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Well, no, the Brits are not coming

Posted by Helen Sunday, September 19, 2004

And even if they were it really would not matter. What we are talking about is appointments of chefs de cabinet in the Commission. The Times yesterday became very excited about the fact that three of these highly important personages were British. Gosh. Four of them are German. So what? But only one is French and that makes all the difference, according to our befogged media.

Surely, in the case of Commission official, who are, indeed, extremely powerful – more powerful than the Commissioners themselves – what matters is their attitude to the project. It defies all rational thought to suppose that a civil servant, who has ever been heard to express the slightest doubt about the great European Union should reach the exalted position of a Commissioner’s chef de cabinet. It is possible that our particular eurocrats are more able and efficient than anybody else’s eurocrats. Is that a matter for rejoicing? I think not.

By now 23 commissioners have announced the heads of their own private cabinets, the exception being Rocco Buttiglione, who is still looking for a suitable Italian diplomat. As it happens Barroso has not decided who should lead his private office. He is looking for a Portuguese with greater experience than the temporary chef, João Vale de Almeida.

Noticeably, they are looking for suitable candidates of their own nationality. There is a code of conduct for Commissioners (an interesting idea – wonder if it will catch on?), which says that each six-strong cabinet should have members of at least three nationalities with either the head or deputy head being of a different nationality from the Commissioner.

So far they have not done too well on that. Only eight have appointed a chef de cabinet from a nationality other than their own, though as the Cypriot Markos Kyprianou appointed the Greek Margaritis Schinas, I do not think that really counts. This is where the amazing advance of the British contingent is supposed to have happened. Apart from Peter Mandelson choosing Simon Fraser, Benita Ferrero-Waldner picked Patrick Child and Lithuanian Dalia Grybauskaite, Stephen Quest. All these people are old Brussels hands and their view of what might or might not be in Britain’s interests is likely to be skewed.

Three Commissioners, Louis Michel of Belgium, Viviane Reding of Luxembourg and Janez Potocnik of Slovenia picked German heads to their cabinets, as did, naturally enough Günter Verheugen.

Well, there we are, what does it all tell us? Not a lot, really. The work of the Commission will carry on in the same way it always did. The presence of a large number of British officials either permanently or on secondment has never made a ripple of difference and is not likely to do so now.

This brouhaha does, however, present a goodish argument for the proponents of the Constitution. There is nothing much wrong with the system itself, they might say, only the people that administer it. Look, we have managed to get our own people in. So, it’s all right now, and you can safely vote for the EU Constitution. The only problem is that by the time we get to the referendum everyone will have forgotten about the supposed free-market, Atlanticist credentials of the Commission or the “sensible” British attitude of its officials. Good try from the Times but must do better.