Bolkestein aide reveals life on the inside

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Series Details 26.04.07
Publication Date 26/04/2007
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Life of a European mandarin: inside the Commission by Derk-Jan Eppink (Lannoo, 2007), also in Dutch as Europese Mandarijnen: achter de schermen van de Europese Commissie

On the face of it, this is a book that might appeal to a student of the EU, looking for a bit of light but informative reading. It purports to be a description of life inside the Commission from a former official. Eppink worked in the private office of Frits Bolkestein, the Dutchman who was the European commissioner for the single market from 1999-2004, and then in the private office of Siim Kallas, the Estonian who is commissioner for administration, auditing and the fight against fraud.

In a previous life he was a journalist, covering politics and foreign affairs for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and later for the Belgian newspaper, De Standaard. Indeed, he continued to contribute the occasional lively political commentary to De Standaard while he was working for Bolkestein, much to the annoyance of Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, who objected to Eppink’s caustic jibes. Verhofstadt eventually persuaded Romano Prodi, the then European Commission president, to stop Eppink’s columns. That tale was told in Eppink’s very entertaining 2004 book, Belgian adventures: a European discovers Belgium. In many ways the 2007 book is an attempt to repeat the earlier success, by describing his adventures with the European Union institutions in much the same way that he had earlier described his adventures with Belgium.

Unhappily for students of the EU, Eppink is less successful with his recent book than he was with the earlier. Readers will come away with fewer insights into the EU than they were given into Belgium and they will not laugh as much. The ultra-keen student might like to contemplate why the later book works less well.

One reason is that Belgium is simply more entertaining than the EU institutions. The eccentricities of the Brussels housing market and Belgian obsessions with restaurants or the sport of cycling are, unsurprisingly, a richer source of humour than working in the European Commission. It may be that Eppink was mistaken in maintaining the same format for his European work as for his Belgian work - that of a picaresque novel, in which some characters are named and recognisable and others are composites who represent a type. Because actually, he is not confining himself to entertainment. At times he wants to indulge in political analysis, to discuss how EU decision-making works, or does not work, to criticise a lack of leadership at the top of EU governments, to argue for a common EU policy on migration and so on.

This more serious subject-matter does not sit easily with the tales of drunken MEPs, drunken lobbyists and slightly inebriated Commission officials. The aficionados of EU studies will not find his arguments satisfying, because they are rooted in shallow soil.

Attentive students looking for a definitive account of defeats on the takeover directive and the postal services directive should look elsewhere.

Beyond that, there is another weakness in Eppink’s book, about which he can do little. The reason that he gives less insight into the life of a European mandarin than he promises is that he was not a true European mandarin. Before becoming a journalist he did an internship or stage at the Commission and he has long nurtured an interest in the EU, but in the seven years that he worked in the Commission he was not a typical fonctionnaire.

Working in a commiss-ioner’s private office, or cabinet, is a peculiar role, more political, less bureaucratic, with an implicit loyalty to the commissioner rather than to the director-general, or indeed, the Commission.

Eppink does not hide his loyalty to Bolkestein, but it leads him into too glib a defence of the services directive, or "Bolkenstein directive" as it was known to the French trade unions. The directive came under attack not just because its political import was misjudged and it was not discussed by the commissioners. It was weakened early on because it was hastily and sloppily drafted - a proposal is harder to defend when the proposer has to clarify and correct.

Eppink has now left the Commission and moved to New York. He has returned to journalism and indeed this week was to be found on the pages of the Wall Street Journal denouncing Louis Michel and calling for the scrapping of the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. The Commission’s loss is journalism’s gain.

Life of a European mandarin: inside the Commission by Derk-Jan Eppink (Lannoo, 2007), also in Dutch as Europese Mandarijnen: achter de schermen van de Europese Commissie

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