Yes, Madame la Commissaire

One of the half-truths about the EU is that it’s very hierarchical. In fact, as far as the Commission is concerned, it’s a very flat management structure, with only three formal tiers of management, whereas in the UK civil service you might have a dozen of them. Directors-General are in charge of the department, and there is a small clutch of directors to whom report a few heads of unit. Then there’s everyone else. Between each of the 28 Commissioners’ cabinets and the officials is a wall of procedural etiquette, which varies in penetrability from one DG to the next. Over here, Sir Humphrey’s counterpart does not just stroll next door into the minister’s office. One of the bevy of clever and well-paid grunts will write something, like a draft directive, and it rises up that short management chain and before being presented to the cabinet by the DG’s private secretary like a waiter removing the lid from a dinner plate. Thus diplomatic protocol infuses the warp and weft of European policy making.

Structure and process protrude all over the place. Documents, offices, buildings, even staff have unique numbers which regularly flummox the uninitiated. Even the DGs were known by code names until just over a decade ago. Creativity and diplomacy are the weeds which push through the interstices of all this abstraction.


As a result of the linguistic turn from French to English, Brits have a big advantage in this arena. So do the Irish. Though one of them was livid at a teacher in a French writing class when she categorically refused to accept that the Irish were real native speakers. In fact the Irish have the biggest headstart of all, because they can break off into Gaelic during tricky negotiations knowing that no-one else in the room will understand a word.

There’s a tendency to feel a little ashamed that most people here work with communicate with consummate ease in at least three languages. Better rather however to enjoy the endearing French-isms which proliferate; such as when people write ‘Thanks for your reply, already next week’ (i.e ‘Please reply by next week if possible’) or use the term ‘floaters’ to refer to readily redeployable staff.  English doesn’t belong to the English anymore, through we may still considered the experts in using it, for the time being.

(A version of this blog appeared on the Telegraph website in February 2011.)