What’s it like working with the European Commission?

Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, each year on 11 September I send a text message to my old boss to remind him that another year has passed since we were together on that terrible day in 2001: 9/11. We were in Paris, working as trustees for the European Commission (EC), overseeing the first ever internet auction of Virtual Power Plants (VPP) by the French state-owned electricity company Electricité de France (EdF).

European Commissioners – Source: European Commission

Our experience of working for the EC was eye-opening. What we found was that, contrary to the widely held prejudice that they are freeloading bureaucrats wasting our money, European Union (EU) officials are in fact conscientious public servants making difficult decisions to improve our lives.

A fundamental principle underlying the work done by the EC on consumer rights is that people should have choice, best achieved by encouraging competition in a free market with well-defined rules and standards. The internet auction of VPP that we were involved in is an example of a beneficial intervention by the EC that led to an improved outcome for consumers.

Until this point, EdF had a monopoly to generate electricity in France and there was no competition, thus increasing the likelihood that consumers would be overcharged. Normally competition can be introduced by breaking a monopoly up into smaller businesses, but it’s not so easy when the monopoly owns nuclear power plants as EdF did – they cost a huge amount of money, they’re potentially very dangerous and governments don’t want them to fall into the wrong hands.

VPPs enabled the EC to get around this problem: rather than forcing EdF to sell actual nuclear power plants, EdF was required to sell to potential competitors the ability to produce electricity from power plants that EdF continued to own. A VPP is an option contract for electric power production capacity; the holder of a VPP is entitled to purchase a certain quantity of production capacity from the incumbent firm (EdF in this case) at a pre-specified price for a certain amount of time (3 months, 6 months, 1 year etc.). Having bought the production capacity, the holder of a VPP could then market it to buyers of electricity in competition with EdF. The auctions were to sell these options, thus creating competition and price control for consumers.

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Our experience of the working conditions EC employees was also was also instructive. As trustees, most of our time was spent in Paris agreeing with EdF how the process would work in practice, going through complicated calculations of the cost of producing electricity from nuclear power plants (my knowledge of electricity-related words in French improved no end), defining rules for bidders in the auction and so on. We were looked after very well by the company – office space, exceptionally good packed lunches, and dinners in tasteful restaurants in Montmartre.

There were also regular meetings with staff from the EC Competition Directive in Brussels before and after each auction (held every 3 months). This was a different world. The EC task manager had a small, sparsely furnished room in an anonymous office block slightly out of the centre of town. The bland and functional furniture could have come from IKEA. There were no French-style packed lunches; instead, the most we got was a cup of machine coffee in the tiniest cups (and no refills). This wasn’t a lack of hospitality; rather, it was a reflection of a prevailing attitude of the need to justify all spending.

In terms of professional expertise, the EC staff were completely on top of the brief for the assignment – the Information Memorandum with the details of the auction that would be given to prospective bidders, the credit validation process each bidder had to undertake, and the small print of VPP contracts the buyers would have to sign. For our part, detailed preparation was essential. We would open the meeting by summarising the state of play and then take questions from the EC staff. We found them to be well-informed, thoughtful, considerate and modest people, applying agreed rules, and very willing to listen to our advice.

What is true to say is that our relationships with EC staff did not develop beyond our business dealings. Nearly everywhere I’ve worked, successful assignments have involved an element of warmth – photographs of family members smiling on a desk, advice on where to visit in the area, or out of office socialising (a drink, a meal, a trip to a rugby match). The manager of a Dutch client gave me a wedding present; we still talk to each other nearly twenty years later. I bumped into the French manager from EdF in London a decade after the VPP auctions and we went for a coffee as old friends. Not so with EC contacts.

This might conjure up the image of “faceless bureaucrats”: cold, grey, detached figures, heartlessly efficient and earning a huge salary with extravagant perks. But the people I worked with over a period of 4 years at the EC weren’t like that at all. Far from the dominant narrative in the UK, these were talented and dedicated public servants, working within challenging financial constraints and striving to make life better for EU citizens.

The admirable standards of public service in the EU have been demeaned in this country by caricature and our society has suffered as a result. My own experience of working with the EC left an impression of an honest and efficient organisation – I am fortunate to have seen its workings from the inside.

Guy Maughfling lives in Cheltenham