"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."
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