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The EU’s €140M ‘zombie committee’ faces pressure to reform

It costs upwards of €140 million a year to run, produces views on EU laws that few policymakers actually read, and has failed to deal with claims of “psychological harassment” by one of its senior members.

To its many critics, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) — which will elect a new president on Wednesday — is an expensive relic of a bygone era. The high-profile workplace-bullying allegations have provoked horror in the European Commission and Parliament, while shining a spotlight on the body’s inner workings. At its worst, detractors say the committee is little more than a make-work scheme providing cushy posts for business people, union activists and lobbyists while having negligible impact on European laws.

What, they ask, does the EESC exist for?

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“Very few lawmakers are reading the opinions of this committee. The impact is close to zero,” said Tomáš Zdechovský, a European People’s Party MEP. “It’s a zombie committee that lost its purpose but still lives on.”

That purpose stems from its foundation in 1957 based on the model of a similar institution in France. According to its website, the EESC acts as “the voice of organised civil society in Europe,” bringing together 329 members of employers’ associations, labor unions and civil society organizations from across the EU. The bloc’s institutions are obliged to request non-binding opinions from the committee on proposed legislation that touches on issues such as social policy, workers’ rights, the single market and agriculture.

But critics question whether that function is still needed. “In the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, its opinions were certainly useful and taken into account,” said Henri Malosse, EESC president from 2013-2015. “But the institutions have developed. The Parliament is today a lot more powerful and reaching out to civil society. The Commission is also more active, consulting various stakeholders before proposing new laws. The EESC’s opinions have lost their importance. In practice, they are hardly ever read.”

He said the institution is resistant to change. “There’s a general lack of willingness to reform. People are saying: ‘Why should we change? We do what we are asked for by the [EU] treaties, not more, not less,’” Malosse said.

It has also attracted criticism from Euroskeptic lawmakers. “The EESC has been living in the shadow of the other EU institutions, quite comfortably I have to say, because nobody has been really asking what they are doing and what they are good for,” said Derk Jan Eppink, a Dutch MEP who served from 1999-2007 in the Cabinets of former European Commissioners Frits Bolkestein and Siim Kallas.

“It’s an instrument for bringing members from all over the EU to Brussels, and they like to come here because they feel important. They get to meet other members, hold debates and have nice dinners,” said Eppink. “But I cannot imagine any moment where they had real influence on decision-making.” He said that during his time in the Commission, committee opinions had only been brought up a few times — as a “joke” in discussions. “People were saying: ‘I have this committee opinion here, very important, and everybody started laughing,’” he said.

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‘Psychological harassment’

The committee might have continued composing little-read reports without many questions from outside were it not for a scandal involving alleged bullying that has rocked the institution for months. The conduct of Polish member Jacek Krawczyk has been investigated by the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF and he is now facing criminal prosecution by Belgian authorities. Krawczyk has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Last week, MEPs rejected the EESC’s 2018 financial accounts over its failure to deal with the case. But to add a layer of bloody minded absurdity to the scandal, Krawczyk has been reappointed by the Polish government as an EESC member for the coming five years, despite objections raised by the European Commission. His nomination is still subject to confirmation by EU countries, with ambassadors due to hold a vote on Wednesday.

In a response to the Parliament’s rejection, the EESC said it is “fully committed … to ensuring that the incidents of the past cannot take place again,” and stressed it wants to establish “harsher sanctions” against members who violate internal rules.

Another major gripe for the committee’s critics is its ballooning costs. The institution’s annual budget increased from €108 million in 2006 to over €142 million this year and possibly €150 million in 2021 (including “exceptional” costs to modernize its building), pending final agreement by Council and Parliament. That’s more expensive than the Parliament’s controversial “traveling circus” that — before the coronavirus precluded such movements — transported MEPs and their staff between Brussels and the legislature’s official seat in Strasbourg several times a year.

The EESC argues that budget increases must be seen against the backdrop of inflation, although the number of administrative staff has decreased over the years. Critics also point out that committee members often do not write opinions themselves but outsource part of the work to external consultants, which in the years 2017-2019 cost between nearly €400,000 to €580,000 per year.

While the budget has gone up, the number of opinions has gone down, with particular lows in 2015 and 2019 when the Parliament and Commission, following European elections, requested less input from the body.

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To compensate for the lower workload in those years, the committee upped its work that was not linked to an incoming request (so-called own-initiative opinions). These made up 53 percent of all opinions in 2015 and 43 percent in 2019, compared with about 20 percent or lower in other years.

But one current EESC member doubted the value of such unasked-for opinions. “If we already have a problem that our opinions as requested by the EU treaties are not read, what is the benefit of issuing even more opinions that nobody asked us for?” Another described the work as “occupational therapy.”

Keeping busy

Critics point out that EESC members have an incentive to keep themselves busy. For every meeting in Brussels, they can claim €290 per day in allowances to pay for accommodation, food and local transport, without having to provide receipts. Travel costs to Brussels are reimbursed separately.

Yet several EESC members don’t need accommodation because they already live in Belgium (mostly Brussels) where they work in jobs such as business representatives or lobbyists (latest available data from September show that 29 EESC members had a registered address in Belgium). They usually participate in EESC meetings during regular working hours.

Meeting records released by the EESC in May last year as part of an EUObserver investigation showed that Estonian trade unionist Liina Carr received about €46,000 in legitimate allowances for 160 committee meetings held in Brussels between January 2015 and May 2019, despite being based in the city. Carr said she used the money to help cover the costs of her own apartment in Brussels and other undefined expenses described as legitimate.

Following the revelations, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), for whom Carr works, applied a rule that no member “could receive fees from an external body,” a spokesperson said. Carr resigned as an EESC member in May 2019, citing “pressure of work at ETUC.”

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Controversially, the EESC decided that during the coronavirus crisis, its members could also request the daily €290 allowance for attending virtual meetings. The committee said the rule only applies to “core” meetings and is currently in place until the end of October, but could be extended.

The EESC also funds travel that is not directly linked to its work on legislative opinions. Travel expenses for the years 2017-2019 — the only years for which such data is publicly available — show that trips to other EU cities increased from 1,524 in 2017 to 1,701 in 2019, costing about €2.8 million in total that last year. The committee says such travel is needed to participate in high-level conferences or civil society dialogues that help its work.

And it is also increasingly organizing trips outside the EU, which have increased from 172 in 2017 to 225 in 2019, costing €630,716 that year. These include travel to South America, the United States and Japan to meet with partner civil society organizations. In 2019 there were also more exotic trips to destinations including Mauritius (cost €57,618), Barbados (€4,132), Jamaica (€2,677) and Panama (€9,982).

There have also been 16 trips to China in the past three years, costing €159,074, despite the dearth of civil society organizations there that are independent of the Chinese Communist Party. A Commission official who declined to be named criticized the EESC’s activities as “a kind of travel agency” and questioned whether such trips are necessary.

The EESC said in a reply to questions that its international travel is “mainly conducted as a response to mandates received through international agreements signed by the EU with third countries,” and stressed that the EESC leadership bureau had taken a decision in April to “expand the use of videoconference instead of long haul flights, thereby addressing increasing travel costs and the attendant carbon footprint.”

Retirement postings

The EESC’s sole candidate for Wednesday’s presidential election, Austrian business representative Christa Schweng, admitted that the impact of the committee’s work could be improved but defended the organization’s overall usefulness.

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“We have a problem selling our opinions,” Schweng told POLITICO. “What we do not do enough is go to rapporteurs in Parliament with our opinions and say: Can we sit down together? Look, this is what organized civil society is saying … When we find a consensus — and believe me, with 27 member states and three groups from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, it is difficult to get a consensus — then as a politician you can actually assume that you are on safe ground. And you can build on this compromise.”

Schweng also said she would “take a closer look” at the legitimacy of foreign trips once she is in post.

The EESC is also facing questions over whether some of its members who have retired from their organizations can still represent civil society effectively. A senior diplomat said that in some cases, the committee had become a comfortable retirement posting for veteran officials. The EESC said that 66 of its 329 members for the new mandate are 65 years old or older, and that the average age of members is 55 years.

German member Peter Clever, for example, retired at the end of August from the executive board of the Federal Union of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) but was still nominated for another five years on the committee. Clever said that he continues “to keep the legitimate concerns of the companies and their employees in mind.”

Schweng, who has been an EESC member for 22 years, also defended the advanced age of some members. “I have worked with many retired colleagues over the years,” she said. “I have found them to be extremely constructive and, above all, they have time. They were 70 or 80-year-old men, or I have a female example, where I was impressed by their energy and enthusiasm for Europe, and with content that they can contribute.”

The presidential candidate also acknowledged criticism from the Parliament that the committee’s opinions often arrive too late. “This is a language issue,” she said, adding that opinions are drafted in study groups of six to 12 members of different nationalities who all had a right to receive texts in their mother tongue. “That can take a long time, but that is something you also have to keep to,” she said. “[It] is part of democracy.”

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Demands for reform

Even as the EESC prepares for the inaugural debate of its new term on Thursday, which will feature European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Parliament President David Sassoli, demands for reform are growing.

“I think in principle it is excellent that there are such platforms that bring together different social partners. But I don’t believe that the whole thing has to be organized with so much effort for agreeing on opinions,” said Daniel Caspary, a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the European Parliament, who conceded he “practically never” reads the committee’s opinions.

Koos Richelle, a former director general at the Commission’s department for employment and social affairs, who used to regularly work with the EESC, said that changes to the committee would likely require a change to the EU treaties. “If the role of EU institutions and their balance of power change, they [the EESC] need to take this into account and make sure that they remain relevant,” said Richelle.

Schweng said she did not want to comment on potential reforms before Wednesday’s election, but she hinted at one area where she might make changes: “We now receive [requests for opinions] after the Commission has presented [new laws],” she said. “In my view, it makes more sense to be consulted at an earlier stage.”

A debate on treaty change could come up as part of the planned Conference on the Future of Europe, in which the EESC is set to participate. MEP Zdechovský said no options should be excluded — including scrapping the committee altogether.

Dutch MEP Eppink had a similar demand: “People ask themselves: What is this all for?” he asked, stressing then when discussing reforms to the EU, “they should be first in line to disappear.”

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Isabel García Muñoz, a Spanish Socialist MEP, said the committee should not be abolished but reformed. “We need to be careful with voices that want use any excuse to attack this or any other institution or body as part of a general attack on the whole European Union.”

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