‘Mafia-style’ EU institution faces battle to justify its existence

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

It’s the EU institution that keeps on taking hits — years of accusations of staff harassment, overspending, “mafia-style” ruthlessness and, frankly, irrelevance — but won’t fall over.

The institution, formally called the European Economic and Social Committee, or EESC, is one of the EU’s oldest, formed in 1958 as a forum for trade unions, employers and civil society groups to offer advice to the bureaucrats crafting Europe’s nascent single market.

But over half a century later, the EESC is limping along amid nearly a decade of upbraiding from seemingly all sides. Staffers have complained of harassment going unaddressed, the European Parliament is questioning the institution’s spending and many are wondering whether its advice even offers value to EU institutions that now talk separately with EESC members.

Now, the EESC is primed for further embarrassment. On September 26, Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control is expected to vote on whether to approve the institution’s budget, which was €150 million in 2021, before sending the issue to the full Parliament. MEPs previously withheld EESC budget approval in 2020 and did so again earlier this year — and they are indicating they may do so once again next month. 

You may like

While Parliament can’t necessarily stop the EESC from getting its money, it can deal the institution yet another public rebuke while it pushes for further investigations and changes. But the mere fact that Parliament can’t fully extinguish the EESC is part of the problem, critical MEPs said.

“Something is wrong,” said MEP Tomáš Zdechovský, the committee’s vice chair and a member of the center-right European People’s Party group, when a “zombie committee” costs the EU tens of millions. “I see no reason why we should keep alive ossified committees whose importance is marginal.”

Buried under years of calls for it to be axed, the EESC is vigorously making the case it should keep breathing. 

EESC President Christa Schweng told POLITICO the organization was “vital,” arguing that its “influence is more often of a strategic nature” and tough to quantify, given the organization is essentially “a network of networks.”

The institution, Schweng said, has strengthened its code of conduct and adopted a “zero tolerance” policy on harassment — a key concern for Parliament. And, Schweng stressed, any delays in addressing harassment complaints were only to better help staff. 

“It is true that the process took time, but there is a reason for this, namely the search for the best solutions for the victims even beyond pure legal obligations,” she added.

Disaffected staffers

Over the years, the EESC has offered thoughts on everything from saving bees, to “space traffic management,” to the “geopolitical impact of energy transition.” Its reports are produced with input from several hundred unpaid EESC “members,” who represent civil society, trade unions and employer groups from across Europe.

The EESC itself is also home to 700 permanent staff members that support the EESC members and their process.

But since at least 2014, it’s been the EESC’s workplace conduct and spending, not its actual work, that has grabbed attention.

“It has no added value,” said one former EESC staff member who left after settling a harassment case.

“Both the [European] Commission and the Parliament today liaise directly with civil society and have consultations,” the former staffer noted. “The opinions of the EESC are costly, rarely timely and with their consensus methodology have nothing to add.”

The committee issued 131 non-binding “opinions” in 2020, a year in which its budget was €142.5 million — a ratio its detractors say it out of whack. 

Another former staff member told POLITICO the EESC was considered a joke by other institutions and had become a “mafia-style” organization rewarding loyalty with promotions and punishing staff who raised basic complaints. 

Toxic workplace allegations

In Parliament’s decision not to release the EESC budget earlier this year, MEPs called for an external probe into EESC’s handling of several harassment complaints that prompted investigations in 2018 and 2019 from the EU’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF. 

One of the four women who complained of their treatment at the EESC told POLITICO the matter still remains unresolved despite requesting “non-financial compensation,” including an investigation into the root causes of the EESC’s systemic mismanagement.

Parliament also stated that two of the people involved in the complaints are still unsatisfied with their compensation.

One point of contention is that Jacek Krawczyk, a target of an EESC workplace bullying investigation, is still an EESC member. Schweng, EESC’s president, said she could not remove him because members are political appointees controlled by EU members.

Krawczyk was once the leading candidate to be the next EESC president, but the institution’s leadership requested he withdraw his application after a probe into his behavior uncovered reports of him shouting at, belittling and maliciously criticizing staffers, causing mental health problems.

Krawczyk, who has denied any wrongdoing, claimed he was the target of an orchestrated campaign to undermine his EESC presidential bid. Belgian prosecutors eventually opened a criminal probe into his behavior.

Yet Krawczyk remains one of the EESC’s official members. Krawczyk did not respond to numerous efforts to reach him via Lewiatan, a Polish business and employers’ organization that he represents as vice-president.

EESC Secretary-General Gianluca Brunetti, who was the institution’s human resources director at the time of the bullying complaints, told POLITICO the organization had responded “promptly” and in accordance with EU regulations. 

Still, Brunetti’s promotion to secretary-general rankled EESC critics. Zdechovský, the Parliament budget committee’s vice chair, called the promotion “questionable,” considering the compensation costs and reputational damage caused by the EESC’s handling of the complaints.

“I would have expected a proper investigation into the whole matter, not a sweeping under the carpet,” he said.

Brunetti pushed back at the claim, describing the secretary-general hiring as “open to internal and external candidates alike,” noting it was published in the Official Journal of the EU.

A multi-million pandemic per diem

Parliament also raised concerns about EESC spending during the pandemic when it previously refused to release the institution’s budget. 

The EESC has historically given its members a per diem allowance for the days they are attending EESC meetings. The funds can be used for food, lodging and local transport (inter-city travel is reimbursed separately). Controversially, the EESC decided to still offer a reduced per diem to its 329 members during the pandemic, even though meetings moved online. The institution ultimately spent €2.3 million on pandemic per diems in 2020.

MEPs also flagged nearly €1.5 million that the EESC spent in allowances for its most active members to make IT upgrades during the pandemic — and they expressed concern that the larger-than-average allowances were doled out as a flat rate and not based on actual expenses.

Schweng, the EESC president, noted the members’ allowances were in line with EU standards.

“I also vigorously reject the unspecified and inaccurate allegation that there are ‘perks’ offered to staff,” she said.

Isabel García Muñoz, a socialist MEP from Spain, is preparing to deliver to the Parliament’s budget committee a report on September 5 detailing whether the EESC has made enough improvements to justify receiving a sign-off on its budget. 

The MEP said “concrete progress” has been made at the institution but it has work that remains. 

“The committee needs to increase and streamline the cooperation with the Parliament, as well as making its important role, and thus its opinions, even more visible,” she said.