Romano’s ex-colleagues get a Prodi in the right direction

Series Title
Series Details 31/05/01, Volume 7, Number 22
Publication Date 31/05/2001
Content Type

Date: 31/05/01

There seem to be two ways of getting a top job in the European Commission. The first is to spend several decades rising through the ranks of the services, diligently shuffling papers and churning out policy proposals before someone on high recognises your managerial potential. The second is to spend a couple of months working for President Romano Prodi.

The Great Leader has had three chefs de cabinet since he was handed the poisoned chalice of heading the Commission two years ago. The first of these, Irishman David O'Sullivan, was promoted to secretary-general following the 'night of the long knives' that got rid of Carlo Trojan and other officials accused of collaborating with the Santer regime. The second, Frenchman Michel Petite, took up the reins in June last year. Last week, after less than a year playing Sancho Panza to Prodi's Don Quixote, he was catapulted into the post of director-general of the

Commission's legal service - one of the most sought-after jobs in the institution. He has now been replaced by Stefano Manservi, an Italian who has spent the last decade in the private offices of Italian Commissioners.

Other members of Prodi's team haven't done badly either. Fabio Colasanti was parachuted in to head the Commission's enterprise directorate after only six months as number-two in the president's private office. And Ricardo Levi had a new high-ranking post waiting for him in the executive's 'forward studies unit' after nineless-than-happy months as Prodi's spokesman.

Most of these top-ranking officials had long and distinguished careers in the Commission before joining the president's cabinet. There is also no doubting the ability of men such as O'Sullivan and Petite, who are highly intelligent and politically savvy civil servants. But it must be a tad frustrating for other equally capable officials to see posts apparently filled as much by political patronage as on genuine merit.

Defenders of the current system claim that being a member of a Commissioner's cabinet has always been the fast track to the top. “If you don't work in a cabinet you simply don't get the horizontal vision you need to become a director-general,” says one official. Another admits that whom you know is as important as what you know in moving up the institution's ladder. “You have to be good, but if you don't know anyone, you don't get promoted,” is the blunt advice of one insider to officials wondering whether to join the Commission's cocktail circuit.

A further piece of advice to wannabe DGs is that if you come from a small country, consider trading in your passport to boost your chances of promotion. Eighteen of the Commission's 23 departments are currently headed by nationals of one of the 'big four' states - France has seven DGs, the UK five, Germany four, Italy two - and the other 11 countries have to make do with five heads between them.

Finally, if you are a female official after a plum post, you might want to look into changing your sex, because you have about as much chance of becoming director-general as William Hague has of becoming the UK's next prime minister. At present, there is only one female director-general and three deputy DGs. And despite Prodi's aim of doubling the number of women in top posts by the end of his reign, things are no better in the

Commissioners' private offices either. Of the 20 chefs de cabinet, only one turns up for work in a blouse.

Under Prodi, great strides have been made to do away with the climate of cronyism that pervaded Jacques Santer's term of office. Single-nationality cabinets have been scrapped, flag-posted fiefdoms have been put in room 101 and it is rare to find a Commissioner's relative in high office.

But the president must make sure that the Italian practice of handing out cushy jobs to close aides is not imported to Brussels and that the image of the Commission as an 'old boys club' is done away with for good.

Subject Categories