Earlier this year, 12,000 applications flooded into Brussels for what could be among the most coveted jobs on the Continent: bureaucrat. With only 125 available spots, the competition was fierce and attracted many of Europe's brightest. Candidates must be fluent in two European languages other than their mother tongue and have a strong knowledge of European Union government, with its myriad complexities. But even the lucky few who are selected aren't guaranteed a posting—just a place on a "reserve list" for future jobs. But who's complaining? Salaries are relatively high, starting at 48,000 euros per year, plus a generous 16 percent ex-pat allowance. Jobs are generally for life. In addition, Brussels boasts some of the best quality of life in Europe. Rents are low, and the city has more restaurants per capita than any other European capital. Every night the sidewalk bars of the newly restored Place de Luxembourg overflow with young "Eurocrats."
But the glory days are drawing to a close. After 50 years of rule making—and charges that the EU was out of touch with its citizens—power is shifting away from the unaccountable bureaucrat. The new reform treaty, agreed upon by EU leaders in October, awards greater authority to the directly elected European Parliament. For the people of Europe that's one more step toward democracy, and a step away from rule by bureaucracy—and, indeed, this is no ordinary bureaucracy.
The administrative elite—now numbering some 32,000—enjoy an authority rare among civil servants. Unlike virtually any other democratic system, only these functionaries may propose legislation, not elected representatives. Seemingly indifferent to public opinion, they successfully pushed the cause of "ever closer union" promised by the EU's founding fathers, using a legislative system of mind-boggling, if not mind-numbing, complexity. Only these insiders could fully understand the intricacies of "qualified majority voting" or "co-decision making." Tricky legislation took decades to reach the statute book, batted to and fro between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
At the heart of it all is the Berlaymont Building, headquarters of the European Commission, the policy-setting powerhouse of the EU. The most senior of these bureaucrats inhabit the upper floors, overlooking the European Quarter, an entire district with office space for some 80,000 people, including 15,000 lobbyists, a few hundred journalists and a tribe of aides, parliamentarians and diplomats from across the continent and beyond.
With this cloistered culture, it is unsurprising that many outsiders resent Brussels' influence. In the 1980s, when the EU was building its single economic market, the Eurocrats loved to legislate, and over the years, the EU put out more than 80 directives on packaging and professional qualifications. The British press in particular love to cite examples (often out of context) of bureaucratic excess like attempts to regulate the curve of a banana or the level of lawnmower noise. As Günter Verheugen, an EU Commission vice president, once put it, "There is a public perception of the EU as 'Nessie from Brussels,' a bureaucratic monster with nothing better to do than chop off every difference and blend it into a European soup."
To counter this, the EU is trying to buff its image. Perks have been trimmed; the three-hour lunch is passing into Brussels folk memory. Now the talk in official circles is of "the three D's"—Democracy, Debate and Dialogue. In practice, that means better communication. The latest major competition for new bureaucrats was intended for media and communications specialists who could spread the message of a new citizen-friendly EU. A new booklet, heaped high in the EU's Brussels information center, sets out EU achievements over the past 50 years, including the creation of the euro and an emissions trading scheme.
Policymakers say the emphasis is on better—not more—legislation. The 10 countries admitted to the union in 2004 also seem to have a more pragmatic view of the EU's role, and a larger union is less susceptible to ruling by diktat. "With 27 member states it's impossible to say that 'nanny knows best'," says one veteran EU staffer. The referenda of 2005, in which French and Dutch voters rejected a proposed EU Constitution, also served as a wake-up call to the folks in Brussels striving for some grand European ideal supposedly embodied in the document. "They were forced to look into the mirror to say 'Who are we?' and 'What are we doing?'" says Derk-Jan Eppink, a former EU staffer and author of "Life of a European Mandarin," a critical account of his experiences there. One answer might be "too much." Indeed for years it has seemed that the business of Brussels bureaucrats is bureaucracy.