15th May 2021

Commission bureaucrats are getting too powerful, says Verheugen

European Commission vice-president Guenter Verheugen has spoken out strongly against the power of high-ranking civil servants within the commission who are able to influence decisions according to their personal whims.

In an interview with German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the German commissioner in charge of the important industry portfolio said "the whole development in the last ten years has brought the civil servants such power that in the meantime the most important political task of the 25 commissioners is controlling this apparatus."

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"There is a permanent power struggle between commissioners and high ranking bureaucrats. Some of them think: the commissioner is gone after five years and so is just a squatter, but I'm sticking around," he continued.

He suggests that his own project to simplify 54 EU laws has fallen foul of stubborn commission bureaucrats. Before the summer he "strongly criticised internally some general directorates who evidently did not want to take the head of the commission's aim to reduce bureaucracy seriously, because it did not fit in with their own ideas."

Mr Verheugen, who is now in his second term as EU commissioner having previously been in charge of enlargement, noted that the problem will get worse again once Bulgaria and Romania join the EU because then there will be two new general directorates - units in the commission that deal with specific areas - and "that is a problem."

Illustrating how power struggles happen, the commissioner said it all occurs "under the surface."

"The commissioners have to take extreme care that important questions are decided in their weekly meeting, and not decided by the civil servants among themselves."

"Unfortunately it sometimes happens in the communication with member states or parliament that civil servants put their own personal perspective across as the view of the commission," he told the newspaper.

Citing a concrete example the 62-year old social democrat commissioner said that commission bureaucrats had tried to sort out the use of pesticides between them and the issue only came to the attention of their political masters – the commissioners – when the bureaucrats fell out over the issue.

Noting that the way some commission officials communicate is technical and arrogant, which he finds "appalling", Mr Verheugen said that only a "change in political culture" in the commission would improve the situation.

He suggests that commissioners should be able to move around the powerful general directors, something which they cannot do at the moment, pointing out that when something goes wrong then it is always commissioners who take the flak.

"In my opinion, too much is decided by civil servants," he said in conclusion.

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