Council grilling

torture-rackI spent most of the afternoon in less comfortable surroundings; defending the Committee’s draft 2010 budget before the Council’s Budget Committee. These annual hearings with the other institutions, chaired by the future Swedish Presidency (since the final budget will be adopted during their mandate), are something of a ritualistic occasion. Normally, Secretaries General would not participate but, in the absence of a Director of Finance, I felt it was more appropriate for this important duty to come up to my level. Throughout our own Budget Group’s drafting process members were insistently aware of the need to submit an appropriately modest and reasonable draft budget, given the current economic crisis and the probability of prolonged recession. But, understandably (given that we have put in for an overall increase of 3.3 % and the projected inflation rate is 2.7%), the efforts we had made were not enough for the member states’ representatives. (Actually, our draft budget was among the more reasonable to be submitted by the institutions but that was neither here nor there.) National treasuries had clearly been given tough instructions. As I sat down I could hear blades being sharpened and blow torches being lit and the occasional thud of a baseball bat in glove. It’s best to be philosophical on these occasions, I thought to myself, as I staggered out some two-and-a-half hours later. It’s not easy for the smaller institutions and maybe particularly difficult for the two consultative committees. They are not big and indispensable like the European Commission and certainly not big enough to undertake major redeployment exercises without prejudicing vital functions. They don’t have a gentlemen’s agreement, as the Council and the Parliament do, not to look into each others’ administrative budgets. Because they are obliged to submit separate draft budgets (as distinct institutions) the scale of the savings they together achieve through their joint services are not as evident as they might be. One delegate referred to a sort of inverted beauty contest, with delegates competing to declare which of the two Committees is the uglier, but the Committees themselves are certainly not competing with each other in this way. The truth, as I told the delegates, is that the Committee’s administrations are smaller than most Commission Directorates-General. Indeed, if you take out the joint services (translation, IT, buildings), they are smaller than all of the Commission’s DGs. And if you add back in the joint services, who service our 688 members, help organise and house over 3,000 meetings per year, translate over half a million pages and help produce some 300 opinions per year, you could argue that the Committees are actually highly efficient organisations – especially if you also remember that the Committees’ members do not receive salaries from the EU. I limped back to my office, comforting myself with these thoughts…

2 Comments

  1. Steve Lindsey

    18/05/2009 at 15:47

    “given the current economic crisis and the probability of prolonged recession…given that we have put in for an overall increase of 3.3 % and the projected inflation rate is 2.7%”

    But why was any increase requested, why wasn’t a cut proposed?

  2. Martin

    25/05/2009 at 15:37

    A good question. If the inflation rate is around 2.7 % then the real increase requested by the Committee will have been in the order of 0.6%, which is not that far away from 0.0% (the EESC has, relatively-speaking, a very small budget). If the Council cuts down to, or below, 2.7% then the Committee will effectively have suffered a cut to its budget. The problem is linked to the way the budgetary procedure currently pans out. But in submitting a draft budget the SG has to take into account linked increases (such as rents) and legal commitments. At the same time, the Committee is being asked to do more, particularly by the Commission. Therefore, I persist in believing that a 3.3% request was a reasonable and balanced request. Were our political authorities to ask the EESC to do less, then we would be in a different ball game, but at the moment we are forever being asked to do more (not that I am complaining – it’s the proof that the Committee is needed and appreciated, after all). Martin

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