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A Mandarin's Expose

Interview: Nick AmiesSeptember 21, 2007

The latest book by a former Eurocrat is making waves in Brussels as it details the machinations, trickery and deceit which go on in the battle for political power at the European Commission.

A man walks past the Berlaymont Building, home to the European Commission
The plain facade of the Berlaymont, home to the Commission, belies the intrigue insideImage: AP

For more than seven years, Derk-Jan Eppink worked behind the scenes of the European Commission in Brussels. As a cabinet member of commissioners Frits Bolkestein and Siim Kallas, the Dutchman saw how what he called "the European mandarins" exercised their power. Eppink has published a book, "The Life of a European Mandarin: Inside the Commission," which lifts the lid on the "intrigue, trickery and deceit" used by Eurocrats in the capital of Europe.

DW-WORLD.DE: What essentially is a "European mandarin?"

Derk-Jan Eppink: A European mandarin is a high-ranking official in one of the European institutions; the Commission or the Parliament. The mandarins are the collective memory of the Commission. They know everything; they now how things work, the way to get things done. And they are the force to stay. A commissioner has a five-year term but the mandarins are there for the long haul, and it takes a strong commissioner to come in and exert influence over them.

It sounds as though the mandarins are the real power in the Commission. What use are the commissioners then?

Former EU Trade Commissioner and current WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy
Former EU Trade Commissioner and current WTO Director-General Pascal LamyImage: AP

Well, there have been a few useless commissioners who have come in, got sucked under by bureaucracy and spat out again without anyone knowing who they were or what they did. To be successful, you have to know the workings of the commission and your portfolio. It normally takes a commissioner two years to understand what goes on. In that time, the mandarins can get control and keep it. The commissioner then only has three years left to regain the initiative and that is rarely enough time.

But those who come in and know from the start how to handle things -- like Pascal Lamy, a famously strong commissioner -- they succeed and eventually win over their own mandarins. A strong commissioner can generate pride in their mandarins.

In your book, you write that the commissioner is the mandarin's principle enemy. The mandarins even overload their commissioners with work to keep the commissioner busy and out of the way while the mandarins make the important decisions. Does this approach undermine the work of the commissioner?

Schriftsteller Derk-Jan Eppink
Former mandarin Eppink played the game for seven yearsImage: Lannoo Publishing

Yes, this does undermine the commissioner. A weak commissioner or someone taking a while to get a grip will lose credibility and will have other commissioners lining up to deal with his department because he is compromised and will rarely be a challenge in policy discussions. The mandarins have many ways of keeping a commissioner down; a heavy workload, complex legislation, long dusty speeches no one will hear. But to avoid this, and avoid being undermined, the commissioner must show leadership.

One way to avoid this would be for the best people to be sent to Brussels by their governments. But usually, leaders want to keep their best people, which is why a Brussels job is either a gift to a long-serving friend or a way of getting rid of someone. These instances don't often lead to solid commissioners.

You say that the commissioners dream of change and a bright new future while the mandarins focus on controlling their commissioners and preventing them from having their own ideas. Isn't this dynamic partly responsible for the unwieldy and overly bureaucratic nature of the European Union?

Someone told me that 60-70 percent of their time at the commission was spent involved in turf wars. Unit against unit, directorate general against directorate general, commissioner against commissioner. A lot of energy is spent in the system and most times, people come out after their work day, or work week, even after their career and think, "What have I got to show for all that?" Often, there will be very little of substance. The Commission needs to get to grips with the infighting and concentrate on core objectives and getting results in those areas.

It also seems that when the mandarins aren't focused on keeping their commissioners busy and out of the way, they are attempting to score victories over each other. What do they stand to gain from this?

The Commission is a small world and when you're in it, it is its own world. It's all related to the pecking order, the advancement of careers and the winning of promotions. The better you look, the better your Directorate General will look and the better your chance of getting a better position in the future.

Are the mandarins detrimental to the European project? The European Commission's Vice President Günther Verheugen seems to think so.

Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry Günther Verheugen
Germany's Verheugen: No friend of the mandarinsImage: AP

Verheugen is worried about mandarins having too much power because he's really not in charge. If you've been in a job for eight years and you're still not in charge, you have a problem. Verheugen is a foreign policy man; he was one with the FDP (Germany's free-market liberals) and then the SPD (Social Democrats). That's his thing. In Brussels, he's weighed down in the details, he gets lost in legislation and he's not really interested in the Enterprise and Industry portfolio. That's why he was so enthusiastic about enlargement because that's foreign policy. But he's been weakened by the mandarins, and by complaining about the bureaucracy he has only made things worse. Employing his girlfriend as his head of cabinet didn't help. He has become ridiculous, but no one wants him to go. When you have a commissioner who is so undermined, you stand a good chance of overruling him and getting your way.

You've said the mandarins have yet to realize that the EU is disconnected from the people. You also say that the mandarins are scared of the people and are against referendums. If the power lies with the mandarins, and a more democratic future lies in the hands of the people, what can be done to change the mandarins' attitudes and to involve the people more in the EU?

EU Flagge Symbolbild Kommission in Brüssel
The EU: For the people but not by the people?Image: AP

A ruling body cannot be disconnected from the people. For the EU to continue and to succeed, a number of things must be done to regain the confidence of the people. First, integration and enlargement has scared a lot of them. Slow down enlargement after Croatia for maybe 15 years, let people get used to the size of the EU. Everything has happened so fast. Next, postpone the Turkey question and then put it to referendum in some countries.

Thirdly, and most importantly, give the EU a face. Involve the people in voting for commissioners and even the EU president. A leader elected by popular vote has a strong mandate, he or she can say "I have been elected by the people." This has not been done yet in the EU. It is all on behalf of the citizen, for the citizen, but not with the citizen.

So, after all you have seen and all you have heard during seven years at the Commission, do you still believe in the EU and believe that it can succeed?

It has to succeed. The EU must become an economic force, it must change its view of economic innovation, its energy independence and how immigration can be geared towards the labor market. It must strive for political legitimacy and show it can be strong on main issues. Without the EU, Europe would just be another part of the world. In the US, in the current presidential campaign, no one talks about Europe. To change that, the EU must strengthen and become more open-minded. It must be led by what is needed, not by what can be taken.