absolute and intrigue is sometimes healthy. Even the deliberate flouting of the Commissioner’s own policy is occasionally beneficial providing it remains within limits.

The Commission is a living compromise between Northern rigidity and Latin flexibility, between Protestant right-mindedness and Catholic artfulness, between the late-sleepers of the Mediterranean South and the early-risers of the frozen East. Its chosen weapon is the rapier, not the battleaxe. At its most senior levels, the discussions are friendly, even courteous. However, beneath the surface there is a desperate struggle taking place, a struggle for control of crucial economic and political interests. The roads to consensus are never consensual.

Eppink had the talent for taking notes along the way as he gradually discovered that his academic studies of European governance were far different from the realities of the way things happen in Brussels. The executive branch now comprises 27 Commissioners – one from each member nation – including, at its head, the President of the Commission. As the organization grows ever more ungainly and sprawling, so grows the President’s power. The President and Commissioners each have staffs (or “cabinets” in the French sense), and ostensibly they work in tandem with the EU directorates and the directors-general on the issues in their portfolios. The reality, as spelled out by Eppink, is more often intense competition and rivalry. “The Commissioner is the rider, the DG the horse,” he writes. “Only one of them can be the boss.”

This struggle is carried out among 22,500 European civil servants – half of them policy-makers known as “mandarins” – at Commission headquarters. (The number of “Brussels bureaucrats” sounds big, big enough at least to spur populist irritation, but actually is smaller than the bureaucracies of most major European cities. The difference is that some of the latter provide services such as garbage collection while those in Brussels produce only paper.)

Beyond the Commission in the structure of the EU are the Council of Ministers, representing the governments of member states, and the now directly-elected European Parliament. Pushing a directive, or law, through this obstacle course of bureaucracy, politics and national interests requires immense patience combined with bureaucratic legerdemain of the highest order.

In this bureaucratic thicket, special skills and real tenacity are needed to accomplish anything, and the abilities of some determined operators wring a wry (and often perhaps unconscious) recognition from Eppink. His insights seem to confirm the Bismarck epigram that making laws is often like making sausage: Even those who like the product may not want to look too closely at how it gets made.

Pungent as his judgments may sound, the value of Eppink’s account lies less in his conclusions than in his ability to detail the policy-making process in a highly readable manner. Ian Connerty’s English translation smoothly captures the author’s humor and storytelling skill.

For instance, he devotes much space to efforts to liberalize postal monopolies. His British Director General and Dutch Commissioners wanted a “Big Bang” approach of privatization within five years. Becoming aware that this would not fly politically, they deputized Eppink to work on a compromise, first within the commission and then with national governments. He describes the final hurdle, gaining approval from the Belgian government:

I advised the minister to say as little as possible about the proposal to the Belgian inner-cabinet of vice-premiers. They would only cause unnecessary problems and there was always the risk that the Prime Minister would have one of his characteristic attacks of enthusiasm, which could ruin everything. I told him to apply the mandarin’s golden rule: what a politician doesn’t know can’t hurt him – or me!

The bottom line for this reviewer? This book should be required reading for every European and American student of European government.

One thing that might keep Eppink’s book out of American classrooms, though, is his unabashed political incorrectness. It’s hard to imagine any Washington bureaucrat, however disillusioned, right-wing or misogynistic, trying to publish these thoughts on female members of Congress:

I have never encountered such ruthlessness and ambition as I encountered in the large majority of female politicians (in Strasbourg and Brussels, the joint homes of the European Parliament). True, they do act as a counterbalance to traditional male weaknesses, such as laziness, favoritism, excessive drinking etc. True, they are hard on themselves – but they are equally hard on others. Moreover, they can be jealous and vengeful in a manner that you will seldom find among their male colleagues.

Men can usually settle their differences over a drink in the bar, but women can let their political feuds drag on for years – even decades if it is with another woman.

A weightier caveat is that Eppink seems to be a better raconteur than he is a pundit or philosopher. His conclusions are neither new nor remarkable, for example reducing the Commission from 27 to 17 and the parliament from 785 to 550 members.

He opposes the new office of European President, asserting that it will inevitably conflict with the President of the Commission and that it represents another self-defeating effort to turn the EU into a state.

His cynicism – which can be funny and salutary in moderation – seems gradually to lead him to a deeper pessimism that permeates the ultimate message of his book: that the mission of European integration has become dangerously removed from the public it is supposed to serve, and that the EU and its member nations are pursuing misguided, or even delusional, policies on issues from defense to immigration.

Eppink starts from a proposition known to anyone who has followed the often one-step-forward, two-back history of post-war European integration: that the project and its advocates go through wild mood swings from euphoria to despair. His years in the Berlaymont coincided with an era of pessimism that reached its nadir when two founding and principal members of the original European project – France and the Netherlands – rejected by referendum the proposed European constitution. (In weighing this book, it is also important to keep in mind the context: it was written in the years immediately following the author’s departure from the Commission in 2005.)

Even with these reservations, his points about the Commission’s shortcomings may help incite Europeans to a franker debate about their future; indeed, the narrative is packaged in a manner closer to offering chocolates than, say, Brussels sprouts (a pun that fits Eppink’s down-to-earth style). And Eppink, while a product of his era, does offer reflections rooted in his own journey from idealism to realism.

Eppink concludes that most Europeans cherish three illusions: that peace is guaranteed; that national governments will continue to be able to provide the level of prosperity (and pensions) to which post-war Europeans have become accustomed; and that isolation is the best defense against globalization. As he says in a mixed-metaphor salad:

Europe is a continent which is rich in diversity and rich in history, but it no longer believes in its own future. We have lost our ‘can-do’ approach to life and have replaced it with the culture of inertia. We have no idea how we are going to cope with the storms which will inevitably break over our continent and so we bury our heads in the sand; our desire for isolation is greater than our urgency to find viable solutions to our dilemma.

He specifically warns against failing to confront economic and immigration reform, and of the danger that Europe will succumb to what he calls “cultural capitulation.” His views in this regard, he acknowledges, are colored by developments in his native Netherlands, notably the impact of Arab and Muslim immigration and the assassinations of politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

But even the deepest Euro-pessimists might call Eppink over-the-top in some of his arguments. Describing how other empires have faded into history, he draws a comparison between the EU’s future and the fate of the former Soviet Union, mentioning in the same breath the EU – a free association of 27 democracies, with even more clamoring to join – and one of history’s most murderous tyrannies. Such loose comparisons threaten to undermine the book’s credibility.

Ultimately, the author hopes that his former colleagues at the Commission will come up with the wisdom and skills to lead the EU to a better future. As he writes, “a Europe without the European Union is almost unthinkable: the result would be a hopeless mishmash of nation states, divided, poor and provincial. In reality, European integration is the best thing that has ever happened to Europe in its long and often troubled history. It has given the continent a collective power it has never before possessed and it has all been achieved by the rule of law – not at the barrel of a gun.”

So when it comes to his judgment of the European Commission, Eppink, with his caustic tone but lingering faith, seems to fit the French adage that “he who loves well punishes well.”

Meanwhile, however the future battles of Brussels play out, Eppink will no longer be among the combatants. He wrote some of his manuscript aboard an airplane, headed to a new life in that one-time Dutch colony now known as New York.

Michael D. Mosettig is senior producer for Foreign Affairs & Defense at the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.