The Future of Europe

Brussels barons fall on hard times

"This is great. It hasn't been like this since Maastricht," said a young European Commission official yesterday, as the British beef drama continued to reverberate through the Commission's corridors. In the press room, the television cameras were stacked up, awaiting the Commission's announcement of a ban on British beef. As guardian of Europe's meat trade, the Commission in recent days has had the chance to exercise real power as a supranational institution, and Brussels bureaucrats have relished the limelight.

Their delight has been spurred, in part, because they have had the chance to crack the whip against recalcitrant Britain. But the Commission has also been exhilarated by the beef drama because the exercise of real power has become an increasingly rare experience.

Furthermore, the bureaucrats know that in the Inter-Governmental Conference on European reform, launched tomorrow in Turin, it is the Commission which is likely to see its status undercut, more than any other European institution. Nothing so clearly signals Europe's rejection of a federal future as the sidelining of the European Commission.

The public has increasingly vented its anger against the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels. There are clear signs that during the IGC, member states will assert more direct control over the European venture, with power moving to the Council of Ministers, which brings together government representatives.

There is much nostalgia in the Commission for its heyday in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when under Jacques Delors, the former president, the Brussels machine was turning over day and night, spewing out a stream of directives and regulations to implement the single market and drawing up ever more ambitious proposals for integration.

"The Commission was perceived as the great mastermind of the internal market. We issued a total of 300 directives at full speed. There was huge motivation at that time. The whole of the Commission felt things were moving and there was a clear objective," says Michele Petite, formerly a senior Delors aide.

As Mr Delors pumped up the Commission's profile, the institution began to become increasingly controversial, particularly as far as Britain was concerned. The Commission got used to enjoying a higher profile. It built itself a plush press room for daily briefings, while journalists poured into Brussels to cover its affairs.

Many of Europe's brightest and best bureaucrats were drawn to work in Brussels. "There were a lot of bright young things carried on the wave of Delors's power and influence," says a senior British diplomat and head of a Commission cabinet in the Eighties. "There were many high-class brains, but there was also culture of arrogance. The Commission believed it represented the pure strain of visionary European thinking. There was a smugness and a disdain for the expression of national concerns."

Chris Boyd, another former adviser to Mr Delors and now a member of the commissioner Neil Kinnock's cabinet, recalls: "We felt we could do not wrong during that period. We believed in our mission. We probably over- valued ourselves at the time, just as we are under-valued today. Today we are seen as the source of all evil."

It was in the run-up to the signing of the Maastricht treaty in 1991 that things started to go wrong for the Commission. Mr Delors bullishly announced that 80 per cent of European law was now made in Brussels. It was not only Britain that bristled at the implications of the statement for national sovereignty. Partly as a result, Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, and Francois Mitterrand, the then French president, sought to move more European decision-making away from the Commission.

The Maastricht treaty set up new "pillars" of European government. That meant that EU powers in areas of justice, home affairs and foreign policy were to be exercised outside the Commission, with member states meeting in the Council of Ministers. Heads of government, meeting at summits as the European Council, were given powers to set broad policy guidelines, within which the Commission was expected to operate when it proposed legislation.

In the IGC, the Commission will hope to regain some of its influence by bringing some policy-making in justice, home affairs, foreign policy and defence under its ambit. But all the signs are that it is fighting a losing battle. Britain will oppose any new power for Brussels.

More significantly, France and Germany have turned against the Commission, knowing that public opinion sees the Brussels "technocrats" as interfering and undemocratic. France, Germany and Britain are backing a plan to appoint a new European foreign policy supremo, with his or her own secretariat, operating within the structure of the Council of Ministers, not the Commission.

The Commission is also under constant pressure to reduce the number of directives and regulations it issues. "Most states want the Commission to be responsive to demands of member states and not to see itself as the fount of all wisdom on Europe," said a senior EU diplomat.

Sidelining the technocrats will not be enough to restore confidence in the efficiency and responsiveness of Brussels. There is little desire to increase the power of the European Parliament, for fear of reducing the power of national parliaments. Yet there are few ideas about how to give national parliaments greater control over Brussels.

It would be wrong to write off the Commission. As the guardian of the European treaties with the sole right to propose European laws and negotiate foreign trade, it will always be powerful. However, the confidence of the Commission has been badly dented since Maastricht, with several high- flyers now looking for work elsewhere. The zeal has gone; more often the mood is one of bitterness about Europe's "failure" to see the right - that is "federal" - way forward.

Nothing better captures the decline in the body's status than the decision to evacuate the once proud Berlaymont building because of an asbestos scare. It stands wrapped in a giant white shroud of protective sheeting. "It is difficult to work in an institution where everybody is biased against you," bemoaned one senior official this week. "In the past we were confident we would be listened to, but nowadays we would not dare make many of the proposals we consider because we would be accused of trying to grab power."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable