The Secret Commissioner…
A drama in many funny acts unfolding in the bowels of the EU headquarters in Brussels
(Part II of Episode 1 just published below!)
Introduction & Who is Who
We all know – or we are supposed to know – that each country of the European Union has one member on the all-powerful European Commission. Well, that is what the public is led to believe by the Eurocrats, who keep many secrets in the dark corridors of Brussels. The darkest of those secrets, which is about to be revealed to you and you alone, dear Reader/Viewer, is the existence, the powerful existence, somewhere in the basement of the Berlaymont Building, of an additional Commissioner, a secret Commissioner, known as “The +1”.
It is in the basement of Berlaymont that our story begins, after years of research and thousands of euros spent in wining and dining Commission members and staff who are in the know. Finally, we have cracked the code, and we are now able to access the goings-on in the office of “The +1” and the Directorate General that supports him, “DG+1”.
The main characters that one has to keep an eye on:
– The+1 himself, the one in the dark glasses, a well-dressed gentleman in his mid-50s, who is now entering the Berlaymont Building and is greeted by security, without anybody else noticing or paying attention. This man is a mystery. Nobody knows his past or his nationality. One cannot even tell by listening to his accent whether he is an Anglophone or a Francophone, whether he has Germanic roots or hails from the shores of the Mediterranean, whether he has some Slavic connection or is a product of Scandinavia. The perfect person for this job, one could say.
– There is also the Chief of Cabinet of The+1, simply know as “The Chief”. He is an old hand in the Brussels world, a wheeler-dealer of the best and of the worst kind, as circumstances require. He knows how to make things go his boss’ way, or his own way, or both, as circumstances require… This man is certainly from the European South, and usefully brings the flexible style in which things are done there.
– The Deputy Chief of Cabinet – DCC for short – is an impressive woman from the North. She must be from the North, as her light features and tall stature indicate. And she brings a fresh air of openness to this closed shop. Well, openness within limits, I should say, because this is a secret operation and she partly runs it, and has her ambitions too.
– The Special Adviser – SAD for short – is quite young and extremely clever, with studies at Oxbridge, SciencePo and Harvard, and God knows where else. He has no roots, really, so no need to try figuring out his nationality; he could be the new Homo Europeus that is emerging – you get the point. He has to be stopped from ranting, occasionally, as his cleverness can carry him away, but he is often the one who has the really novel ideas, in this leading group – too novel, sometimes. Well, and the DCC, occasionally, which brings them often close, but some times tears them apart; wait and see.
–The Executive Secretary, Clare for short, which is her actual name – the only person with a real name on the team. In the best tradition of personal assistants, and she must be British or German for that, she is there to serve and protect her boss even at her own risk. She goes to the office before he does and arranges the stuff on his desk, prints out the schedule of the day and starts the coffee machine. She controls access to his office, with charm or might, as required, both physically and on the phone. She has access to his e-mails too. And yes, she can fake his signature, when authorized, so no need for complicated machines that do that. She does not seem to have a personal agenda, but one never knows in such political offices, especially this one.
The above five characters are collocated in the Berlaymont basement, with offices next to each other around a main waiting area where Clare is, plus a conference room where they have their meetings. In the basement of another building of Rue de la Loi is the division of EU civil servants that serves the Commissioner and his office. The people on top of DG+1, which often have to go to The+1’s office for meetings, are:
– The Director General of DG+1, “The DG”, is a key pillar of this operation, bringing in the capacities and expertise of the glorious European civil service, which she has been serving for decades. Unlike the Commissioner and his immediate office, who are political appointees and think that know everything, she does know everything and she knows it too. She comes from one of the founding members of the European Community at the time, and she has the institutional and political memory to show for it. She is a tough cookie when she wants to, and to whomever she wants to be, but she can be very charming too, to the Commissioner for sure, on their good days.
– The Deputy Director General, known as “DDG”, is a real product of the system, otherwise known as the Brussels bureaucracy. He is close to retirement and a bit bitter for having been passed over many times for that promotion to DG, but he will not drop his standards or show flexibility to achieve that. He knows all the rules and wants everybody to abide by them all the time, which can be a bit of a pain for the rest of the team. But he is also solid and reliable, and a good warning bell when the political urges of the others go overboard.
– There is also the staff. The European Union is proud of its highly educated, efficient and competent staff. It is thanks to the staff that the EU got the Nobel Peace Prize and has been running the affairs of the Union so effectively from Brussels. Every staff counts, has a personality of her/his own, and brings the richness of her/his personality and of his/her nationality to this pinnacle of European integration that is the Commission. At least that is what the Commission leadership tells them once a year, on Europe Day – 9 May if you did not know it, shame on you – and on other special occasions as required. For the purposes of this story, though, we will not be able to assign personal names to the staff, so we will refer to them with numbers, as “Staff 1”, “Staff 2” – you get the point. You will of course see their personalities coming through their actions and reactions to what they are asked to do.
Finally, above the earth’s surface, there is the rest of the European Institutions in plain view. It is the European leadership, including the Commission, the Council, the Parliament, and Member States. They come in, occasionally, as the story unfolds. Of course the main interlocutor of The+1 is his immediate boss, the President. But wait, which President… The+1 has a quadruple reporting line – yes, it could be the cause of a quadruple bypass for any normal person, but The+1 can handle it – to the President of the Commission – CommPres for short; the President of the Council – CounPres for short; the President of the European parliament – ParlPres for short; and the President or Prime Minister of the country that holds the rotating Presidency of the European Council. Apologies, we are really sorry, this last title cannot be simplified much, so the only kind of short name we could come up with is “This Semester’s Country President”…
All these most senior people come to The+1 with their requests, and they want their thing done straight away. They usually come as voices over the phone, because they do not want to betray the The+1’s existence, nor to stain their reputation, in case something goes wrong and the whole clandestine operation becomes public… They have been spoilt to expect perfect service and absolute discretion from The+1 and his team. Because they deliver, unlike other EU offices, which either deal with trivial things, or are there for the showing, for the sake of political and national balances. So The+1 may not officially exist, but his reputation is really stellar.
 There are some interesting elements in the set up of the Commissioner’s broader office, from the size of the individual offices according to rank to details like the Commission photo that The+1 has on his desk and which includes him obviously Photoshopped in, with his typical dark glasses.
The EU’s Nobel Prize [in late 2012, remember?]
+1, you have a call from the President. It seems to be urgent…
-What is it again? I am tired of getting all their impossible jobs to do here. Why can’t anybody else do their job in this establishment? And in any case, which President is it this time?
-Your most immediate boss, Sir, the CommPres, and I cannot keep him waiting any longer.
-OK, OK, I will take it; pass him on. And tell the Chief, the DCC and SAD to come to my office and listen in.
-Mr. President, what a pleasant surprise! What made you remember our humble office here in the basement on this bright day?
– Bright day, what bright day? First of all, this is Brussels and there are no bright days. And if there are, we do not notice them, because the Union is in turmoil and our days are dark and miserable. Haven’t you heard of the problems of the European South and of our financial system that is falling apart?
– Of course, Mr. President, I am closely following all this. But I am confident that you ultimately have it all under control, with the European Central Bank, several Commissioners, all government leaders and even the IMF involved. I thought that things are already on the mend.
– I am glad that you got that impression, because we are trying to put on a brave face. Hopefully the people are buying it, and the markets too. But you should know better, my old friend. I wake up in the morning, and sometimes in the middle of the night, wet in sweat, thinking that the European Union has fallen apart under my watch. Then I google my name online and read Wikepedia. If it says that I am still the European Commission President I go back to bed, or get up and get ready for the office.
-Anyway, back to our business. We need to boost the morale of the Union and to rally the markets. We need a piece of good news that will displace all the bad news from the TV screens. Instead of protests against austerity and strikes I want to see people celebrating on the streets. I want to see them holding my portrait without red lines crossing it out and without strange moustaches added to my face and to the faces of other EU leaders…
-So I was discussing with my Cabinet Chief and a few others and we had a couple of ideas that I wanted to share with you. Once we have discussed them all, you and I will chose one, and you will implement it, with absolute discretion, as we very well know you can.
– Of course Mr. President, of course. I am all ears.
[nod to his Chief, DCC and SAD to relax and “enjoy”…]
– The first idea was to get a distraction. Something positive that will make people forget all the bad news and focus on something lighter and happier. Like the weeding of Prince William and Clare. It gave at least a couple of easy-going days to the UK government in the middle of their austerity spree; that is no small thing. But we could not agree on whom we could bring into holy matrimony with a pan-European joyous effect. Any idea?
– Mr. President, you caught me unprepared. I do not have a list of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in front of me. I’ll just throw up something off the top of my head: Perhaps Mr. Berlusconi with a young Italian model? I believe he is divorced and available again. Or Ms. Merkel with a South European leader? That would be the union of the century and would bring peace between European North and South. Is she married, by the way? I am not sure about her marital status.
– Good ideas, my friend. But Mr. Berlusconi is no longer in government, and he is a bit controversial as you know. As for Ms. Merkel, she had time to get married, twice to be precise, and remains married, believe it or not. We need some other celebrities’ union.
-Anyway, while you are thinking of it, let me tell you about our other option:
Something to do with sports. You know how people love sports. Perhaps we could
organize something like pan-European games, a kind of EU Olympics. We could have a spectacular opening ceremony praising the work of the Commission and then award a lot of gold medals to keep everybody happy. Or we could arrange for a European team to win an international contest. Is any such contest coming up in football or basketball? And then we can invite them for a victory parade in Brussels, not only Madrid or Rome or wherever they may come from. What do you think?
[Making signs to his people that the CommPres has lost it, or something like that.]
– Another great idea, Mr. President. But it would take some time to organize another Olympics, even if it is only for the EU. The regular ones take six years to prepare. Wouldn’t this one take a year or two? I think that we need something more immediate here. As for the any upcoming international contest, I think that the Europeans won the latest Ryder Cup, the US – Europe golf tournament, but not many people noticed. I cannot think of something else big coming up soon.
– Well, let me know if you think of something. Let me go to the other option in the meantime: Something cultural, let’s say another Eurovision contest but for EU countries only. We can do that and encourage competing singers and songwriters to write something in praise of Europe, so that the songs have a broadly common theme. And the winner will be received by me and the other leaders of the European Union, and will be part of our family photo at the next EU Summit. What do you think of that?
– Mr. President, I admire the range of options that you have come up with. One is better than the other [signaling the opposite to his Chief, DCC, SAD and Clare, who has also joined in], and this one is no exception. I am only worried that it would need time and money, and songwriters may not be happy with the imposition of a theme. We already have an EU anthem, from an old and quite deceased composer I believe, so we cannot offer them that, which would be the ultimate incentive.
– Ok, ok, I get you. Let me now get to the last and perhaps craziest option.
[Gesturing to his colleagues “What are we going to hear now?” and holding his hair not to fall]
– One of my staff when we were discussing this said why not persuade the Norwegians to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, for all the good things that it has done. I thought it was crazy, and remembered how we handled the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and could not see us getting it. But he came back and said why, is the United Nations any better? They have got so many Nobel prizes, and see how messy the situations are where the UN has intervened in Africa and elsewhere? Or was Obama better when he got it, a few months into his first term?
– My guy insists that we have a chance…
DCC – THE+1:
[The+1 gets a paper from his DCC, which says that she may be able to do something about this one. Her being from the North lends credibility to this assertion.]
– Mr. President, let me see what I can do about this last proposal. It sounds crazy but I would like to explore if it may by any chance be feasible, through some channels that I have. Give me a few days to do that. I will be thinking of your other options too, in case I come up with something helpful.
– Thank you +1. I expect to hear back from you in 48 hours. I know that I can rely on you.
– Ciao Mr. President. Always at your service.
[Makes sure that the CommPres has hung up and then turns to his staff:]
-What can we do about this? It sounds crazy to me. But DCC says that she has some connections that may prove useful. Tell us more DCC.
– As you know, we are small countries and quite close up there in the European North. I have a good contact in the Prime Minister’s Office in Norway, and another one in the Royal Household. I can contact them and see how they respond to the idea.
-OK DCC, I expect to hear from you at tomorrow’s senior staff meeting at 9 am. I hope that you have some good news to tell us. The DG and her Deputy will also be there, so we can engage them if we need their help with something.
TO BE CONTINUED
This post is also available in: Spanish