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Dublin: 3 °C Tuesday 21 May, 2019

Aaron McKenna: 'We don’t need national political castoffs to run an arbitrarily sized bureaucracy'

European Commissioners aren’t picked on any basis of merit or usefulness. It’s no different than most governments, but at least we elect the cabinet together at home.

Aaron McKenna

THERE IS ALMOST always an unsettling and grubby feeling around European Union deal making. This week the 28 member European Commission was locked into what will most likely be its final form, to be rubber stamped by the 751 strong European Parliament.

The horse trading and reasoning behind who got what post has very little to do with good governance or what is best for the people of Europe.

The Commission is, effectively, the government of the European Union; and its members are analogous to Ministers running departments. There is a parallel organisation, the European Council, which is made up of the actual leaders of each member country; but on a daily basis it is the Commission that runs the show.


The Commission proposes the legislation that the Parliament passes, and on an annual basis it brings into being more laws and regulations than our own Dail. Labour Minister Alex White admitted back in August that there is no way that the Irish parliament could consider all of the laws that emanate from Europe.

The Commission is at the heart of the EU’s self-perpetuating bureaucracy that lives to create work for itself. There are 28 commissioners not because a quasi-nation the size of the EU needs a body of that size to run it. There are 28 commissioners because there are 28 members of the EU, and everyone has to get a job.

There used to be 15 Commissioners, and the EU managed to churn out plenty of useless regulations and costly laws for nations to implement. Then we expanded, and suddenly departments had to be invented. Each invented department had to get a civil service staff alongside the Commissioners and their staff to run it.

Departments need parliamentary oversight, which means new committees to scrutinise them; and staff to run them and allowances for chairing the meetings and all that good gravy to swill around.

Pet projects

One thing any good bureaucrat in any country knows is that he or she will be judged on activity first and foremost. There’s no point in setting up a new commission office for such and such unless it is going to go and do something. Find some pet projects to advance or some problem to talk about solving that might have otherwise not got the attention.

That sounds laudable, but it recalls the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Government programs are prone to failure at the best of times, and who has ever met a government initiative that has got smaller, less pervasive, and cheaper down through the years?

The Commission has overseen some real doozies down through the year. They’ve regulated the correct width of bananas, banned diabetics from driving (most countries just ignore this) and told water bottlers that they cannot claim on their packaging that the product is hydrating.


Eager beavers at the Commission seem to sit around looking for things to regulate. When Charleroi airport released an April 1 newsletter jovially announcing a second runway, Commission staff were on their backs immediately in a more serious tone wondering why they hadn’t been consulted.

The ever expanding bureaucracy creates tonnes of useless paperwork, if nothing else, to justify its existence. They mandated that orange juice labelling should change from “partially made with concentrate” to “partially made from concentrate”, something the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reckons cost £160,000 to implement. It’s a tiny example of the costs of make-work government on the rest of the world.

The Commissioners themselves, of course, aren’t picked on any basis of merit or usefulness. In this we cannot single out the EC as being any different from the creation of most governments, but at least we elect the lads and ladies who put the cabinet together at home.

The Commission is headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, who is President because the European People’s Party won the most seats in the elections held last June. You surely remember his name from the ballot paper. The Commissioners are mainly the nominees of national governments, like our own Phil Hogan.

Heavy lifting 

Phil got the job, if we’re being honest, because he shouldered much of the heavy lifting of the property and water charges and is now appears to be politically toxic at home. There is a strong feeling that he was promised Ireland’s commission slot when he took up the job as Minister for the Environment on the basis that he would ensure these unpopular measures got implemented.

The British appointee to the Commission this time around, Lord Hill, apparently had to be Googled by Juncker to figure out who he was. Our last commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, probably falls into the same “Who?” category for anyone without an interest in Irish politics of the early 1990s.

Before that we sent Charlie McCreevy in a Republikflucht job similar to Hogan, albeit for different reasons.

The dispossessed, the obscure and the failed make up many appointments to European jobs, from the Commission to the likes of the Court of Auditors. The jobs were distributed based on the results of the election, with groups you’re possibly unaware of getting a slice of the pie because the collective mishmash of parties that make them up got enough of a vote somewhere you’ve never heard of.

Luke “Ming” Flanagan

The people of Roscommon and the issue of turf cutting gave Luke “Ming” Flanagan the base he needed to succeed in winning a European seat. Now remember that there are 28 member states, who knows how many Roscommon’s and turf cutters affecting who gets a Commission seat.

The jobs were also distributed based on gender, power plays by European leaders and national agendas. Ireland got agriculture because it’s really important to us, and Phil Hogan is a good constituency politician whatever the protests that EU Commissioners leave their passports at the door. That’s fine, but what about all the other national interests? Will they suit us so much, like the British leading the regulation of financial institutions for whom Dublin and London compete for business?

The raison d’etre of the European Union is to foster economic integration between European countries, which in turn guarantees the peace and security of the region. It has become an ever more disconnected, expansive and expensive beast. For most people, the European Commission has done good work in things like reducing mobile phone roaming fees and helping open up markets for trade and movement of people.

Less helpful is constant meddling and regulation of water bottle labels, or the mismanagement of massive distortionary grand aid across the union. The EU is a body whose own auditors have refused to sign off on its accounts for years and years.

The EU in its present form is a giant waste of money and effort that could be diverted to solving a whole bunch more pressing problems. The composition of the Commission and the mission it is setting out for in the years to come highlights the gap that exists between the original mission of the EU, and its current engorged form.

Political castoffs

We don’t need national political castoffs to run an arbitrarily sized bureaucracy. We don’t need more laws than our parliaments can actually consider. Civilization is unlikely to collapse if 90 per cent of what the EU churns out every year to justify its existence disappeared.

EU citizens are recognising this, and keep sending more and more EU sceptic politicians across the water. Britain is odds on as likely as not to abandon the EU in the near future. The leaders of the member states we directly elect could use with taking active steps to reverse the rot, rather than engaging in yet another round of doling out gravy such as we’ve seen this week.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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