Saturday

17th Aug 2019

National interests creating tension in EU commission

  • Despite their mandate to serve Europe as a whole, commissioners are known for their frequent defence of national interests (Photo: Pierre Metivier)

A group of EU commissioners from smaller member states is growing increasingly angry with a number of their larger-state colleagues, perceiving their actions as being driven by national interests rather than the greater European good.

"We have sworn in front of the European Court not to work for our national governments back home and I am taking it seriously," a frustrated commissioner from a smaller EU country said in an off-the-record conversation last week.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

"Of course it is much easier when you come from a small member state where national leaders don't really attempt to influence the course of EU history," the commissioner added.

The implication that EU legislation is subject to the whims of powerful national capitals such as Berlin, Paris or Rome is nothing new. But the financial crisis and an enlarged union with greater powers for the Brussels-based institutions are all contributing to growing pressure, say seasoned observers.

"The bigger the EU becomes the more it becomes intergovernmental and the more the commission is regarded as an executive secretariat for the council," says Belgian MEP Derk Jan Eppink, a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in parliament.

Author of Life of a European Mandarin – Inside the Commission, Mr Eppink previously worked in the cabinets of former commissioner Frits Bolkestein and subsequently that of Siim Kallas.

"Commissioners from larger member states frequently feel they have to produce the goods for their governments back home, while those from smaller countries realise they don't have the capacity to do this," he said, pointing to former commissioner Gunter Verheugen's willingness to stand up for German industry.

Another official identified issues of public procurement, state aid and EU infringement cases as areas where national lobbying is frequently intense.

"Senior Italian officials within the commission are known for arguing their national case overtly," the contact said. The source added that the practice of defending a member state view is not necessarily "anti-European," as it can prevent blockages further down the EU legislative pipeline.

Targeting Barroso

Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso's presidential style of running the EU executive - compared to the more prime ministerial approach adopted by his predecessor Romano Prodi – has reportedly led to greater lobbying efforts to gain his attention.

"Mr Barroso can stop a piece of legislation or push it through, so big member states will try to catch his ear," said Mr Eppink.

"When it doesn't happen they let him know about it," he added, pointing to the recent Roma squabble, in which Mr Barroso is seen as having backed down after French President Nicolas Sarkozy voiced his anger over the commission's approach to France at a recent EU summit.

A number of commissioners are also known to be furious with Mr Barroso's recent attempts – under intense pressure from Germany - to stall an EU initiative to phase out subsidies to loss-making coal mines by 2014.

Special chefs

While clashes during the weekly college meetings are not unknown, the real shouting matches frequently take place at gatherings of the commission "special chefs" - officials in each of the 27 cabinets in charge of a certain area.

These highly political meetings take place roughly one week before the college adopts a given proposal, with participants keen to secure all-important last minute changes according to their masters' wills.

Based in Brussels, member state permanent representations to the EU are known to play a key role in national lobbying efforts, frequently preparing notes for the cabinet of 'their' commissioner, outlining which position officials should take on a particular issue.

Not all capitals get their way however, with a change of government back home frequently leaving the new administration with a commissioner from a different political family who may be less inclined to adopt the national line.

As such, commission vice president Catherine Ashton – a Labour politician - could be less likely to listen to the new Tory-Liberal administration in London. Sources say Dutch commissioner Neelie Kroes is among those who rarely take direct orders from back home.

Exclusive

Selmayr did not keep formal records of lobby meetings

The German former secretary-general of the European Commission held some 21 meetings which were registered in the lobby register. But no documents appeared to exist summarising what was said.

Exclusive

EU parliament rejects ombudsman over expenses

The European Parliament questions whether the ombudsman had the right to criticise the institution's "margin of discretion" in deciding on publication of confidential papers about the controversial monthly €4,513 expenses lump sum for MEPs.

Survey: Half of EU staff 'don't know' ethics rules

Only half of EU staff claim good knowledge of their workplace's ethics rules, while 82 percent of staff at the European Parliament have never attended any ethics trainings, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors.

News in Brief

  1. Trump turned down: Greenland not for sale
  2. UK Libdems would back Clarke or Harman as new PM
  3. Six countries agree to take 'Open Arms' ship migrants
  4. Gibraltar judge: Iranian ship should be released
  5. Increasing fears of a global recession
  6. Far-right hate crimes on the rise in Germany
  7. EU steel tariffs have 'worked well' so far
  8. Italian court: Migrant rescue ship can enter Italian waters

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Selmayr did not keep formal records of lobby meetings
  2. EU asked to solve migrant rescue deadlock
  3. Internal EU paper: Second Brexit vote was no longer 'distant dream'
  4. EU has 'zero incentive' to break open 'trilogue' deals
  5. Denmark plans import ban on EU-approved pesticide
  6. US offers Johnson helping hand on Brexit
  7. Italy: New government without Salvini in the making
  8. Brexit row delays financial products transparency review

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us