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 leading 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.
In so doing, the Queen Mother revealed not only here genuinely felt sympathy for those directly affected by the bombing; she showed that she understood the value of leaders as symbols.
The mere fact of her presence sent a potent signal to friend and foe alike. For the British population, her visit demonstrated that in a hitherto class-conscious society, all classes would now stand shoulder to shoulder for victory.
To Britain’s enemies, her actions declared that this nation wouldn’t cower in the face of Hitler’s devastating destruction.
King George VI may not have had the oratory flourish of Churchill – his stammer is remembered in the upcoming movie release The King’s Speech. But his wife certainly had a flair for the picture that paints a thousand words.
When President-elect Barack Obama and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden rolled into Washington D.C. aboard the inaugural train, they traced Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 train journey.
Speeches were made along the route, drawing lessons from the work of Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. The Declaration of Independence was also cited, in what was an exemplary exercise in symbolic leadership.
When the future seems more than usually uncertain, good leaders know how to draw on both past and present experience, to outline shared values and aspirations so they can rouse their followers into action, to turn common goals into realities.
This is what Europe’s fat cat administrators have failed to do. In the current precarious financial situation, people are looking for more than just labyrinthine quota-sets and regulatory treaties.
Europeans are looking for leaders who can bring adventure to the fore, above accountancy – while still practicing the principles of sound fiscal governance.
People need to be inspired and given the confidence to innovate and flourish in spite of the challenges confronting them. This is the basic service and role of leadership in tough times.
At its root, bureaucracy looks to the safety of metrics, while leadership concerns itself with reconfiguring mindsets. Administrators concentrate on building or fixing organizational structures, while leaders focus on changing group cultures, thereby reaffirming or realigning the community’s central focus.
Administration deals with benchmarks, but leadership deals with innovation, often turning accepted practice on its head.
Established practice, which is apparently the key reference point for Eurocrats, is all-too-often deadly to creativity; it stifles innovation.
When it comes to the future, especially when stiff winds are blowing, people need hope more than knowledge. This is not the same thing as empty hype of the kind that imbues the hot-headed rhetoric or knee-jerk actions of the politically-motivated and selfish.
Hope is inspired by people who act in selfless or unexpected ways, showing a type of courage that soon becomes contagious.
Perhaps we should insist that all Eurocrats take a pay freeze for the next two years, until Europe’s financials are more secure going forward. Then we might offer them a small increase along with performance-based bonuses.
These bonuses should then be based not on arbitrary and self-imposed quotes, wrapped in the legalese of normal EU treatises, but on things that measurably improve the lives of real Europeans.
If administrators can help to lighten the burden on business, so that growth and trade are not hampered by red-tape; if they make it less difficult for worthy charities to receive the much-vaunted but incredibly difficult to get EU grants; if they can help build better roads, schools and hospitals, then and only then should they receive their bonuses.
If we went with a system like that, we’d be sending functionaries a message: ‘If you behave only as functionaries, we’ll pay you only servants’ wages.’
In any enterprise, from a small business to an international body, people need confidence more than rules when they’re faced with major challenges. They need leadership, not mere administration.