Tweeting EU commissioners and Chanel No. 5
By Honor Mahony
On Monday afternoon (30 January), in the middle of a routine exchange on digital issues, the EU commissioner in charge suggested she might not be wearing any clothes.
Or to be more exact, that she might only be wearing perfume. Some 140 people rushed to spread the news.
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Neelie Kroes was tweeting. The Dutch commissioner, who has clocked up around 35,000 followers, was conducting a live Twitter debate on cloud computing and data privacy. At one stage in the discussion, stepping somewhat beyond the debate's theme, one @marcinisco asked Kroes what she was wearing.
"Would you believe if I say Chanel No. 5 and nothing else?" replied the commissioner.
In all 13 of the 27 commissioners use the microblogging site Twitter. Much of what is posted is bland - links to press releases or mini travelogues.
Some commissioners have large followings but do not tweet themselves, like Viviane Reding, in charge of citizens' rights. Others are tweeted about but do not have personal accounts. The EU's diplomatic service sends out a cascade of third-person tweets about what EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has just done or is about to do next.
But some commissioners use the service to be more political.
The same Monday as Kroes sent out her joke, home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom - straying out of her policy area - made disparaging remarks about EU leaders' tardy attempts to tackle Europe's stagnant economic growth.
"Finally a summit when jobs and growth are discussed. But it is too little and too late!" she tweeted using her iphone.
Meanwhile, Laszlo Andor, in charge of social affairs and a left-wing economist with views almost diametrically opposed to the EU's prevailing pro-austerity line, has also found an outlet in twitter.
"Automatic sanctions are a joke. Fiscal union needs collective, democratic decision-making that can respond to challenges & manage agg.demand," he tweeted early December.
He continues to regularly tweet about the need for more social policies.
The increasing use of twitter by commissioners and the greater notice journalists and others are taking has highlighted the trick that is 'speaking in a personal capacity' versus speaking on behalf of the European Commission.
Earlier this month, Kroes denounced pending US anti-piracy legislation promptly and in no uncertain terms via twitter. But there was confusion among journalists about the status of her views as she did not issue a press release and her opinions were at odds with other leading commissioners. The general issue was partly cleared up by commission spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen.
"Each commissioner uses this informal channel to communicate on policy and on the news. They express their personal views but also relay the views of the commission," she said following the Kroes incident.
According to one official, twitter is a "good way" of being political and "showing a human face" because the commission is often seen as a bit anaemic and far-removed from citizens.
Some commission watchers speak of a sense of removal even between the commissioners themselves. The sheer number of them and the fact that President Jose Manuel Barroso runs a very top-down system means political debate between colleagues is relatively rare.
"Today, basically everything is being done to avoid a real discussion at the level of the college. It is seen as some sort of failure by the top-hierarchy in the commission if the commissioners are to have a real discussion - not to speak about voting," former Danish EU ambassador Poul Skytte Christoffersen, a veteran of Brussels circles, said recently.
Others downplay the idea that tweeting has opened the way for commissioners to suddenly become political.
"I can point you every week in the year to an article in a newspaper by a commissioner which may not exactly follow the commission line. What is different is the medium. By its nature it is short crisp and more punchy," said one commission official.
Even so, the number of commissioners putting their thoughts into 140 characters or less is set to continue rising with all the off-message, brought-to-light politicism it may or may not imply.