Too early to draw swords in reform battle

Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.3, 18.1.01, p11 (editorial)
Publication Date 18/01/2001
Content Type

Date: 18/01/01

It was bound to happen. As Neil Kinnock tries to pick up the pace of institutional reform, staff unions have raised the red flag. The organisations are threatening to block all attempts to negotiate the fine detail of the vice-president's proposals for modernising the European Commission's working practices unless he tears up plans to cut the number of full-time union posts funded by the executive.

Kinnock argues that there is not a single EU member state that pays for its civil servants to work full-time on union activities. He also points out that the planned reduction would not take place until after the intense round of negotiations on the 100 or so individual reform initiatives which make up the overall plan have been completed.

Commission staff may question the wisdom of the staff organisations to threaten to block the entire reform process over a handful of jobs. It seems like the ultimate act of self-interest by the unions, not least because Kinnock has stated that it is not his intention to cut posts until the staff representatives have been given a chance to make their views known in the discussions.

On the other hand, the Commissioner's move can also been seen as deliberately provocative. He is, after all, launching a direct attack on the unions' power base before the real reform arguments have even begun.

The reality is probably that both sides are starting to draw up battle lines ahead of Kinnock's major initiative scheduled for the end of February, which will tackle the potentially explosive issues of pay, pensions and promotion. But there is no justification for launching full-scale hostilities now given that the crucial work on reform for all sides still looms.

The unions should have learned from the treaty negotiations in Nice that there are too many forces out there in national capitals who would be happy to see the Commission reduced to a humble secretariat serving the interests of big member states. A fight now might play into their hands, making it all too easy to portray union members as dinosaurs more concerned with their own positions than the wider interests of the institution.

If the unions are sincere about believing in the need for reform to remotivate staff and restore the Commission as the proper broker between member states, they should try to reach a compromise with Kinnock.

The Commissioner's aides say preliminary discussions on the question of union posts have been positive and constructive. One can only hope that this is true. For the good of the institution and in the interests of all its employees this is not the time for all-out war.

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