Mal Fletcher comments

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

It is no accident that 'Eurocrat' rhymes so nicely with 'fat cat'. This week, Europe's famously pampered bureaucratic classes have once again demonstrated why they're the butt of many a derisive joke and jibe from Malmo to Malaga.

I'm no died-in-the-wool Euroskeptic. In fact, having lived in both Scandinavia and the UK for the past 16 years, I believe in the basic European ideal. The EU is in my view a project worthy of support: it is, in many ways, the most audacious and ambitious project of governance ever devised. Still unproven in some areas, it has made progress and adds value in others.

Yet as Europe climbs out of its worst downturn in at least three decades, EU administrators are about to go to court to protect a promised pay rise of 3.7 percent. The Council of Europe, made up of Ministers of member nations, has decided to reduce this to 1.8 percent.

It doesn't sound like much of an increase, until you learn that this would still take the average pay of an EU employee to €93,685 per year. The President of the European Commission, Jose Manual Barroso, is looking to lead the fight in court. He's already on the tiny annual wage of just €298,495 per year. (The British PM is paid £150,000, or €172,000.)

What is most upsetting here, to all except perhaps the most rabid Eurosceptics, is not the money itself.

The financial aspect does, of course, stick in the craw for most Europeans, who're being asked to endure severe cutbacks in public services and state funding. In the case of France and Britain, citizens are also being asked to take on longer working lives before they're eligible for the state pension.

The money is certainly an issue for fellow bureaucrats in member states. In Britain alone, nearly 500,000 civil servants face losing their jobs. Many will leave with generous pensions, but will need to retrain for future employment.

In the EU, as one official told The Times this week, 'It is very rare for someone to be sacked. You almost have to kill somebody [to be retrenched].'

However, none of this is as unsettling as the fact that EU middle managers don't seem to appreciate the symbolism of their actions.

In times of austerity, symbolism is as essential an item in the governance toolkit as are things like fiscal projections, GDP metrics and all the other technical apparatus of finance ministries. In some ways, symbolism is more important.

Yet these people, whom we might assume to be above average in intelligence, remain totally insensible to the power of public perception.

Their actions reflect once more the fact that while they may be administrators, they're definitely not leaders - and what Europe needs now, on the national and regional level, is leadership.

Leaders understand the importance of symbolism, the potential impact on the public morale of their every action or declaration.

When Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Blitz, the Queen Mother famously said that this at least meant she could now look the people of London's East End 'in the eye'. And look them in the eye she did, touring some of the city's worst hit areas and in the process inventing the royal walkabout.