Posts made in October, 2009

The new Commissioners: remembering Karel Van Miert

(c) European Commission

(c) European Commission

Speculation is mounting on who will do what in the next Commission (except for Barroso: that tragedy acts has already known its peak). Balkenende, Zapatero, Junckers, the brave Latvian woman Vaira Vike-Freiberga, and the list goes on and on… I happened to be at the Berlaymont building (the building that houses the offices of the Commissioners and their cabinets)  yesterday, and noticed ex-Commissioner Figel entering the building and showing his ID card to the security guards in order to receive his “V” visitors’ sticker. That’s odd said someone: as if they don’t know him here.

Exiting the building, we then spent a couple of minutes chatting in front of the picture at the entrance that shows all the Commissioners and which is inserted at the top of this post (actually wondering why they made such a poor Photoshop job on the blueish background, when previous editions showed the nice wooden floors in Berlaymont?) and someone said: “With so many Commissioners now, it’s nearly impossible to keep all of them at their post for the full duration”.

That made me remember a conversation I had quite a few years ago with ex-Commissioner Karel Van Miert, at some event organised by a German firm, and at which he was keynote speaker in his capacity as academic and former Commissioner of Competition. I found myself somehow chatting one on one with him (the Flemish connection, maybe?) and he was very passionate as always and extremely outspoken. When I asked him what his thoughts were looking at the “new” Commission (Barroso I in those days), he said something that made a lot of sense to me and that re-surfaced in my mind in light of the current discussions. He basically explained that in his view, the reason the Commission was being less and less upfront and to a certain extent “pro-European” in his eyes, was because of the profiles of the current Commissioners versus the profiles of the initial Commissions. Basically, he told me: “The problem these days, is that being a Commissioner is part of the career plan, and that all of these candidates are still planning to go back to their home politics after their 5 year stint in Brussels…when that’s your objective, you can’t put your national interests aside…in my days” he added, “being a Commissioner was maybe not an exile, but clearly an “end-of-career” type move. Our countries sent us to Brussels so we’d stop being active at home, either as a reward or a punishment. But the result was the same: we did not have to wonder what the implications of each of our speeches or actions would have on our future career back home…we just said what we thought”.[please note these are not his exact words but a paraphrase of what he told me]

I liked Van Miert…I think I probably liked those former Commissioners more too!

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The Calzone Syndrome or How information circulates in the EU bubble

Calzone pizza fresh out of the oven

Calzone pizza fresh out of the oven

I liked Julien Frisch’s qualification of the EU bubble as “the informality sphere” in his blog posts in four parts on the Brussels bubble (see here for part 2 specifically relating to this concept).

But the concept of “informality” only reflects part of the “EU bubble’s” culture when it comes to sharing of information and influencing. A very important part, I grant you that, as it’s the part that explains you’re either in the bubble, or outside of it.

The other big facet of the EU bubble is the over-arching rule that Information is power in Brussels (and not only there, if you’ve ever worked in big structures). Getting a so-called leaked document before your enemies (or even your friends) can make a serious difference in certain cases. Choosing who you share that information with and when to.

Is it democratic and transparent? Probably not.

Is it avoidable? I seriously doubt it.

It is a cultural feature to a certain extent. A reflection of what I dubbed one day, while having lunch with a Council representative, “the Calzone syndrome”, in recognition of the impressive calzone pizza the Italian owner of the restaurant I was sitting in had just put in front of my delighted nose.

First things first:

What’s a calzone? I promise not to go into recipes in this post but it’s basically a pizza that is folded in such a manner that the only thing you see from the outside is the crust, all of the nice stuff being warmly kept inside.

What’s the link with Brussels and transparency?

Well, most people in Brussels look at information like you would think about a lovely calzone:

  1. It’s better kept hidden for as long as possible;
  2. Only two persons in the food chain have access, in principle, to what’s inside: the cook that made it, and the client that ordered it. The others just see the crust;
  3. The content is a lot more juicier than your mainstream open pizza that’s already half dry by the time it reaches your table;
  4. It’s only good if it’s hot. Quoting a pizza manual: “diving into a pale, soggy, undercooked calzone with a filling that is still cold at the center has nothing poetic about it”.

Now obviously, places like Wikileaks try to shake the Eu bubble (and beyond) out of that calzone syndrome inherent to Brussels but, I somehow doubt that it will be able to remove decades of habits and “selective” sharing that are ingrained in the Brussels arena.

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The L word, part 3

Picture from Burson Marsteller website

Picture from Burson Marsteller website

As I mentioned in part 2 of my “The L word” rant, I was pleased by the results put together by Burson Marsteller and PSB this year following a survey they conducted on the effectiveness and perception of EU lobbying, the results of which were issued in powerpoint format in August by the German office and as a full “Guide to Effective Lobbying in Europe“  in October 2009 by the Brussels office, with European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas as keynote speaker.


I actually smiled when I read the coverage of these results by EUobserver, in an article by Leigh Phillips titled “Fancy lobby receptions don’t work, say Brussels politicians“. I smiled because this article seemed to consider that the fact MEPs and other EU lobby targets do not enjoy a “wine and dine approach” was a “counterintuitive and startling conclusion” (sic.).

It’s been personally my impression for years, but it’s nice to be able to refer my clients to these study results to alleviate the pressure of some, that still believe Brussels decision-makers have nothing better to do in the evenings then raid cocktail receptions in a  desperate quest for free food. Or that chatting casually with a glass of white wine in one hand, a canapé of foie gras in the other, a napkin squeezed beneath and crumbles of toast at the corner of one’s mouth, is the most efficient manner to (1) convince someone of an issue at an hour of the day where he/she would like to talk about anything but his/her day job and (2) in a location filled with noise, hysterical bursts of laughter and eavesdroppers.

It is true that if you want to live off mediocre wine / orange juice / sparkling whatever every evening and a selection of shrimps / mini-quiches / salmon toasts, you have every opportunity to do so in the EU bubble, as every evening and every lunch offers its choice of reception and events to attend.

But at the end of the day, decision makers want to hear your arguments, and noise-filled places are just not the appropriate location for that exercise.

So what should you do to be an efficient lobbyist?

Well part of the recipe is outlined in Burson Marsteller’s reports:

(c) Burson Marsteller and PSB

(c) Burson Marsteller and PSB


I do not understand why a lobbyist would not divulge who he/she is representing when talking to others. Does anyone think a lobbyists would meet them just on their own, with no one asking him/her to do so? Same thing with the myth that a lobbyists is someone you give a 2-pager and tell him/her to repeat it at nauseam to anyone willing to listen (and many unwilling souls too). If that’s your approach, you’d better start praying no one asks questions or, worse, challenges your “messenger”. And finally, and it’s often the biggest issue when discussing with clients: Brussels is about managing the nuances of gray. We don’t do white, we try to avoid black, but we excel at discovering the multiple facets of gray. So no one wins, many can lose…


I guess you could say EU decision makers are like animals or babies in one respect (and only one, be reassured): they sense it if you’re not sincere. And it takes ages to get a good reputation in Brussels but only seconds to rip it apart!

So if I agree partially with this bit of the movie “Thank you for smoking”:

I definitely do not share this approach to lobbying:

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