It's Even Worse in Brussels

by Joe Tom Easley | July 9, 1977

Twenty years ago, in the majestic Piazza de Capitole Marcus Aurelius in Rome, the treaty was signed establishing the European Economic Community. For Europeans, it is as discomforting today to reread the Rome speeches of 1957 as it is for Americans to reread the Kennedy inaugural address of 1961. Like diaries written in childhood, they embarrass by their blend of naivete and self-importance. The ringing call of 1957 for a United States of Europe is mocked by a Europe in 1977 more fragmented and uncooperative than at any time since 1950. But the European movement, whatever its faded grandeur and failed vision, has created one permanent monument to itself: the mammoth EEC bureaucracy in Brussels. Freed of even the minimal political constraints imposed upon the governmental bureaucracies in Washington and other capitals, the international civil servants of the EEC lead a life of unparalleled ease and splendor.

Until the early 1960s Brussels was a European capital whose role in continental affairs can only be described as nonexistent. The inconsequence of the city reflected the status of Belgium as one of Europe's superfluous countries, remembered in this century (if remembered at all) as the doormat the Germans used on their military visits to France. For 200 years the city's most memorable attraction has been the statue of a small boy urinating in a public fountain.

The massive glass-and-steel headquarters of the EEC lies at the eastern end of what once was a peaceful tree-lined avenue, on a site once occupied by a convent for young girls. This building houses the Commission of the European Communities, the chief administrative body of the EEC. The Commission was to be the initiator of all steps toward the grand union. A full staff of experts was recruited to watch over and manage virtually every aspect of Europe's economic and political life. Each commissioner was given one or more of the major portfolios to supervise: foreign affairs, energy, economic development, industrial affairs, employment, scientific research, consumer affairs, environment, agriculture, education, transport, and regional policy. Twenty-two bureaucratic divisions, pompously called Directorates-General, were established, and an ever-widening pyramid of civil servants grew under each. Within a few years it became a virtually complete infrastructure for the governance of Europe.

But there was no united Europe to govern. Member countries just ignored Commission proposals they didn't like and generally treated the body with contempt. Brussels served the governments of member nations as a dumping ground for politicians they wished to get rid of because of incompetence or incompatibility. For example, the present Irish commissioner (once called a "wet biscuit" by the Irish Times) was appointed as a result of a get-him-out-of-Dublin campaign by his former colleagues. The senior German commissioner, widely known but not widely admired for his abilities, was recently reappointed to another four-year term to almost universal dismay everywhere but Bonn, where Chancellor Schmidt is reported to have expressed his eagerness not to have the man back in town.

Faced with public indifference and the occasional incompetence of the politicians above them, the Commission bureaucrats have turned their energies to feathering their own nests.

Commission salaries and benefits may well be the most lavish enjoyed by civil servants anywhere. Basic salaries range from $23,124 per year (college degree, no experience) to $76,896 (senior staff position, several years experience). For those employees hired from outside Belgium, as most are, an extra 16 percent of salary is added to help ease feelings of homesickness. All salaries are free of any national income tax, although the Community recoups a small portion in lieu of taxes. Lest inflation threaten to erode purchasing power, salaries are indexed.

 But the basic salary is only the foundation upon which a mansion of allowances and benefits has been erected. They are so varied and numerous one hardly knows where to begin to describe them. There are the cash rewards for matrimony and procreation: five percent of the basic salary for having a wife or husband, and $1000 a year for each child under 26. If the child is in school, add another $600. The birth of each additional child is like passing "go"— $200 extra is paid on the spot. To lessen the trauma of moving to Brussels the employee gets, in addition to full moving expenses, a generous subsistence allowance for up to 10 months. This amount, usually several thousand dollars, helps ease the discomfort of having to live in a hotel suite while waiting for the right house to come on the market. Once a Eurocrat finds the house and moves in, he getsan extra month's salary as an "installation allowance." Insurance benefits give five times an employee's highest annual salary on death, and eight times annual salary for disability. Medical benefits are generous, and sick leave is unlimited. A special provision of the staff benefits scheme allows cash gifts or loans of unlimited amounts to be given to employees who suffer illness or are otherwise deemed needy "by reason of family circumstances." Those who survive this downpour of dollars and make it to 60 can retire on 70 percent of their highest annual salary. Keeping one's job until 60 is virtually guaranteed; for all practical purposes it is impossible to fire anybody.

And there is petty largesse, too. Every six months each employee gets to purchase around 10 to 15 bottles of spirits for a special price of $25. The subsidized employee cafeteria, restaurant and bar offers meals and drinks at half the price of regular Belgian establishments. For those who eat at home the staff supermarket offers a full range of food and bottled spirits at prices far below those to be found on the outside. Those who chafe at high value-added taxes can avail themselves of an arrangement for tax-free purchase of automobiles. Finally, all employees may get special license plates for their cars, the letters "EUR" ringed with stars, specially designed to impress friends and intimidate traffic policemen.

Tothis cornucopia of money and perks is added the most spectacular benefit of all, the prospect of making yourself eligible for what is called the "golden handshake." It works like this: if you are a senior Commission official you convince your superiors that your presence is no longer needed on the staff. You can do this in one of several ways. You can argue that your position is better consolidated with someone else's, or that the job ought to go to someone of a different nationality. Or you can just make yourself insufferably obnoxious. The trick is to get yourself to be "retired in the interests of the service." Once this maneuver is accomplished, you should immediately rent an armored bank truck, for you will need it. Here's what you get for the sacrifice of not working: your full salary for three months, 85 percent for the next three months, 70 percent for the following five years, and 60 percent for the rest of your life until you turn 60, at which time your pension takes over. Bingo!

Though the golden handshake is available to the enterprising top-level bureaucrat at any time, the most visible raid on the Community treasury took place in 1973 when Britain, Ireland and Denmark joined the Market. Known locally as the "great hold-up," this massive extension of the handshake was thought necessary to make way for top officials from the entering countries. Remembered wistfully by those bureaucrats who did not manage to take advantage of it then, the great hold-up of 1973 is likely to be repeated soon when room has to be made for another batch of countries expected to join the FEC soon. One top bureaucrat said recently, "I can't wait for the Spaniards, the Greeks and the Portugese, because when they come I'm going to take the money, buy a boat, and never set foot in Brussels again."

The combined effect of the pampered life-style and the political futility of the job is devastating Only those with an absolute compulsion to work do so; the majority either do nothing, engage themselves in fierce internal intrigues or occupy themselves in what even they will admit is meaningless make-work designed to pass the time. One middle-level bureaucrat said, "When I get to the office at ten in the morning I am immediately faced with two important decisions: where to have lunch, and who to lunch with. If I am careful, I can stretch these to last the morning."

Some frustrated employees turn their hands to more imaginative ways of filling the time. Warm, pleasant summer afternoons seem to bring on an unusual number of unscheduled fire alarms. Last summer it happened so often that the culprit was traced and found to be a Commission employee whose cousin owned the ice cream truck that always happened to be on hand when the people streamed out of the building. Another enterprising bureaucrat was involved in the case of the disappearing doors: over a period of weeks several doors mysteriously vanished from their hinges. The security force finally traced them to a staff member building a house. Sure enough, there were the doors, installed and functioning. Two Italians working at the Commission as ushers own a thriving restaurant just across the street. They go over to supervise the serving of the well-heeled clientele on their own lunch hour. In their spare time they conduct a brisk business importing olive oil.

David Marquand recently resigned a safe Labour seat in the British Parliament to take a senior staff job with the Commission. He says, "There is so much intrigue here, far more than in a national administration. There are national mafias at work, there are political mafias at work, there are all sorts of mafias at work. There is just too much blood being shed by frustrated people who are paid well for doing boring jobs." Marquand still has hope for the Commission, and for the prospect of European integration. But most people on the staff of the European Commission sense that something has gone terribly wrong. The only goal that remains is to make it to the end of each day. Late one afternoon a medium level bureaucrat sat in his office on an upper floor of the Commission headquarters and was asked about his job satisfaction. He turned the glass of sherry in his hand several times as he stared vacantly through his floor-to-ceiling window. Across the jumble of redtiled roofs far below lay, in the distance, the carefully tilled farmlands of Flanders. Finally he turned around.

"You know, sometimes I just sit and look out the window for hours. I guess you could say that it's the most satisfying and productive thing I do."

 

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