Europe’s ‘mafia-style’ institution fights to justify its existence – POLITICO

It is the EU institution that continues to take the beating – years of accusations of staff harassment, overspending, ‘mafia-like’ cruelty and, frankly, irrelevance – but which will not fall. not.

The institution, officially called the European Economic and Social Committee, or EESC, is one of the oldest in the EU, established in 1958 as a forum for trade unions, employers and civil society groups to advise bureaucrats shaping the nascent European single market.

But more than half a century later, the EESC is floundering amid nearly a decade of rebuke seemingly from all sides. Staff members have complained of unresolved harassment, the European Parliament is questioning the institution’s spending and many are questioning whether its advice even offers value to the EU institutions which now speak separately with EESC members .

Now the EESC is ready for further embarrassment. On September 26, Parliament’s Budget Control Committee is expected to vote on approving the institution’s budget, which was €150 million in 2021, before returning the matter to the full Parliament. MEPs previously withheld approval of the EESC’s 2020 budget and did so again earlier this year – and they indicate they could do so again next month.

While parliament can’t necessarily stop the EESC from getting its money, it can issue another public rebuke to the institution as it pushes for further investigation and change. But the mere fact that Parliament cannot completely switch off the EESC is part of the problem, critical MPs have said.

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

Buried under years of calls for its removal, the EESC vigorously pleads for it to continue to breathe.

EESC President Christa Schweng told POLITICO that the organization was “vital”, arguing that its “influence is more often of a strategic nature” and difficult to quantify, given that 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 major concern for parliament. And, Schweng pointed out, any delays in addressing harassment complaints were only to better help staff.

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

Unhappy staff

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

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

But since at least 2014, it has been the conduct and spending of the EESC in the workplace, not its actual work, that has captured the spotlight.

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

” Both [European] The Commission and the Parliament are now in direct contact with civil society and have consultations,” noted the former staff member. “EESC opinions are costly, rarely timely and, with their consensual methodology, have nothing to add.”

The committee issued 131 non-binding “opinions” in 2020, a year when its budget was 142.5 million euros – a ratio its critics say is irrelevant.

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

Toxic Work Allegations

In Parliament’s decision not to publish the EESC’s budget earlier this year, MEPs called for an external inquiry into the EESC’s handling of several harassment complaints that led to inquiries in 2018 and 2019 from the EU Anti-Fraud Office, known as OLAF.

One of the four women who complained about their treatment at the EESC told POLITICO the case remains unresolved despite the demand for ‘non-financial compensation’, including an investigation into the root causes of the incident. the systemic mismanagement of the EESC.

Parliament also said that two of those involved in the complaints are still unhappy with their compensation.

A point of contention is that Jacek Krawczyk, the target of an EESC investigation into workplace harassment, is still an EESC member. Schweng, president of the EESC, said she could not revoke him because the members are politically appointed and controlled by EU members.

Krawczyk was once the leading candidate to be the next EESC president, but the institution’s leadership asked him to withdraw his candidacy after an investigation into his behavior revealed reports that he shouted, belittled and criticized people. malicious manner to staff members, causing mental health issues.

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

However, Krawczyk remains one of the official members of the EESC. Krawczyk did not respond to numerous efforts to reach him through Lewiatan, a Polish business and employers’ organization 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 responded “quickly” and in line with EU regulations.

Still, Brunetti’s promotion to secretary-general angered EESC critics. Zdechovský, deputy chairman of the parliament’s budget committee, called the promotion “questionable”, given the compensation costs and reputational damage caused by the EESC’s handling of complaints.

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

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

A multimillion-dollar-a-day pandemic

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

The EESC has always granted its members a daily allowance for the days they attend EESC meetings. Funds can be used for food, lodging, and local transportation (intercity travel is reimbursed separately). Controversially, the EESC decided to continue offering a reduced per diem to its 329 members during the pandemic, even as meetings moved online. The institution finally spent 2.3 million euros in daily allowances in the event of a pandemic in 2020.

MEPs also pointed to almost €1.5 million that the EESC has spent on allowances for its most active members to carry out IT upgrades during the pandemic – and they expressed concern that the allowances above average were distributed on a flat-rate basis and not based on actual expenditure.

EESC President Schweng noted that members’ allowances were in line with EU standards.

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

Isabel García Muñoz, a Spanish socialist MEP, is preparing to submit a report to the Parliament’s budget committee on September 5 detailing whether the EESC has made enough improvements to justify the approval of its budget.

The MEP said “concrete progress” has been made within the institution but there is still work to be done.

“The committee must increase and streamline cooperation with Parliament, as well as make its important role, and therefore its opinions, even more visible,” she said.

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