By Lee Rotherham of The TaxPayers' Alliance.
Cyril Northcote-Parkinson holds a special place of honour amongst essayists. Drop the first barrel of his surname, and despite the fifty years that have gone by since his popular writings first hit print, you are likely to recognise him as the author of a famed series of principles - or more accurately, satirical observations on human psychology. He was most famously the inventor of “Parkinson's Law”, which stated in simplified form that work expands to fill the time required for its completion; but his 1957 collection of essays (carrying a foreword by the Duke of Edinburgh, no less) set out the first batch of several more.
A key feature of his baseline philosophy is in stressing the inherent nature of bureaucracies to expand, since it is in the interest of the civil servant to demonstrate and justify his activity by increasing the number of his subordinates (as opposed to rivals) and the quantity of material produced. Although the resulting paperwork may involve genuine hard effort, it is internally focused, typically self-generating and entirely self-fulfilling.
A review of the Court of Auditors' 2008 reports on the annual accounts of EU institutions and bodies demonstrates this principle is flourishing in the European Union, with a vast leap in Euro-quango staff numbers. Astonishingly, totting together the accessible data, we discover that almost exactly 900 new jobs (899.5 to be precise, net) were created in the EU quangocracies over a single year. Let's put it into the context of starting figures. That means that EU agencies increased in manpower terms by around 23 per cent over the course of just twelve months.
This figure obviously excludes figures for the 'mother quango', the European Commission itself.
It appears that some of these jobs are contracted in, and therefore likely to be on consultancy-scale pay rates. Those on the other hand which are in-house can naturally be expected to come under EU staff regulations. Our paper on EU Diplomats explores some of the allowances on offer to this category of employee, bewildering and generous in their variety and scope.
With the steady expansion of recently established agencies, we can expect the EU quangocracy to continue to expand for the immediate future. Even where there is staffing equilibrium, the increase of budgets suggests more posts will gradually be created over time for financial management purposes.
There is little public appreciation of the scale, growth and function of these institutions in part as they are scattered across the EU member states. Governments hosting them are also inherently disinclined to criticise their expenditure, since they fought their corner in the Council of Ministers to host them in the first place.
From the taxpayers' perspective, we should not delude ourselves that 900 extra members of staff is small beer. These bodies have expanded very rapidly; in spending terms, increasing by a quarter of a billion Euros over the single year in question. This was before the Lisbon Treaty came anywhere close to entering into effect, meaning crucially that the trend can only accelerate in the years ahead. The recently-established Office of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communicators, for instance, is currently advertising for its new staff.
It seems then, with rare and honoured exception, the trend is for agencies to recruit and grow. There is, however, a paradox also at play. The Court of Auditors' report on Euratom noted the same problem in reverse - that of what we might call the ghost agency. That institution had been subsumed into the Commission with the phasing out of the institution on the running down of the old treaty; it lives on basically to act as a second, notionally separate, signatory to agreements. The audit bluntly noted that “This situation raises the issue of the need to maintain the Agency in its current form and organisation”.
But to place this rapid expansion in the context of the great essayist's work, we can add some new extensions to Parkinson's laws. Of course, in his day he didn't have a supranational civil service at play, one driven by new dynamics combining the acquis communautaire and “ever-closer union”.
We can therefore suggest a corollary to Parkinson's Law, putting recent growth into the context of the blitz of treaties since Maastricht; “The natural civil service tendency of the Brussels workforce to expand increases in proportion to the integrationist ambitions of the day.”
Our second corollary takes into account the motor and political backdrop to this growth - the fact that both economic downturns and public opposition to the Lisbon Treaty process have not halted this trend, but indeed promoted “more Europe” as the solution to the problem. Our second addition correspondingly runs as follows; “Expansion of the European bureaucracy accelerates in times of political crisis, and exponentially where the crisis has been generated by the actual increase of the workforce in the first place.” This takes into account in particular that the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty was the response to the Laeken Mandate, which noted that the EU had a problem because Europe's elite kept losing referenda. The solution to the problem led to three more lost referenda, and where we are today. It also explains recent trends in the Eurozone.
Northcote-Parkinson's essays on the Coefficient of Inefficiency (optimal cabinet sizes, and the expanding European Commission top table), extravagant building projects as a symbol of decline, and Comitology clearly also apply to the EU. But we leave those for study elsewhere.
Northcote-Parkinson's rules may be fun to observe, and perhaps readers could offer some amendments of their own, but in Brussels terms they come at a cost. From a democratic viewpoint, EU-level quangos are twice as distant from public accountability as any that run at arm's length from a national government, already seen as a real problem.
With an ambitious EU administrative mechanism that operates by adding tiers of bureaucracy onto existing civil services, we can only look with despair at the inevitable spread of the tangleweed for as long as this system survives.