Brussels Briefing

Everyone knows that civil servants can be awkward, devious or sometimes plain obstructive. It's rare, however, for a politician to say as much in public.

This week the European Commission vice-president, Gunter Verheugen broke a sizeable taboo with a series of blunt criticisms of his officials.

First in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, then in the Financial Times, the German Commissioner responsible for Industry slated his officials for trying to sticth up decisions behind his back.

He also suggested that they were blocking policies because they didn't fit their agenda.

The Verheugen outburst has sent a mini shockwave through Brussels. And it's not the first time the Commission vice president has done so.

During the last European Commission in which he served as Enlargement Commissioner, Mr Verheugen caused a storm when he suggested a referendum in old member states before new ones could join.

Nevetheless old hands here have been scratching their heads about this particular episode.

After all Mr Verheugen is hardly a newcomer to Brussels. He ought, after seven years in the place, to know the wily ways of top Eurocrats.

One explanation offered by Mr Verheugen's critics is that he has been thrown off balance by reports in the German press about his private life.

More likely is a sense of sheer exasperation about his job. Mr Verheugen's pet project is the so-called "bonfire of the regulations" - a plan under which EU legislation that places unnecessary burdens on business will go up in smoke.

Progress on this is proving slow, and Mr Verheugen seems to be looking for a scapegoat.

The row illustrates his sense of frustration, one that is not uncommon in the European Commission.

A former Europe minister in Germany and then Enlargement Commissioner, he was an odd choice for the Industry portfolio.

In fact he got the post because Berlin insisted its Commissioner won an economic dossier.

Axing regulation and economic reform were two of the Commission's major themes when it came into power in 2004 under Jose Manuel Barroso. With the European constitution in obeyance and voters disgruntled, jobs and growth have been the priority. In these areas Commissioners have found that there is a limit to what they can do.

Reforming Europe's more sclerotic economies is a job for individual member states, not the EU. As for the bonfire of the regulations, no civil service is likely to be too enthusiastic.

After all the less EU legislation there is, the less there is for Eurocrats to do.

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