Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Neelie again

The saga of Nickel Neelie, the Board Lady continues. As our readers will remember, Ms Kroes had promised to resign from all her numerous positions on various Boards before taking up the appointment of Competition Commissioner on the not unreasonable grounds that there might be a clash of interests in some of the decisions. Even so, she has also had to accept that some cases will have to be handed over to her colleagues to look at as she might know or care too much about some of the firms involved. It has not been made clear, however, whether in return her colleagues might hand over some matters to her if there was a clash of interests.

Would Ms Kroes be asked to go to some negotiation instead of Mr Mandelson because he has had dealings with some businessman whose interests may be involved in the particular trade deal? Or take on some duties of the Enlargement Commissioner when the latter has been found to have had too many holidays in Turkey? These are important matters. As Frankie Howerd used to say: Titter ye not.

In the meantime Our Neelie has had to sell all her shares and place future pension payments in a blind trust. Nothing odd about that. One might ask why has the whole proceduce been so painfully long drawn out.

There is, however, an interesting twist to this tale. A Commissioner spokesman said that Ms Kroes has undertaken not to engage in any business activity at all, ever again in her life. Her present term as Commissioner will expire in 2009. Usually Commissioners are forbidden to take up business appointments for a year after the ending of their term of service, though several of Prodi’s Commissioners rushed to take up directorships well before they were supposed to do so. But Ms Kroes’s term of penance will be indefinite, though commentators have expressed some doubt whether this will be legally enforceable after a year.

One need not shed too many tears for Our Neelie. She has had a good run for her money, her pension funds in blind trust will do well and she will have her Commission pension. When she accepted the position of Competition Commissioner she should have realized that there would be problems for anyone with directorships and stocks and shares, let alone someone with quite such an extensive portfolio. In fact, she should have done the resigning, selling and blind trusting immediately. Did she really think she would get away with it?

Still the rules are draconian and one wonders why that is so. Past Competition Commissioners had been accused of having no more knowledge of business than other Commissioners, which is very little, indeed. Neelie Kroes was brought in because she is supposed to be business friendly, though, as we have had occasion to remark before, it is more that business has been friendly to her. Endless directorships do not necessarily give you a complete understanding of business but you are likely to have a better grasp than someone who has been nothing but a fonctionnaire since reluctantly abandoning full time education.

Could it be that, in the end, the eurocracy as, indeed, all political elite, is frightened of business and business experience, despite all the grand talk? Do they see a definite need to sever all links between political management, which is what being a Commissioner is about and business management? All very curious but a little unsettling.

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