Saturday

2nd Mar 2024

What happens when you stop being an EU commissioner?

  • Connie Hedegaard (l) with former colleagues Janez Potocnik and Siim Kallas during the last meeting of European Commissioners (Photo: European Commission)

Singing the night away in Brussels, or struggling to be connected to the outside world again – there are different ways to end your mandate as European Commissioner.

Connie Hedegaard falls in the first category. A Dane, she was commissioner for climate action from 2009-2014.

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She told this website in a phone interview about her last day, Friday 31 October, in the office and what came next.

“We had a very big event in the royal theatre in Copenhagen on Thursday night”, said Hedegaard. “I had to be there. So the 31st I had to first fly from Copenhagen to Brussels. I knew this would be a quote unquote hopeless day in the office.”

Saying goodbye to people, packing, and archiving e-mails – 5,000 in Hedegaard's case. “It was quite a busy day actually, because there were many practical things you have to do.”

And then there are those moments of realisation that someone else is going to be taking your place.

“When I arrived [at the office], someone was taking my name tag down. He almost got embarrassed when he saw I was entering, but of course you have to do that, it's understandable. If a big catastrophe happened at midnight, the new commission would have to have an office.”

Then there was a reception. The reception was followed by a party.

“We had a big farewell party with the cabinet. At midnight, we went out on a balcony and started singing, celebrating, that now we didn't have the responsibility anymore, ha ha”, Hedegaard said. “We were singing: free at last, ha ha.”

Hedegaard's colleague Belgian Karel De Gucht felt another kind of free.

De Gucht, the former trade commissioner, spent the last day of his mandate in Kenya discussing an economic agreement.

“I was in the air when my mandate ended at midnight, on my way back from Kenya, where I had signed an agreement”, De Gucht told Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.

“When I landed in Brussels, I noticed that my phone had already been cut off”, De Gucht said.

“I had to stop at a motorway petrol station in Groot-Bijgaarden [a Brussels suburb] to buy a prepaid card.”

From one day to the next, there are suddenly no more drivers, assistants or planners.

But Hedegaard was prepared for this. “Throughout the five years [as commissioner] I have always kept my private phone number.”

“Of course it would be nice if you had someone who could do this, who could do that. … It is a big privilege to have a system, an office taking care of things”, Hedegaard notes. But she always knew “this is something you have for a while, and one day it's gone”.

Like the driver.

Jose Manuel Barroso, who was head of the European Commission for ten years, told German newspaper Die Welt he was invited to have lunch with the Belgian king.

“I took a taxi, because I did not want to arrive late, and I received some strange looks. In palaces they are not used to people coming by taxi”, Barroso said in the interview, which was published Sunday (21 December).

Barroso, who spent considerable time saying goodbye to Brussels, feels “a certain melancholy” about his ten years of having the presidency of the European Commission, “without wanting it back”.

“I have started a new chapter”, Barroso said.

The Portuguese spent his first day as ex-commission president, Saturday 1 November, “walking”.

“It is also a liberation, simply doing nothing. The commission keeps you busy 24 hours a day, you can't simply switch that off.”

Barroso said he will wait until “January or February” to decide what he will do next.

Hedegaard already knows. She is going to chair the Kann foundation, an organisation handing out grants to projects related to climate and sustainability. She has also joined the board of the University of Aarhus.

But first she has taken two months off.

Although “off” does not mean: not working. She already had several preparatory meetings related to her new job.

“There are things every day, but of course it's different. There is a very big difference whether you have two or three meetings and some phone calls and your mails throughout the day, or whether you have the schedule of a commissioner.”

And although Hedegaard will not sit still, she expects to feel more in control of her schedule, even if she ends up working long hours again.

“If you talk to me this March or April, I will be very busy, but it's in a way where you decide yourself: yes to this, no to that. … You construct the elements yourself so that although you will still be busy, you can also give yourself the impression that you have a freeer life.”

While some of the former commissioners have plunged back into politics – Michel Barnier is running for regional president of Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne, Andris Piebalgs will work as special advisor of the Latvian president – others, like Karel de Gucht, take up teaching jobs and will write books.

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