The alternative media arena has recently seen a surge in accusations of a takeover by corrupt élites: a group of ‘unelected bureaucrats’ whose aim is said to be the removal of the people’s right to self-determination, sovereignty and autonomy. We hear that they have muscled in without asking and turned against the people by denying them the right to choose their future, build policies aimed at their own prosperity, or decide on the path they wish to follow—whether in terms of the air they want to breathe, the foods they wish to consume or the God-given identity they thought they were born with.
From Covid management to the war in Ukraine, from climate change to gender policy, decisions made in higher spheres have eroded and shaken the trust of the population at large in relation to the people who, formally or informally, are leading them. A strange mélange of political appointees and very senior corporate leaders occupy the space provided by the legacy media, leaving one in no doubt as to who is making and benefiting from the decisions.
But who are these ‘unelected bureaucrats’? How did they climb to power and how did they manage, in a short space of time, unequivocally to take over all the essential elements of a society’s power to govern itself and determine its own destiny? How was this possible in an era of unprecedented emancipation of the masses, in a socio-political context that is the most sophisticated in all of human history, characterised by an abundance of intricate systems of checks and balances and a whole continent’s complex of parliamentary and judicial systems to put brakes on executive power?
I can offer a hint from inside the structure I know best, the European Union, which also happens to be the centre of much attention (and, admittedly, distaste) by the dissident public.
To begin with, the nature and origins of the European Union are notoriously postmodernist; the product of élite thinking. Its genesis differs from that of traditional nations: those that are a product of natural birth, one based on the close affinity of a population occupying the same space and sharing the same genes, language and customs.
The European Union is easy to dislike. Even its most fervent supporters would admit to regretting its far-from-the-people, involved decision-making processes, which require many years of study and half a dozen specialised Master’s degrees to grasp half-decently. Most infamously, its supranational, multi-layered power structure, amassing people you are never likely to meet while doing your groceries—well, perhaps other than during an electoral campaign—is abhorrent.
People do not like that which does not resemble them, that which they would not recognise in the mirror. So the question arises: “If I did not vote for this person or these people, and you didn’t vote for them either, then where did they come from?” It can only be the result of corruption. Or can it?
Here is my understanding of the matter.
Democracy evolved over centuries
When democracy was born (or invented) in fifth-century BC Greece, Athens had a population of between 250,000 and 300,000, of whom 40,000 to 60,000 were considered citizens (i.e., having the right to vote). It is said that the Pnyx, the hill where the popular assembly gathered and voted, was only able to accommodate around 13,000 seated men, which is an indication that even many who were citizens were not enfranchised. Be that as it may, it is known from ancient sources (Thucydides, for example) that many even of the enfranchised citizens were, as Basil Lucas writes,
indifferent and refrained from attending the assembly. The usual number of participants in the assembly was around 6,000–10,000. This is further confirmed by the required apartia (quorum) of 6,000 attendants for a valid vote result.
Compare that with the over eight billion populating the world at present, with slavery abolished and universal adult suffrage enshrined by law in almost every state on the face of the planet. How would direct democracy be able to function in these circumstances? Be under no illusion; it cannot. Not because I fail to see how it could, but because long generations of political thinkers, many of whom were well-intended and with a benevolent propensity towards the human race and its wellbeing, could not fathom it any better. Large-scale human policies—health, security, education, trade, labour, social security and more—cannot possibly be configured in the agora, as they were thousands of years ago, by taking turns on a raised stone and declaiming to the crowd one’s most fertile ideas born on sleepless nights and then by judging from the thunderousness and duration of the applause received whether the proposal had met with an ‘aye’ or a ‘nay’. If an Athenian was called upon to participate in such a gathering, he would likely be the first to leave feeling frustrated that his voice had not been heard and that his vote did not matter.
So let us be realistic. The explosion of the population on earth demanded new forms of expressing democracy. Indirect democracy has its purpose and a legitimate place in the order of things. The assertion that EU Commissioners are ‘not elected by anyone’ is neither true nor legally valid. The 27 members who form the College of the Commission (i.e., the Commissioners) are nominated by the party or coalition that currently governs each of the member states that form the European Union, and their appointments are ratified by the European Parliament. So they are doubly confirmed: by both the governments directly elected by people, and by the directly-elected Members of the European Parliament. Being indirectly elected is not tantamount to being unelected, as the membership of the upper houses of several European national parliaments attests.
As for the 705 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), they are directly elected by the peoples of Europe and form fractions not along national lines, but by EU-wide political families. This contrasts with another EU core institution, the European Council, which brings together national ministers, thus representing governmental rather than popular interests. Sophisticated mathematics, taking into account both the population of each European Union member state and its weighted proportion of the total EU population, determines the number of MEPs that each member state of the EU is allowed to return to the European Parliament.
To add yet another layer of control over the European Union technocracy, the principle of subsidiarity provides ways to encourage national parliaments to participate in EU policy formulation, giving them the opportunity to scrutinise the Commission’s legislative proposals. Subsidiarity also means that every decision must be made at the most appropriate level, prioritising the local above the regional, then the regional above the national, and only where all the foregoing prove unequal to the task considering the supranational EU level. The principle of subsidiarity must be observed and, according to the complex jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the EU, takes the form of very specific conditionality that must be fulfilled before a new EU initiative is even to be considered.
So, with such intricate considerations being put into the election of the decision-makers for the people and peoples of the European Union, where is the democratic deficit coming from?
The other question is whether the lamented democratic deficit is a real situation arising from a lack of democracy and accountability on the part of the EU institutions and their decision-making procedures, or whether it rather stems from a perceived lack of accessibility to or representation of the ordinary citizen in these structures. It seems there is a gap between the powers of those institutions, along with an inability of citizens to influence those decisions.
If this is so, is this perception justified or utterly subjective, simply a venting of the spleen of the condition of living in postmodernity—a place where the individual feels not only crushed by his individual insignificance but also disconcerted by the complexities of an overly convoluted social fabric, whose nuts and bolts vastly exceed his comprehension or power of influence?
The answer is not easy to provide. Instead of attempting to dive into all the psychological, sociological, political and historical elements that could afford us hints at a possible answer, and fully aware that arriving at the truth of the matter would require access to information about the actual intentions and motives of many of the people who occupy these functions to which we might never have access, I would instead dwell on notions of less hermetic character that are within our power to apprehend.
The myth of the Brussels monster that swallows nations’ power
We often hear of the one-way transfer of powers to central level by Europe—true or false?
Quite frankly, true. But let us see exactly which powers, and how.
When people complain about countries losing their centuries-old sovereignty, what do they mean? If we look at the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union—the sum of which could be considered what in a classical nation state is the Constitution—we can see that the European Union is a Union of Member States and of the peoples of Europe. Nowhere do the Treaties refer to a centralisation of power in the hands of an almighty élite, still less to a renunciation of sovereignty or independence. Quite the contrary; the Union takes pride in the unique legal and political system that it created by simultaneously maintaining member states’ sovereignty and ‘pooling’ some of their sovereignty in areas where this has an added value.
If we look at the fundamental aspects of an independent country—people, territory, government, sovereignty—it is difficult to argue that EU member states have lost any of those attributes. Each has its own clearly delineated citizenry, with its own territory and borders (even where freedom of movement between the countries of the European Union is allowed), and with their own constitutions (which nobody has the power to impose from outside).
Each member state has its own electoral system, the right to vote, the right to run in national elections, which is reserved to citizens only (EU citizenship coming on top of national citizenship and not replacing it), and its own parliamentary and judicial systems. Every country has its own customs, its own preference for drinking wine, beer or cider, and ways of producing any of the above that leave no room for confusion as to which country a tourist or visitor finds himself in.
The ‘pooling’ of sovereignty did not come easily to EU member states. It took decades of internal developments, debates, and multiple intergovernmental conferences where these aspects were discussed in painstaking detail. In the end, one must not lose sight of the fact that any decision to move an area of competence towards Brussels was always taken by the countries themselves, through its directly-elected leaders, heads of states or government.
It was in no way a ‘grab’—a ‘donation’, maybe!—as there was no actor from outside Europe that came to impose this new structure on the European peoples. The European Union is an emanation and a construct of the Europeans themselves. It was Europeans who led the process and fed it. Granted, some Europeans were more influential over the fate of this integration than others—but is that not the destiny of most polity-building in the history of humanity?
Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, Sir Winston Churchill, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and Paul-Henri Spaak were at the forefront of this process in Europe after the traumatic experience that their peoples went through in the Second World War. Should we question their motives?—perhaps! Should we deny that they were acting in what they perceived as the best interests of their peoples?—few these days would.
One needs to consider with careful attention the reasons that pushed countries at every step of the path of European integration towards a more ‘pooled’ sovereignty. States are rational actors; they rarely give away anything that is of real use to them without considering a greater gain in exchange. If European countries decided to renounce their coin in order to adopt the euro, they did so simply because they considered—rightly or wrongly; only the consequences could tell—that a single currency for the economies of the continent would bring them access to a greater market and a stronger bargaining power against global competitors such as the US or the UK (which was still part of the EU in those days, though always keeping its own economy mostly separate from the EU crowd, probably out of a cold calculation that together with the Commonwealth, the Anglo-Saxon world, Britain would ride the wave of any economic and currency turmoil better than by bathing in the Old Continent’s rules).
A crash course on the functioning of the EU
To most critics of the European Union ‘sovereignty grab’, it might come as a surprise to know that the areas of exclusive competence of the Union (i.e. areas where only the European Union has the right to make laws, not its member states) are actually quite limited and, besides, are not always among the main subjects that would preoccupy one’s mind on a day-to-day basis: the customs union, competition rules, monetary policy for euro-area countries (this one is quite important), conservation of marine biological resources under the Common Fisheries Policy, and the Common Commercial Policy (which is neither common nor terribly commercial).
The European Union and its member states are both able to legislate and to adopt legally-binding acts. For the most part, however, the EU can only do so where its member states leave that competence in place.
Shared competence refers to those areas where member states exercise their own competence only where the European Union does not exercise its own. Shared competence between the EU and its member states applies to the internal market, some aspects of social policy, economic, social and territorial cohesion (regional policy), agriculture and fisheries, environment, consumer protection, transport, trans-European networks, energy, the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice, common safety concerns in public health matters (transnational issues), research, technological development and space, development cooperation, and humanitarian aid.
Finally, there are supporting competences, whereby the European Union can only intervene to support, coordinate or complement the action of its member states. This applies to the following areas: protection and improvement of human health (remember the pandemic?), industry, culture, tourism, education, vocational training, youth and sport, civil protection, and administrative cooperation. In these areas, the EU cannot impose a harmonisation of the laws or practices of its member states. It can only encourage them to exchange information and experience in situations where, due to their nature, there can be spillovers from one country to another (as, for example, in the case of a public health emergency of international concern in which a disease knows no borders and only collective and coherent action can supposedly stop the unstoppable enemy).
Here is where the lie begins.
Politicians, it is known, often speak with forked tongue. When they decided to relinquish power to ‘Brussels’, they knew that ‘Brussels’ does not exist. It is a propaganda construct, and a very useful one, as it turns out. The Council, the Commission and the Parliament are the same people and the same power structures formed in the equivalent triad of institutions in national capitals, decamping temporarily to the Belgian capital (and Strasbourg and Luxembourg) to make the decisions that they always wanted to make, but for which they needed a cover from their constituency back home.
Even so, that guise does not make them anything other than the same national decision-makers in the most classical sense of the notion. European political leaders are well acquainted with this trick and have used it successfully for decades, without the mainstream media appearing to realise the prank or ever calling it out: “I didn’t do it, Brussels made me do it. I have no choice but to implement this policy at home”. For decades, every unpopular measure that any prime minister hoping to continue in post would not dare share on national television has been blamed on the mysterious ‘Brussels decision-makers’.
But who are they?
Speculation has been rife over decades as to who really pulls the strings in Brussels. The Presidents of the Commission, Council and Parliament, and even long-serving senior diplomats, have taken it in turns to be the prime suspect for this notorious title.
Let us consider them one by one, starting with the easiest: the President of the European Council, currently a certain Mr Charles Michel. Coming from a family of hereditary political leaders—his father, Louis Michel, held the post of Foreign Affairs Minister of Belgium, then that of European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs and then that of a Member of the European Parliament—Mr Michel occupies a function largely decorative, though not always with decorum.
His main task is to organise the works of the European Council (the occasional summit of national governments, supported more recently by a permanent staff seconded from national capitals, known confusingly as the Council of the EU), thus “driving forward the Council’s work on EU legislation”, in the words of the Treaty. In vernacular translation, this means that Mr Michel is a glorified venue host, managing the logistics of large-scale meetings involving outsized delegations with sophisticated whims. In this capacity, Mr Michel is the chief strategist overlooking the arrangement of—ironically!—sofas in huge rooms, the overnight translation of hundreds of pages in 24 official languages concomitantly, or ensuring a fifth cold meal in the middle of the night for a starving crowd of presidents and prime ministers locked in a room for sixteen hours.
It is in this light that one needs to understand the apparent revulsion expressed by various Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in respect of the secretive nature of the contracts concluded between the European Commission and Big Pharma corporations. Their outrage stems not so much from such appalling inconsideration for taxpayers’ money and public health as it does from mere frustration that they were left out of the deal, with no decent ‘cut’.
When it comes to the European Commission and its infamous President, Ursula von der Leyen, probably one of the most loathed figures of European politics of all time, people seem to attribute to her almost supernatural powers. She is supposed single-handedly to have sunk the EU economy, put the entire population of a continent on house arrest during the pandemic, sold our children down the river to big corporations and whatever is left of the European economy to the US, and dragged us into a war that could possibly turn into the one that will surpass them all.
Or was this really done single-handedly?
In her defence—as one can read on the official website of the Commission—the role of the President is to organise the Commission, to allocate portfolios to individual Commissioners, and to set the Commission's policy agenda. Rather lame and administrative. Settling contracts over text messages does not seem to be one of those attributes, at least not one set out in the law.
In fact, the contracts with the pharmaceutical companies were never concluded in the manner that the media maintained, via text messaging between von der Leyen and Bourla, but were based on a well-established, fully lawful process, involving EU member states mandating the Commission to carry out procurement on their behalf, using a task force respecting all procurement rules that there are in EU and basing their choices on the positive ‘scientific recommendations’ by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
This is not to turn a blind eye to Mrs von der Leyen’s dubious connections with Mr Bourla and probably with other Big Pharma heads, but it is to say that if there was a cover-up, it was done in the most procedurally correct manner. And this is probably the most advanced skill of the people in power: hiding wilful intent under a pile of legal platitudes, with the help of morally blind zombie lawyers and accountants and the full support of the governments of nation states, happy to relinquish power (and fiduciary duty) to a supranational forum, just so that they would not need to think.
In March 2020, a matter of days into the downward-spiralling madness that led to the declaration of a global pandemic and lockdowns, the European Commission President endowed herself with a Scientific Advisory Panel on Covid–19. Led by star scientists like Christian Drosten of La Charité Hospital, Berlin, and Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (who happens to be the husband of the no less famous Heidi Larson, uncontested world conductor of the ‘combatting vaccine hesitancy’ mantra), this Commission Panel is the forum where the EU plans to address the crisis via pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical measures were concocted, in what the Commission press release proudly trumpeted as “independent advice”. Public regulatory bodies such as the EMA, the ECDC and the ERCC were only silent observers of the Panel.
The destiny of these high flyers—and I include here not only the top political class, but also the highest categories of senior public officials, or what we can call EU civil service senior management, composed of the Directors-General and Directors at the EU institutions, since these roles are in reality vastly political and not competence-based appointments—is utterly inglorious and mostly tedious.
Here is a snapshot of a normal working day of a high-level EU official, a Director-General or Commissioner: he has—
- an average of three or four high-level meetings a day,
- a clutch of media interviews,
- about two dozen decisions of various implications put in front of them to sign off,
- and several dozens of internal processes and inter-service consultations to rubber-stamp.
Bear in mind that these people arrived in these senior positions without much prior preparation and with next to no expertise in their respective areas. They did not make it to those lofty heights of ‘responsibility’ thanks to their incredible skills seeing off all competition, but because they had mastered like nobody else the art of pleasing their masters, showing vigorous skill at being unchallenging to their superiors, not creating any waves (which is achieved primarily by making sure you never express any views, even the most cautious), and proving unwavering obedience to whomever put them in their previous positions.
Once installed in their new executive chairs, these people get easily overwhelmed by the everyday business. There are hundreds of papers to read and many decisions to take on incomprehensible topics, on the basis of explanations of an esoteric nature—which come across, more often than not, as an attempt to bamboozle and perplex the poor named decision-maker. It is not difficult to realise that, tributary to the usual proclivities of human nature, these people quickly develop a sense of of horror and repugnance at the mass of subordinate but unpredictable fonctionnaires (rank-and-file EU civil servants), ever unsure as they are about their intentions.
They all eventually give in to the irrepressible feeling of being besieged by an army of boffins trying to extract the dear life, along with a wet-ink signature, out of them. Shortly after the quinquennial installation of a new Commission, the all-out war between the services (the bureaucratic arms of the Commission) and the cabinets (the inner sanctum of staff around each Commissioner) begins: the cabinets defending their ‘leader’, the services defending their ‘projects’. Each participant in the turf war is convinced that the other is a traitor to the EU’s interests—the cabinets because, for them, the interest of the EU equates to the personal interests of their boss; the services because, by ‘interest’, they understand the need to cover their backs.
The rest is history, as colourfully described in books such as the Life of a European Mandarin: Inside the Commission by Derk-Jan Eppink, a blunt Dutchman who has the rare distinction of having worked at high level in all three core EU institutions—in the case of the Commission, as the frustrated right-hand man of a would-be reformist Internal Market Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein.
I remember a poster I once saw in a corridor at the Commission, which featured a woman of distinctively different race and garbed in non-European attire—intentionally suggesting a refugee. The message said, “Where you see a stranger, she sees millions”, implying that we have a duty to see our society as foreign and ourselves as strangers with no more rights to feel ‘at home’ or ‘among their own’ than a person arriving from another part of the planet, and that it is incumbent upon us to sympathise with the feelings of fear and loneliness that a migrant might experience in a land of refuge.
I always thought that our top leadership must be something like that woman in the poster: scared refugees lost in an ocean of strangers whose language, customs and mentality they do not share and do not understand. They must be feeling beleaguered and see us as hostile. This must be the reason why they fill up their cabinets with advisers brought from ‘home’; why they never communicate with us directly, only through intermediaries; and why they always have any material reaching them filtered by their personal staff, as if afraid that we might transmit some form of toxin impregnated in the briefing papers. Any press release is seen by half a dozen persons close to the Commissioner or President, and no green light is given without prior imprimatur by the top civil servant working for them personally, the chef de cabinet.
Loyalty is well rewarded, being probably the commodity with the highest value in the EU system. This is why, most often, it is the press secretaries and spokespersons who are next in line to become top officials in their domain one day.
The ‘back then’ and the ‘now’
One might be tempted to think that the good old reasons that motivated statesmen in the early days of the communitarian project got lost in the fog of the decades that ensued. Little by little, we might surmise, the process was hijacked by ill-intentioned ‘globalists’ with atrophied scruples and deep pockets, who turned the entire European Union construct into a plutocracy characterised by scant concern for the little people and a generalised corruption of big government, exclusively devoted to striving to increase the benefits of a crooked élite of select corporatists and their hangers-on.
Curiously, though, if we analyse the recent history of the European Union, there is a noticeable trend since the early 1990s towards the course of full steam backwards in terms of ‘EU integration’. This has occurred notably through the strong push—not least from the UK, one of the most Eurosceptic member states—for enlargement. A process trumpeted as a victorious march east for Western democracy, EU expansion turned out to be a poisoned chalice for both sides.
The new member states found that the promise of greater prosperity meant mostly selling their national industry to Western corporations in exchange for peanuts and being obliged to open their national markets to much more expensive and often lower-quality Western products without any right to protective policies (forbidden by EU ‘competition law’), coupled with massive layoffs and fundamental restructuring of a dozen national societies in which every other person whom this revolution befell in mid-career would hear that their skills were no longer required and for whom going back to university was not really an option.
Not to forget the ‘values’ part: people from Estonia to Malta learned overnight that customs transmitted from one generation to the next for millennia and held dear to their hearts, customs which regulated their existence and gave them reassurance through thick and thin and formed the umbilical cord linking them to the beginning of time—well, those values were wrong and had to be replaced by new, more ‘appropriate’ ones.
Or else. Or else you are a bigot, a homophobe, a retrograde, a racist, an anti-democrat. Or the ultimate insult in the post-communist world of my youth: you are a crypto-communist! You are inappropriate and possibly illegal. In your own home. New mantras had to be internalised: Gypsies are not dirty, they are overcoming centuries of accumulated debasement. They are not thieving, they are merely reappropriating possessions filched from their ancestors, held as serfs by paler masters—or were they paler?
For the older member states, enlargement of the Union came with the hidden price tag of a dilution of EU integration, which in turn for them meant a diminution on several fronts: lessened EU power projection abroad, a lower common denominator among EU member states, funds flowing east supposedly to support development there, occasioning increased impoverishment of the poorest in the West, with loss of jobs and a dilution of the quality of work and services in hitherto advanced economies. Ultimately, the enlargement of the European Union entailed the loss of achievements of previous decades.
How should a modern democratic bureaucratic system work?
In a ‘normally’-functioning democracy (whatever the notion of normality one wishes to adopt), the state administration is supposed to carry out the ‘business of the state’. This encompasses, roughly, all those functions which are necessary to the society and which are too complex and whose implications are too far-reaching for the local or even regional level to deal with, while at the same time too detailed for a handful of elected politicians to handle.
Given their notorious lack of expertise in pretty much anything, and the merciless pressure of today’s world that requires non-stop presence on the media and social networks in order to stay relevant, poor politicians have little time—if any—left to, for example, learn about political and legal systems or about how to make policies.
One of the aspects of this anti-competence that always amused me—if not for the downright annoying character of the fallacies it reveals—was the amazement of people at a rare glimpse into the mind of a politician, and their discovering with great astonishment the vacuum that it contains. It is beyond me how the general public has still not figured out that an average politician knows nothing about the things over which he holds ultimate sway, or that he makes basic muddles over notions on which many lives hang (see the recent ramblings of the Commission President about the number of Ukrainian casualties, with her seemingly not knowing the difference between a soldier and a commissioned officer, despite having arrived in post directly from running the German Ministry of Defence).
If there is one aspect of political propaganda that has made its way into the minds of even the most sceptical of citizens, it is the myth of the all-knowledgeable, all-wise and unfailingly upright statesman. Observers need to get to grips with the notion that a minister of transport is no expert in transportation and probably knows little if anything about it; the minister of finance often knows nothing about finance; and the minister of health is no health expert. They are ‘politicians’. This is a job in itself, an art, an expertise that requires talent and many years of training and honing of skills.
This is why they are surrounded by entire teams of advisers—politically nominated or hand-picked from their party acolytes (so no public officials who have passed all sorts of competitions and exams) with years of proven loyalty to the party (read that as ‘mopping up behind the big boss’) and with the right connections—who tell them how to speak and what to say and how to get dressed or in which tone to address the crowd on a given subject.
As compared to the nineteenth century—when great personalities of society, such as lawyers or doctors, ended up as prime ministers after having served the people in their professional capacity—today’s politicians need, in order to ensure success, an early direction towards an exclusive path of politicking.
If one does not engage from an early age—usually after leaving high school, or even earlier—in the youth wing of a political party and does not carry out assiduous political activity early on, he stands no chance of making it to an electable place on an electoral list. While the would-be eurocrat must go through the formalities of higher education in order to obtain the veneer of intellectual status that goes with the state function that he intends to occupy, this does not mean that much in-depth study, let alone practice, of any given occupation under the sun is ever much practiced by any politician. This is how recent years have witnessed the rise of more and more presidents, prime ministers and ministers with no expertise prior to holding that position, other than other politically-held positions.
More worryingly, more and more statesmen (for example, Hollande or Macron in France) never held any public office before indulging in the business of becoming presidents. A lot of people imagine that watching the affairs of the state unfold on TV and commenting from the margins constitutes as solid expertise as actually doing it for oneself. There is also the widespread belief that a commercial bigshot can do at least as good a job of governing, if not better, than a public administrator can. The attractive myth of the businessman-turned-minister, who manages the country like a huge company, and making profit in the process, is thus born.
This is a beautiful myth, but not how the state works. As in all other areas of life, hard work and long experience is what gives a person the good judgment and experience to enable him to build something good and solid, to be creative and useful to others. The current crop of people parachuted into high echelons of responsibility—following an electoral process which increasingly resembles a Hollywood saga, with its cast of charismatic-looking (if only!) and over-their-heads-in-debt figures—could hardly fail to disappoint when confronted with complex real-life issues in society.
I should tell it as it is: in Western democracies, the central public administration (the senior civil service) has long taken over the running of the state, first in its routine functions but gradually moving towards increasingly sensitive areas. And let us all be honest: most of us did not even notice, nor was there any calamity recorded in instances where the public administration ran the state even in the total absence of a government—as attested, for example, by the record-breaking Belgium, host state of the EU, with 592 days of no elected government running the country between December 2018 and August 2020.
So bureaucrats running the state might not necessarily be the recipe for disaster that many suspect, since a public administrator acts under much tighter mandates and systems of control than an elected government does. Especially as long as a country is not in a crisis, ‘business as usual’ mode might actually save the day. The problem, I would argue, begins precisely when the politicians seek to intervene.
Politics versus bureaucracy—what difference?
Against the background of an ever more incompetent political governing structure, the public administration gradually took over more and more of the responsibilities for running a country (or the EU, for that matter). Not everything is left to the bureaucrats, though. A somewhat simplified (though by no means inaccurate) division of effort between the two levels would be that the politician deals with the ‘what’ of policy (e.g. reduce inflation, increase employment, boost health, improve education), while the bureaucracy provides the ‘why’ (e.g. why a certain draft bill must be put forward, what options there are, why a given line of action is preferable to another, produce impact assessments, etc.) and the ‘how’ (i.e., how the objectives just outlined are to be achieved). A bureaucracy is where the institutional memory, the expertise and the driving engine of a state reside.
To those who like to lament that so much power is ostensibly put into the arms (or brains?) of unelected individuals, I would answer that the concept of ‘elections’, as emphasised above, has lost much of its meaning anyway. Personally, after over two decades of working in public administration with various ministers and commissioners, and knowing both the bureaucrat and the political classes, I would unequivocally choose to put my fate in the hands of former. They at least know what they are talking about, spent years studying a given subject, have no vested political interest (at least not by definition), and get no fame or financial gain by promoting a certain line of action—all of this in contrast to contemporary politicians.
In a normally functioning society, most of the decision-making flows bottom-up between the bureaucratic machinery and the political level, while exceptional situations tend to be managed top-down (not the least because in ‘crisis’ situations, the politicians must be seen to ‘care’, ‘be involved’, ‘manage’, ‘lead’).
The bottom-up approach implies that the public administration, which is supposed to be closer to the people than the political class, takes stock—through its mass of subordinate branches, decentralised agencies and territorial bureaus—of the needs of the population via a continuous process of communication and exchanges, monitoring and evaluation of the situation obtaining. Where a problem is identified, a diagnosis is due.
That bureaucracy then needs to explain the hows and whys and to propose solutions, which vary from changing the methods of implementation or the incentives to be implemented (for instance, too much free riding on public transport may require as a solution beefing up the check-in gates or providing for new means of payment), up to changing the law (which it can sometimes do itself by statutory instruments or delegated acts) or proposing new measures where a loophole is found (for example, a gap identified in the process of market authorisation of a new medicine may lead to a new law, adding to the regulatory framework to which pharmaceutical companies are subject).
So much for national level. A similar process exists in the EU.
The normal EU legislative route: Council—>Commission—>(NGOs—>)Parliament and Council
In the EU, a normal decision-making process starts with the European Council (heads of state and government) setting the general political orientations over the long run, drawing from national priorities and needs. The Commission—the original institution of the EU, conceived of as the permanent bureaucracy of international civil servants loyal to the founding EU treaties—is then invited to make proposals in accordance with an Annual Work Programme, based on in-depth market or public consultations, impact assessments, ex-ante (baseline) evaluations, etc.
Preferably, the impact assessment must itself be based on assessments by corporates, NGOs, think tanks, or other expertise independent of the Commission. The impact assessment needs to show that a balanced and unbiased consultation of all societal stakeholders was carried out, not the least of the population at large via ‘public consultations’.
What aspects, and how much, of that public consultation should be taken into account is something that remains a matter of debate in Brussels. Let us not forget that at the top of the Commission sits a College of member states’ appointed officials, political appointees, who ultimately take the decision on whether the Commission should put forward a certain proposal or not. These people act—make no mistake—on a mandate set for them by the country that sent them there. The College is, as its name belies, supposed to act in collegiality; but that is a notion that falls by the wayside, owing to the sum of national inputs that are thrown into it.
One could also argue that even the most impressive instances of public participation (see the 30,000 e-mails per day received by MEPs during the negotiations on the European Covid Digital Certificate) does not constitute sufficient proof of legitimacy. What percentage of the overall EU population do these associations or NGOs who activate the population actually represent? Should we always believe and follow NGOs just because they truly, madly, deeply dislike a certain policy line?
To those who believe that the power and influence of European civil society (expressed through NGOs) should be increased to have stronger influence on decision-making processes at the Commission, I would like to present the example of the National Endowment for Democracy, the famous US non-profit organisation created to spread ‘democracy’ in the world with State Department dollars, or the Open Society Foundation, one of the best-known and largest philanthropic organisations in the world that ‘cares’ about freedom, democracy, and human rights by making lists of reliable MEPs, to name just a couple of such NGOs.
What if the right to influence legislation were formally (because, informally, this already is the case) made proportional to an NGO’s capacity to influence? How would civil society—the genuine article, not corporate or deep-state interests masquerading as NGOs—stand a chance at projecting any influence on such massive processes when faced with competition from organisations tens or even hundreds of times more powerful financially and politically? Believe me, the situation would be dire, more rapidly and decisively turning against the basic interests of the general population.
As a third layer of drafting, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, through what is known as co-decision, come together to negotiate and vote on the legal proposal.
This is the normal procedure. The problem is not the procedure, nor its degree of balance, fairness or transparency. As I came to realise through years of preparing files for decision, and watching—sometimes for years on end—the Parliament and Council bickering over the smallest detail of a file only to miss the bigger points, the problem comes from precisely the poor understanding and paltry expertise of these high-level officials who ultimately take the decisions for the EU.
My mother, who was a schoolteacher in her day, used to say when referring to a severely underperforming pupil that “he wouldn’t spot a mistake in the text if it was riding a bicycle, waving a red flag”. This is how I feel about the decision-making politicians: they are expertise-blind and morally impaired. They speak much and loudly in order to mask the silence in their heads, and spend their time tweeting out for the echo chambers of the mainstream media to hear. In this environment, making lots of noise is taken for competence, while showing off one’s ineptitude counts as ‘caring’ for people.
Political success is measured in terms of followership on Twitter or LinkedIn. In reality, politicians are mostly blissfully unaware of the issues in their own portfolios, and work on the substance of a proposal is all but non-existent. Except for a handful of Members of the European Parliament who are crying foul in a back room, pushed into a corner, ridiculed, mocked or smeared by the big media and their big-party colleagues, democratic debate is essentially non-existent on the EU stage.
What happens ‘in a crisis’ instead
Admittedly, the ‘normal’ decision-making procedure has its limits and caveats. Its official appellation (“Ordinary Legislative Procedure”), however, is not to say that it is what happens by default.
Normal only applies in normal times—and times are rarely normal. Crises, on the other hand, benefit from very different rules. Take the Covid ‘crisis’. None of the laws and rules adopted during this period, whether at national or EU level, followed the formalities explained above. In the name of ‘efficiency’, ‘urgency’, ‘cutting red tape’, ‘saving lives’, ‘acting decisively’, etc., all sorts of corners were cut—mostly the good ones, the ones that are supposed to ensure transparency and accountability and keep alight the feeble flame of democracy.
No impact assessment was carried out; no open call for tender was held when contracting the pandemic ‘counter-measures’, including the vaccines. Everything was suddenly exclusively top-down, and the EU public administration—like any other national administration in Europe, the UK, US, and everywhere else—just followed religiously the instructions received from the political level.
To the outside observer for whom things are clear and whose mind is made up that this was a hoax pandemic, it may seem inconceivable that so many people—the EU administration being calculated at around 32,000 people, including those from the executive agencies (i.e., not including entities such as the EMA, Frontex or Europol)—could blindly follows orders that today, at the remove of just a couple of years, seem so unequivocally absurd, deceitful and harmful towards people.
Part of the explanation for this evident failure lies in the fact that in reality, out of this huge administration, only a handful of people deal with any given subject. Not even the Commission’s entire Directorate-General for Health (DG SANTE)—which is based far away from Brussels in County Meath—was involved in this; only a task force under one of the units of one of the Directorates worked directly on the job.
Moreover, as is often the way in sensitive situations, the Commission does not employ its own experienced civil servants with deep expertise in the matter, but ad-hoc contractual agents, drafted in to a grade outranking the civil servants, to carry out the task in hand. These are people hired on a short-term contract and not with the best salary. They would carry out any task without asking any question or putting two and two together, just to please their boss, to make sure the contract gets extended so that they can continue to have a job. Among the managerial class, it is a foregone conclusion that the individuals who achieve senior positions will be careerists who long since decided to sacrifice any moral backbone for the benefit of a promotion. So nobody will speak and everyone will avert their gaze rather than jeopardise their yearning to climb the greasy pole.
The creeping corruption in the system
Having inhabited the system for a while, I have formed my own theory about how such a gargantuan failure was possible. The culprit is half human corruption, half incompetence. This modus operandi did not wait for a massive blow like the Covid pandemic to strike in order to take shape inside the EU bureaucracy. Covid was only the revealing event, like the litmus in an acid test.
There has been an incremental evolution of mentalities in public administration over the past decades in the direction of gradually eroding the sense of duty towards the public, concomitantly with transferring the object of bureaucratic loyalty and responsibility from the public to the political class. Bureaucrats have been told for generations that serving their political masters faithfully and submissively is the genuine reflection of democracy. In our advanced societies, political appointees are held to represent the embodiment of free and fair elections, and the only way for the administration to prove loyal and useful is to follow without demur the instructions it receives, even where these instructions would appear to run flagrantly counter to the interests of Europe and its peoples, or are unintelligible or absurd. I call this the Prussification of the public service.
This was the classic reply I got in Brussels every time I tentatively expressed some doubt (to have done so stridently would have been impossible; I would been needlessly jeopardising my career or even my job in a system where ‘no-one is irreplaceable’ and with the competition for a post so high that people knock around Brussels for years hoping against hope for an opening in the EU institutions and almost ready to sell an organ just to get through the door):
The people up there receive information from a much wider scope of sources, including the intelligence services. They know things we do not have access to…
My taken-aback response to that phrase has always been:
If there is some other consideration so important that it negates everything else I know as an expert on this matter, why does my hierarchy not share it with me?
Well, I never got an answer. It might simply have to do with levels of secrecy to which I am not privy, but I am increasingly suspecting that this is nothing more than a phrase meant to forestall any doubts and get the subordinate to fall in line.
This response of the senior hierarchy is the mark of what the system defines as ‘loyalty’, which, as I came to understand, is synonymous with ‘following without question’.
Another important element, I would think, that makes this loyalty easy to impress on the consciousness of the bright young things arriving from the four corners of the Empire to work so close to the foot of the throne has to do with the social and economic background that most of these people have. The vast majority of us issue from the lower middle class of European societies: the kind of self-made man or woman who studied hard and worked even harder in order to bag one of these coveted jobs.
This path in life imprints on people a sense of gratitude towards the power that, in its grace and magnanimity, accepted them among their ranks, albeit the humbler ones. We earn salaries and have access to a standard of living that our parents could only dream of, although they might have worked hard and sacrificed a lot. In the case of those of us from the former Soviet-bloc countries, we have an extra layer of duty and gratitude towards the forces perceived as responsible for pulling us out of the communist dictatorships. As a sign of thankfulness, most of my colleagues would banish from their minds the very thought of daring to question anything they receive from the new and better system.
And then there is this aspect called ambition. An environment which provides people with the opportunity to breathe the rarefied air around the ‘great leaders of the free world’ attracts many yearnings. Graduates never fight their way to Brussels to become pen-pushers. They come here thinking they will make it to the top and will end up as the next Robert Schuman or Walter Hallstein. Little do they know, when arriving, that the chances of advancing even to the beginner level of managerial authority are reserved to a few per cent of the entire fonctionnaire population, and the odds of making it higher than that are in the order of microscopy.
So what to do in a world where your ambitions vastly exceed your capacities and any realistic expectation of consummation?
Moral corruption is probably the most widespread secret ingredient used by humans of all times when thwarted. In an environment saturated with high performers and where the processes of promotion are lacking in transparency and standardised criteria, the comparative advantage that would get you ahead of the crowd must be of a different nature than straightforward professional performance. After a while in the system and despairing at the stagnation of your status, you realise that there are elevators that can take you upstairs faster than any average bureaucrat. The traditional Human Resources stump speech on professional growth refers to ‘adding to your skills’, but the secret often is to reduce or dilute some.
The encumbrance of excessive moral, philosophical or social norms could be a heavy load on your shoulders when you need to climb faster than anyone around. Many, having grasped this acutely, have acquired the fine art of cheating invisibly while keeping up the appearance of high ethical standards. People in high positions in the EU system usually have their skeletons in the closet, whether it is backstabbing rivals, theft of others’ ideas, or the queen of all stratagems, spreading disinformation about others while posing as the victim. If you ever wondered how these institutions have turned such Machiavellian arts into a high science, well, it is because they have been running a robust apprenticeship scheme in-house.
Corrupting a system is not achieved overnight; it is carefully crafted
The above is only the more emotional or psychological aspect of explaining the attitude of Brussels bureaucrats. The bigger part of the explanation has to do with two very practical, simultaneously applied techniques that characterise the working methods of the European Union institutions.
The first is the fragmentation or compartmentalisation of decision-making; the second is the practice of meaninglessness, or stuffing people’s lives with a huge load of very time-consuming but meaningless tasks—as per the model of David Graeber’s Bullsh*t Jobs.
Fragmentation occurred against a background of apparent generosity, equality of opportunities and opening up to new member states. While most EU policies remained essentially the same (agriculture, education, migration), the EU population, and thus the quotas of fonctionnaires sent to Brussels, grew significantly over the past decades. So the structure of the EU Institutions had to be broken up into myriad discrete areas of work—translated in practice into new directorates, units and sectors—in an effort to accommodate the thousands of new recruits arriving in the European Union institutions, especially after the big-bang enlargement of 2004.
This approach essentially meant that a policy officer at the Commission who would previously have been responsible for an entire area—for example, the organisation and running of consumer protection in the area of food safety—would now be responsible for any of the subjacent fields of activity related to it, such as stakeholder information; or for writing an occasional Implementing Act (providing tables of harmful products); or for relations with national authorities, etc.
Moreover, to fulfil their tasks, this policy officer would need to rely on consultation and agreement with a multitude of other colleagues and services, often found to be in competition with each other, fervently scrapping over the less than 5% chances of ever achieving a management position, or simply caught in the competence contests and power struggles between the various Directorates-General (DGs) and the commissioners who reign over them.
Both the internal structure and the consultation processes of the European Commission are so complex, and the needs for ‘accountability’, ‘transparency’, and the ‘right to be consulted’ are so immense, that the individual influence of any given fonctionnaire, even those in relatively high-level positions, is extremely limited. On a regular inter-service consultation that I had to carry out the other day with a very limited number of other Commission services (a grand total of five of them) for a seemingly uncontroversial proposal, the system was indicating that 163 bureaucrats with a ‘need to know’ were involved in the process.
The meaninglessness of one’s daily job is a phenomenon somehow derived from the foregoing, and consists in the fact that a person, in the exercise of his functions, has to spend the greatest—and probably the best—part of his time and professional abilities on useless tasks rather than on producing something useful or adding value. I would estimate, depending on the given day, that between 70% and 90% of work effort at the European Commission is consumed in non-value-producing activities (transaction costs), varying from trying to appease the minor chicanery of peers, through smoothing over whatever asperities and frustrations superiors have, to paying lip-service to frustrated hierarchies afraid of losing their game or battered by their own superiors.
In general, working for the EU bureaucracy has a lot to do with resolving the socio-psychological issues, real or imaginary, of everything and everyone else around. Paradoxically, having a bigger administration with more hired experts leads to lengthened working hours, significantly increased individual workload, and significantly decreased output.
In this environment, the objective of producing a meaningful, useful, justified and necessary product gets lost in the ocean of intricacies of the bureaucratic process and the need to survive the everyday challenge, and falls to the very bottom of the list of priorities. The fonctionnaire arrives at home late, exhausted and with no sense of purpose. The little energy left is spent on fighting rush-hour Brussels traffic, picking the children up from school and preparing for the next day, when the chores resume.
People in the EU system are so busy working that they have no time to think—a comical reminder of a long-standing communist adage, “We don’t think, we work”. Questioning the decisions of the day is simply unconceivable. Checking alternative media sources to explain the events in the world or devoting time to analyse world events are not even on the radar of preoccupation. The little information that is sought about the world, if any, comes from CNN or the BBC, the only world news channels that are included by default in any cable subscription in Brussels (no, Euronews is not).
It’s the decision-making, stupid!
Paraphrasing James Carville’s famous indictment, the root cause of all political corruption lies in the decision-making process. Either because the public servants are not competent enough to understand what is going on, or because they are engulfed into their own thirst for advancement, there is nothing much currently standing in the way of politicians imposing senseless or harmful decisions on the people they are sworn to protect.
After being laundered through the meaninglessness-producing machine of co-decision, a proposal in the EU that might initially have been born out of true expertise and some genuine desire to improve the life of people has, by the time it has been drafted by the Commission fonctionnaires and reaches the co-legislators (Parliament and Council), lost much of its intended necessity, proportionality and utility and has turned into a mostly useless, if not harmful, collection of platitudes or nonsensical phrases.
What matters is that a whole roomful of politicians—ministers at the Council, Members of the European Parliament—can shake each other’s hands in congratulatory rituals of self-gratification, content, once more, that the interests of the people have been brought a notch forward thanks to their caring and almost divine intervention. Big words are uttered in these circumstances, such as references to the all-too-European spirit of ‘compromise’ and the principle of ‘solidarity’.
The management of the Covid situation and the war in Ukraine have proven to be the apogee of the EU’s top-down, zero-accountability phenomenon. Information and instructions are always coming from the top, although it is often unclear how far up that top is, as even the most senior-ranking individuals in the system do not seem to have much ownership or understanding of these actions or decisions.
For example, the communications department is told to write information packages (pompously called ‘strategic communication’, though one would prefer to call them ‘propaganda’) shaping the public’s opinion the way we want it to be. “Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine”, that phrase also trotted out by the British Government a dozen times a day, is directed to be used in full and in any circumstance, even in internal communications, even in a footnote.
In the postmodernist era of political theory dominated by the concept of ‘soft power’ as coined by Joseph Nye, the idea that theory can create the reality permeates the policymaking style of Western civilisation. Communication is not used to inform, but to determine, to shape. We have convinced ourselves that the other side is ruthless and immoral and that the only chance we have of defeating the forces of darkness is to keep perpetually one step ahead of their game. Even where this strategy implies that we ourselves are using morally doubtful methods, I often hear the phrase uttered around me: “What else could we do? What choice do we have?”
Similarly, the finance department is asked to conclude contracts to buy a pre-established list of items—called ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’—when it comes to Covid, or tanks and ammunition when it comes to Ukraine, without much assessment or justification. The necessity, proportionality and subsidiarity requirements of good lawmaking in the EU are not a factor in these cases, and in any case, the fonctionnaires are left in no doubt that it is not up to them to judge that.
As for the legal departments at the EU, the request for input comes with the instruction to establish that our decisions respect EU and international law; not that they should analyse whether or not it does so. The outcome of any analysis is dictated. I recall a Director who always used to say, “A good lawyer does not tell his superior whether it is legal or not. A good lawyer makes it legal.” I was vividly reminded of that expression recently when our President mentioned in a press statement that “our lawyers are looking into ways legally to seize Russian assets”. The balance of moral righteousness when the EU assesses its actions is predetermined and always biased towards the plus.
If the bureaucrats are not the problem, then who is?
Evil has nothing of the glory and romance that many conspiracy theories tend to apportion to it. It is often the offspring of the banal, and mostly coexists peacefully with banality. Evil is not the exclusive appanage of a given category of people; it is born when the joints between the three bodies of society—political élites, bureaucracy and general public—crumble and when the mechanisms developed over centuries and meant to allow the estates to keep each other in check are hit by a wrecking ball. Democracy is achieved when there is a fine balance between the need to keep the large masses under control, so as not to cannibalise each other for control of resources, and the need for the masses as a whole to control those in power, to make sure that it does not get misused or abused.
The public gradually lost interest in political life decades ago in the West, thinking that things were bound to move forward anyway and that they were always going to be taken care of by the politicians—even when they saw malfeasance arising. The common phrase one hears these days is, “They wouldn’t bump us all off, would they? Who would work for them then?” I’m afraid people overrate their own presumed utility to the dominant class.
I do not think, either, that they would devote the energy necessary for that goal just for the sake of it. But I do believe that if the élite needed to choose between two lines of action, one which would give them more power and control but would sacrifice humans, and one which would see their relative power diminished as the price for distributing more welfare to the people, they would not hesitate to opt for the former.
An old adage by Count Joseph de Maistre, reflecting on the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, says that people get the leaders they deserve. I know that many today would disagree with that, and even feel outraged at the insinuation that they would condone such leadership. There is a pervasive phenomenon of self-victimisation, defeatism and élite-recrimination that dominates the dissident landscape. People tend to look around them more than they look into their own souls.
As set out in my introductory paragraphs, I plainly realise that in the current political system, little power is left to the latitude of the individual voter. That is not to say that more scrutiny cannot be exercised over our political class, nor that the masses cannot influence the decisions taken by the political élites. Quite the contrary; I believe there is, in general, a strong correlation between the zeitgeist and the popular mandate implemented by the ruling élites. We are getting what we want.
The reaction (or lack thereof) of society when confronted with the first Covid measure revealed much about the general mentality, spirit and inclinations of the present-day European population. The vast majority was content to stay at home and get paid in the process, with the added bonus of free Netflix subscriptions. I keep hearing from dissidents that “people were lied to” and “people must wake up”. I know, however, that many actually understood very well from the outset the direction in which this Covidianism was going—and just accepted it, or even rejoiced in the future that it betokened for humanity.
Little by little, we gave up on long-held traditions, apparently in exchange for liberties. Some liberties they were: the liberty to practise untrammelled sex, then the liberty to choose our identity, then liberation from unyielding public opprobrium, then from our ‘birth-assigned’ sexual identity. What kind of liberty was that, which turned against us and held us even more enslaved than we had been before?
The attractiveness of pop culture—the idea that all moral imperatives or references can be done away with and that instead anything goes—permeates and incentivises our decisions and actions, whether at individual level or collectively. Very appealing at first, these new morals often leave us disenchanted and disenfranchised once we start experiencing their bitter side effects.
Brussels is amoral, as I was kindly told years ago, when I was just joining the club with a most hopeful and enthusiastic mindset. It is not overtly immoral (the princess is jealous and clutches her vanity tightly), but cheats on the margins with every opportunity it gets.
It might upset many to hear it, but the reality is that we live in a society that is dominated by hedonism and conformism, that is comfort-prone, while at the same time weaker than its predecessors and than other parts of the world in values and principles, desacralised, and amoral.
Willing to fill the void left by denuding itself from any traditional religious manifestation—and to replace traditional moral frames of reference with some form of (green? gender? what happens if they clash?) rituals—society ‘elected’, consciously or semi-consciously, those political representatives that would implement these new values in its legal and institutional structures.
Why did people not go out on the streets to protest massively when lockdowns were declared? Why did everyone adopt a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude?
Let us be honest with ourselves. Even to the extent that some resistance was put up to Covid tyranny, protests were too little too late and represented only a tiny percentage of the society: largely those immediately affected by the lockdowns, those who were missed by the safety nets of governmental programmes, who had lots to lose immediately and nothing to gain. Those who could go on lying to themselves that everything was going to be all right, that their governments would put limits on themselves and hand the seized powers back to democracy afterwards, did so.
A creation is always made in the image of its creator. While it is true that we do not elect policies (climate, migration, health), subconsciously we do push our political leaders in the direction of them. We do so by seeking comfort and always choosing the path of least resistance: faced with any pair of options, en masse we opt unfailingly for the one that entails less effort, less struggle, less risk, less bother, fewer one-off expenses… We also sell the dignity of tomorrow and the future of our children for the comfort of today.
And there is something else: the nagging sense that we are losing something we once had—democracy, accountability, justice and fairness. But did we? In reality, the world has always been a class system. Social climbing has always been a challenge. The only difference in recent times is that it became somewhat easier for a while to cross the barrier from one class to the immediately superior one, and only in as far as the middle-class layers are concerned. Starting as a peon and attaining political or corporate leadership status has remained out of scope for most mere mortals.
If anything is to be retained from my plea, it is that bureaucrats are not politicians, politicians are never bureaucrats, and bureaucrats are by definition not elected. As it should be. God save us all from the day when expertise must be submitted to a vote.
Had it been subjected to a vote, the general theory of relativity would never have been accepted, nor would we likely have internal-combustion engines in our everyday lives. People never vote for something they do not like or understand—watch Hollywood movies and you will know why. The problem lies not in the notion of progress, but in what we do with it.
The same goes for democracy. There is nothing wrong with adapting it to new eras and social forms; the problem is when we allow corruption to creep in under the guise of progress. We should not stop research on high tech or medicines just because a bunch of villains hijacked their application. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. And so we should not undermine public administration, which is and will continue to be the backbone of state functioning in an orderly society.
Instead, we must wash our society clean of processes and mechanisms that have become corrupted. This goes for the political as well as for the bureaucratic class. Although the latter is but a tool in the hands of politicians, often with little room for manoeuvre on what to do, it bears its share of the blame for the current mess. While politics needs to be purged of its sins, including perhaps by replacing an entire generation of political parties and personalities, the bureaucracy must be redirected and harnessed for the better. Since they mostly follow orders, when those orders are straightened, so will the public administration’s act.
It is not by confusing or mixing up the two categories that we will achieve this end. Bureaucrats will not be better by becoming political. If election in place of competency exams were the solution, then we would have a clean political class.
Bureaucrats must not be elected; they must be subjected to tough selections and competence-based examinations. Their loyalty to the people must be proven and constantly tested, and they must respond to the directions of institutions and structures that are directly subordinated to the people, not to elected politicians who are here today and often gone tomorrow, who end up in positions of power based on a nomination on a party list—a nomination which might have had no basis in any form of expertise, knowledge or moral compass and which does not prove any skill in public affairs—before landing directly in positions of tremendous public power and responsibility.
Our democracy definitely needs a shake-up, as the old model no longer responds to the needs and expectations of a densely populated society of the twenty-first century. This shake-up, possibly a sort of reset, might well not be the one that our political élites have in mind for us. I would not venture into the hows, whys and whens of this restructuring of the democracy, but I would hazard that it will be a process, not a phenomenon, and will not happen overnight. Most likely, things will have to get a lot worse for the people to wake up before they start to get better. And I know one thing for sure: if we do not start that journey, we will never get there.
In the meantime, we need to get our facts right and our objectives straight. We cannot win this fight if we do not even understand who our allies are and who the enemies are. Tussling among the peoples of Europe or within the West for some illusory hegemony will not help. A return to fervent nationalism will not get us better—do the British still believe that breaking up with the European Union helped them get rid of whatever was holding their society back?
Pointing fingers at other people or social categories, just because they happen to be working for the structures of power while not holding any power themselves, will not help either. We need to join forces and inaugurate this major endeavour that lies before us, each one of us with his own skill and bravado. United, we can prevail; engulfed in irrelevant squabbles among ourselves, we will be defeated.
Bureaucrats are a social category like any other, good and bad in equal measure. The media manage to confuse some of us, many are indoctrinated by a relentless propaganda, but some are well-intentioned people who pursue this career because they genuinely want to make the life of their fellow human beings better.
Do not dismiss us out of hand; try to get us on the right side. There will be a time of reckoning, and those responsible for the crimes perpetrated against the people will have to pay.
My schoolteacher used to say, “A problem well defined is a problem half solved”. Let us define our problem correctly in order to reach the right solution. Public service is not your problem. Your elected politicians and anachronistic electoral systems are.
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