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12th Apr 2021

EU commission sees civil servants' power grow

The European Commission has after EU enlargement become a more "presidential" organisation, but it is the commission's civil servants who have really won out in terms of influence, Polish commissioner Danuta Hübner has said.

Mrs Hübner, in charge of regional policy, told Brussels journalists on Thursday (22 February) that "the bigger the commission, the more presidential the system must be. This is not a negative assessment, it's just a reality."

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The number of commissioners has since the EU's 2004 and 2007 enlargement rounds jumped from 20 to 27, a development seen as decreasing the weight of individual commissioners while strengthening the power of the commission president.

EU diplomats have characterised the style of current commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as "presidential," with Mr Barroso personally steering Brussels' most important policy dossiers such as energy and the EU constitution.

But the real winner of influence in the post-enlargement commission is not Mr Barroso himself but the commission's civil servants apparatus, according to Mrs Hübner.

"The presidential system doesn't mean the president is making all the decisions, it means that there is a strong role of the commission secretariat," she said.

The so-called secretariat-general of the commission - falling under the responsibility of Mr Barroso - crucially chairs the weekly meetings of the commissioner's cabinet chiefs which pre-cook many decisions ahead of the actual commission meeting every Wednesday.

"I think it's good that we have [the secretariat] and it's part of the presidential system," she stated, explaining that the preparatory work of commission staff makes the meetings of the 27-strong commission more efficient.

"With a big commission you are becoming more disciplined ... We don't have long commission meetings. What we discuss is always what has not reached final agreement at the cabinets level."

Controlling civil servants

But with the influence of the commission's civil servants on the rise, commissioners must be careful not to lose grip of things, Mrs Hübner indicated.

"There is a well streamlined decision-making process, hopefully well controlled by all commissioners," she said, adding that she herself applies a "presidential system" when dealing with officials in her own regional policy unit.

The Polish commissioner's remarks are reminiscent of earlier, much stronger, comments by German industry commissioner Günter Verheugen, who last autumn attacked "high ranking bureaucrats" for trying to rule the commission at the expense of commissioners.

But Mrs Hübner and Mr Verheugen have also publicly clashed on the question of the commission's internal architecture in the future.

The Polish commissioner in January described as "unacceptable" Mr Verheugen's idea to boost efficiency of the EU executive by creating "deputy commissioner" posts for small member states.

The debate on the shape and size of the commission has seen a recent revival with the EU accession of Romania and Bulgaria, which sparked the necessity of creating two new commissioner posts.

The two new commissioners, Romania's Leonard Orban and Bulgaria's Meglena Kuneva, were awarded portfolios widely seen as lightweight if not irrelevant - especially Mr Orban's "multilingualism" commissariat.

Overall balance

But Mrs Hübner warned against re-thinking the future composition of the commission alone, without keeping the overall institutional balance of the EU in sight.

"I am personally against taking out one institution and trying to find its best shape because it's about the balance between the three institutions," she said referring to the commission, the European Parliament and the Council of EU member states.

The remark also served as a warning to preserve the carefully negotiated institutional balance sought by the draft European constitution, which caps the number of commissioners at two thirds of member states on the basis of equal rotation between member states.

Mrs Hübner is a member of the so-called Amato group of high-level politicians trying to find a way out of the EU's constitutional crisis sparked by the 2005 "no" votes in France and the Netherlands.

The group led by Italian interior minister Giuliano Amato is due to meet later this week in Berlin.

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