Carve-up over jobs on the Night of the Long Drinks: Andrew Marshall discovers some Nakedly Ambitious Civil Servants in a castle in Luxembourg

Click to follow
It is already being dubbed the Night of the Long Drinks. When Jacques Santer, the new President of the European Commission, gathers his Commissioners today in a Luxembourg castle, he faces what could be the tough task of getting each to agree to a portfolio. In theory, the meeting is due to be over by sundown.

The Commissioners head the bureaucracy of the European Union, but with a political spin: you might call them the Nakedly Ambitious Civil Servants.

They prepare and propose policy, execute it, and guard the founding treaty.

Ministers from national capitals make the real decisions, but the agenda-setting Commission carries a lot of weight.

Sir Leon Brittan, the Commissioner for External Trade, is battling to keep together as much of his job as possible. Mr Santer wants to split up foreign policy along geographical, rather than functional lines.

Sir Leon, on this plan, would keep responsibility for trade with developed countries in Europe and North America, as well as Japan; but would lose eastern Europe. That would be given to Hans van den Broek, currently responsible for external political affairs.

Sir Leon wants to keep eastern Europe in his grasp, largely because it will be one of the most complex and interesting areas of work for the next five years. He also wants to retain overall charge of Asia. What counts against Sir Leon is not ability but Britain, the nation, is not European flavour of the month, and so Brittan, the man, may suffer. 'There is a feeling that this would not be such an issue if Sir Leon were from another country,' said a source yesterday.

There is an additional complication: Mr van den Broek is not wildly keen on taking over eastern Europe, and losing responsibility for political affairs.

Mr Santer wants to get hold of that, partly because foreign policy will be a hot potato over the next five years, partly because he wants more discipline in how it is handled.

Foreign policy, probably the best example of why the Commission needs a big rethink, has also become the heart of the bitterest dispute in the job carve-up. Posts have to be found for members of what might be called the Dead Politicians' Society. Most are former ministers, out of national politics; others are former trade unionists, academics or diplomats.

With the number of member states rising to at least 14 and perhaps 16, and each new state sending a Commissioner, that means a Commission of up to 21; but with the same number of portfolios as before. One answer, which Britain backs, is to stop the present practice of allowing big countries (Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) two Commissioners. Some have argued that not every country should have a Commissioner.

The real root of the problem is not numbers, but the status of a Commissioner. In theory, each is expected to be independent of nationality.

In practice, the fights over portfolios reflect national jostling. And because each in some sense represents a country, each is, in their own way, sovereign. There can be no 'subordinate' Commissioners, which would be the logical way to handle an increase.

One of Mr Santer's main hopes is that he can transcend some of this squabbling by boosting the 'collegiality' of the Commissioners. Under Jacques Delors, collegiality waned; the Frenchman was undisputed king, but others built up their own empires, sparking regular turf battles and bitter inter-service warfare.

Mr Santer wants more co-ordination. In his Commission, he is likely to try for a committee system. He may seek to reduce the influence of the cabinets, the hired guns each Commissioner assembles to advise and carry out raids on the bureaucracy. That would mean increasing the weight of career bureaucrats in the Commission's Directorates-General who do most of the work.

The political balance will be interesting. Unlike the outgoing Commission, it will be dominated by the centre-left. The 10 Socialist Commissioners gathered last night to plan their strategy for the next five years. Mr Santer is said to have pushed governments to nominate centre-right Christian Democrats, to maintain the political balance.

As the new boys and girls gather today, for their first meeting under Mr Santer's headmasterly gaze, collegiality is unlikely to be the first thing on their minds.