28th Sep 2023

EU officials stand firm after Verheugen attack

Last week's verbal attack by European Commission vice-president Guenter Verheugen on the commission's own civil servants has sparked strong reactions, with officials reportedly snubbing Mr Verheugen with a new paper and trade unions demanding an apology.

The German commissioner, in charge of Brussels' industry portfolio, on Thursday (5 October) voiced unprecedented criticism of high-ranking commission bureaucrats for their hunger for power in the EU executive, resulting in a "permanent power struggle between commissioners and high ranking bureaucrats."

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  • A commission building in Brussels: some commissioners are at war with their own officials (Photo: European Commission)

Mr Verheugen said in an interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the officials, apart from frustrating key reforms, also sometimes "put their own personal perspective across as the view of the commission" in communication with member states or the European Parliament.

But the remarks did not keep high officials from doing exactly that – speaking on behalf of the commission in communication with member states – in a new paper prepared for member states in the run-up to this month's EU leaders summit, Handelsblatt reports.

The German daily writes that the commission document, on the EU's innovation strategy, should be adopted by EU leaders in Lahti, Finland, on 20 October – but it was drafted by the commission's secretariat-general without any involvement of Mr Verheugen who is in charge of the policy area.

Commission sources told the daily that the responsible official in the secretariat-general did not like Mr Verheugen's political views on innovation and therefore drafted the paper himself without involving Mr Verheugen's cabinet.

In the eight-page commission document, Mr Verheugen's key idea to foster innovation through member states' public tenders is notably absent, while commission bureaucrats instead inserted the idea of European technology platforms.

The affair is likely to heat up what has become an increasingly visible power struggle between the political leadership of the commission – including European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso – and high officials.

Mr Barroso's spokesman last week indicated support for Mr Verheugen by simply stating the industry commissioner's remarks had to be seen as part of "creative tension" which the Barroso commission's modernization drive inevitably evokes.

But commission staff union FFPE said on Monday (9 October) that Mr Verheugen should either apologise for his remarks or resign, according to the Financial Times.

"If the boss of an enterprise like Coca-Cola blamed a lack of sales on his workers he would either have to apologise immediately or resign," said Jean-Louis Blanc, the FFPE president.

Bureaucrats hamper anti-bureaucracy drive

In a follow-up interview with the Financial Times on Tuesday (10 October), Mr Verheugen said that because of bureaucrats' obstructionism, the commission will this year fail to simplify 54 existing EU laws as part of its offensive against red tape.

"By the end of the year we might have 30. I'm impatient because I feel it is a matter of urgency," he said adding that a July call from Mr Barroso on officials to step up their efforts "didn't help much."

Dutch finance minister Gerrit Zalm and Danish economy minister Bendt Bendtsen on Monday wrote a joint letter published in the Financial Times calling upon Brussels to do more.

"The European Commission has launched programmes to improve the regulatory environment, but more needs to be done," they wrote.

"The commission's plan was to simplify 54 laws this year, but only five have been tackled. That is alarming," they wrote.


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