Strike first, reform later?

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Series Details Vol 7, No.10, 8.3.01, p11 (editorial)
Publication Date 08/03/2001
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Date: 08/03/01

The gloves are off. The European Commission staff unions this week moved a step closer to their first strike since Romano Prodi's team took the executive reins in September 1999. The unions have many justifiable concerns about whether Vice-President Neil Kinnock's reforms will do enough to tackle the problems facing the Commission, such as the understaffing and cronyism highlighted by the committee of independent experts in their damning report of February 1999.

But no one apart from Kinnock, including the unions themselves, has so far managed to come up with a credible plan for dealing with these issues. The Commissioner's proposals directly address the problem of staff shortages, and he has launched initiatives to free up an additional 200 posts to dedicate to priority areas in the administration. Great strides have been made in tackling the old Commission culture of awarding top posts on the basis of nationality rather than merit. This system discouraged hard-working staff who were denied promotions they deserved. The cultural revolution is not complete but it has at least started.

As far as Kinnock's package of changes to pay, pensions and personnel policy is concerned, it is hard for outsiders to understand why it has taken so long to introduce the kind of practices - annual appraisal, merit-related promotion - that have been taken for granted for years in other administrations. Many enviable benefits, such as the lightly taxed expatriation allowance, will be preserved.

The unions may accuse Kinnock of imposing private-sector disciplines on how pay and promotions are awarded. But it is time to realise that the Commission has moved on from its early role as a pure policy-devising organisation where officials were judged only on the quality of the theoretical models they dreamt up. Its duties to the European public must now include sound financial management and value for money. In return, the administration should continue to recognise the particular problems of multilingual, multicultural institutions like the Commission.

Crucially, the unions should think about how the decision to go on strike at this early stage in the process will be seen. When the European Parliament brought down the Santer Commission in 1999 there was a brief surge of respect for the assembly in the eyes of the EU public. But when MEPs failed to reform the excesses of their own pay and expenses they were punished by a record low turn-out at the last elections.

Public sympathy for Brussels bureaucrats is not high. Strike action now, before the planned four months of serious negotiations with Kinnock have started, would be seen by the outside world as a selfish defence of a privileged lifestyle and confirm the worst prejudices about the Commission.

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