Pitiable really, these EU officials

28 July 2013

Pitiable really, these EU officials

European Union officials live in a protected environment of luxury, but their heads are dropping. A sad situation from which we must deliver them.

SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong

If you were a European Union official and you were to ask a random person on the street what he or she thinks of you and your colleagues you would get only negative reactions: the salaries and bonuses are absurdly high and officials at the EU institutions do nothing but churn out unnecessary regulations.

What’s annoying is that there is a great deal of truth in this, even if there’s little the average official can do about it. It’s time we freed them from the golden cage in which they’re imprisoned, a cage which leads to enormous frustration amongst these officials; time in fact for a fundamental debate about the EU institutions’ services and their bosses.

Last Tuesday in the European Parliament we adopted the new statute for officials, which establishes their conditions of service. Under pressure from the member states, including the Netherlands, these have been somewhat moderated, with officials seeing their pay frozen for 2013-14, their retirement age reduced to 66 for those entering the service and 65 for those already employed – this from a current level of 63 -, their working week lengthened to 40 hours from 37.5 and the imposition of a crisis levy of 6% on their salaries. Bonuses which add to the basic salary will, however, remain largely intact. The most eye-popping is the expatriation allowance, which gives EU officials a permanent 16% over and above their salaries because they are stationed outside their own countries in, for example, Brussels. Apparently it’s really hard to get used to this city.

The average EU policy worker earns a gross sum of between €6.000 and €7.000 (about £5,200-£6000/$8,000-$9,300) per month. The differences between these and the salaries of national civil services remain enormous. This is unsatisfactory, and the freeze and other changes solve nothing. These officials, who in many cases earn more than does the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, must be pleased that more wasn’t taken away, yet they feel themselves to be hard done by and misunderstood. For many Tuesday’s vote may mean the end of the debate, but for me it should be the start of a fundamental rethink.

The need for such a rethink became painfully obvious during the meeting which I organised in the European Parliament a month ago on the question as to whether EU officials are overpaid. It turned out that this was the first meeting on this issue ever. The officials’ unions were represented in large numbers and the discussion was vehement, but nevertheless necessary. According to the unions officials, hard work is not appreciated. One representative sighed that even if their wages were halved, the public would still hate them. As compensation they would maintain their demands for a high increase.

Actually, the situation of the average EU official really is extremely sad. After an exceptionally difficult entrance exam, they take up a position at one of the EU institutions. They get used to what is, certainly for those working on policy, a high salary, and in effect become imprisoned by it. I have looked at the European Commission’s figures and what emerges is that annually only twenty-one of the thirty-thousand Commission officials leave for reasons other than their having reached pensionable age. Usually the Commission goes on and on about job rotation and flexibility, but this clearly doesn’t apply to their own staff. Unless you receive the offer of an enormous salary, there are simply no comparable positions to be found elsewhere.

But that’s still not everything. At the European Commission each official works for a single Commissioner, all of them fighting to be visible. And visibility means introducing new rules, new laws.

This could, however, be different. To begin with, the number of permanent EU officials could be systematically reduced. National civil servants, seconded for a number of years to Brussels, could resume their original positions. This would strengthen the links between European and national administrations and reduce the gap between Brussels and the public. In addition, we must abandon the principle that bringing forward new legislation is by definition an administrative – and for the Commissioner also a political - success. Enforcement of the existing rules is much more important than time and again looking for niches for new legislation. If that can’t be achieved with the willing cooperation of the Commission, we should even consider removing from the Commission its right of initiative. The member states could, provided they were well-supported by national and EU officials, make excellent proposals for themselves, and the European Parliament might possibly be given the right to initiate legislative proposals. We would then be rid of an institution which sees legislation as its aim. The European Commission as responsible for enforcing existing rules rather than as a legislation factory would probably also gain in popularity.

As things stand this is still like, as we say in Dutch, swearing in church. Something, however, has to happen, because if we go on like this, we will continue to be saddled with an EU administrative apparatus staffed by frustrated officials and a European public who hates these same officials. Time therefore for a fundamental debate. This seems to me to be a fine topic for next year’s European Parliament elections.

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