Tuesday

7th Jul 2020

Opinion

Save the Commission

Eurostat is not an exception. Eurostat is an example; indeed a very small example of what is going on for many years inside the European Commission, especially in all 'spending DGs', with large amounts of money to spread around.

Insiders know it. 'Wisemen' (such as the 'Wisemen Committee" set up after Santer's Commission resignation) know it. People closely working with the Commission know it. Brussels-based journalists know it. Citizens in Europe feel it.

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The situation essentially has nothing to do with the Commissioners, nor with the idea of a vastly corrupted EU bureaucracy (most EU civil servants are honest).

But it has everything to do with the lack of only two controls - political control and judicial - which can prevent an administration, and more precisely its top hierarchy, of becoming, either entirely or partially, a bureaucracy with all its hanging processes of cronyism, corruption and privileges.

No political control and no judicial control naturally lead to illegality.

Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that the European Commission is lacking both of them:

-- Judicially, things are extremely simple. Since 1965, which saw the adoption of a strange annex inside an EU treaty - chapter V of the Protocol annexed to the EC Treaty - EU civil servants have been immune from judicial prosecution for anything that occurs within their activities, even after they retire (Yes, you did read that correctly: immunity, until they die).

Only kings of the ancient times enjoyed such protection. But at least they could be removed … because they were politically responsible (at least via a revolution).

MEPs aiming for the wrong target

-- Politically, in the Commission's case, such responsibility does not exist at all, because, let's be honest, power does not belong to EU Commissioners in Brussels - especially in DGs dealing mostly with the allocation of money. It lies with the bureaucrats. The very ones benefiting from bullet-proof judicial immunity … and until now from 'stealth' protection. Only Commissioners remained visible; not the top bureaucrats.

And it is not the European Parliament, most of whose members are used to national democratic systems (where ministers are responsible, and civil servants do not benefit from judicial immunities) who seem to be helping much in bringing a halt to this anti-democratic situation.

Indeed, they keep on targeting Commissioners - as they did in 1999, the results of which we know. New Commissioners in the cockpit, with no changes to the machine. How long will it take the Parliament to understand that they are shooting down the wrong target?

Power lies with top bureaucrats, not amongst Commissioners

Why is it the wrong target? Because power lies within the Commission's top bureaucrats.

These people are making 20- or 30-year long careers within the Commission, a small organisation with no more than 2,000 top officials. They are free from any serious political control because neither the Commissioners, nor the Parliament has enough time or strength to control them; and member states lack the will (a weak Commission makes things easier for them).

Year upon year, irregularities surface within the shadows. For beaurocrats, European interests, national government interests, services interests, and career interests have developed in many cases to just 'friends' interest. Why? Because human beings are human beings (whether serving Europe or not), and mostly because those people are free from any control.

So if one wants to stop the never-ending succession of Commission scandals and an increasing suspicion of corruption within Brussels spreading among EU citizens, there is only one effective way: suppress the Article giving immunity to EU civil servants. Make them responsible, as with our national civil servants, towards the judicial system of the member state their institution is located in.

Three reasons to get rid of immunity clause

For those who may still wonder whether it is necessary or not to suppress this Article on immunity inside the EU treaties, let me underline three main reasons for doing so, and for doing it right now:

-- A political reason: without suppressing immunity, EU Constitution referenda will face a 'killing argument' jeopardizing ratification: Over the past months, I have been able to raise this question with two very different groups: on the one hand, with top political officials in member-states; on the other hand, with thousands of citizens throughout 25 European countries during the Newropeans Democracy Marathon conferences.

Both groups were unaware of the existence of this immunity status (which indeed is pretty strange for those supposed to be controlling the EU system; showing how much this article was adopted in 'stealth mode', among other unrelated treaty modifications); both groups were shocked when they understood. And, citizens agreed that this should be stopped. So if one wants to have referenda to approve the future Constitution, let's suppress immunity.

-- An institutional issue: without suppressing the immunity clause, the European Commission cannot be saved from its already decade-long decaying process, plagued with scandals.

The arrival of large groups of civil servants, from new member-states, will indeed increase risks. In many of these states, today, administrations are facing endemic corruption. Guess which of them will be sent to the 'gold mine' of Brussels? No political correctness required here in answering the question: first, corruption in Brussels did not wait for new member-states to exist; second, when you speak with citizens in future member states, they have no illusion about who will be 'sponsored' to get into the EU system. So if one really wants to save the Commission, let's suppress the immunity clause.

-- A democratic requirement: without suppressing the immunity clause, the European Union will bring Europe's political structure to pre-democratic times, to the times of privileges; when some cast was above justice contrary to the rest of the people. So if one wants to push the EU in the direction of a democratic system, let's suppress the immunity clause.

Most civil servant are honest, but...

Knowing that most EU civil servants are honest (most of them do not indeed understand the extent of their immunity; but a small number of them obviously do, and use it), and that most EU citizens do not have a positive opinion of Brussels anymore, here are two final recommendations for our political leaders:

-- For the Parliament, let's implement the cure, and investigate top civil servants rather than Commissioners who were not there 4 years ago and will not be there next year.

Those top bureaucrats run the show in Brussels. They were there yesterday and will be there tomorrow. To begin with, focus on the number one of all EU bureaucrats: the General Secretary of the Commission, standing at the crossroads of all players and procedures. If one should know, he is the one; when one individual knows, it is this one. Then move on to the rest of the 'elite'. And don't forget, Parliaments always get power by confrontation, never by conciliation.

-- For the Council, with the IGC, let's implement a long time recovery process: suppress the immunity status before the Constitution is submitted for the people's choice. Only a few months left. Otherwise, both the Commission and the referenda will be lost.

FRANCK BIANCHERI - is the Director of Strategy and Studies of Europe 2020, a trans-European think-tank based in Paris. He is currently completing a democratic premiere, the "Newropeans Democratic Marathon", touring, until July 2003, 100 cities in 25 European countries, in order to debate the future of Europe directly with the citizens. He is also president of the only EU/US civil societies web portal, TIESWEB.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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