How many European Commissioners have died in office?

A grim question for the next time you are setting a general knowledge quiz: How many European Commissioners have died in office?

The answer is three, in 1958, 1981 and 1987.

Michel Rasquin was the very first European Commissioner for Transport and the first Commissioner from Luxembourg, appointed to the Walter Hallstein Commission in 1958. He lasted less than four months, dying on 27 April aged 58. Born in 1899, he was a journalist before the Second World War and the first leader of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party after the war. He was Luxembourg’s minister for the economy from 1951 until he became a European Commissioner.

Finn Olav Gundelach was the very first Danish Commissioner, appointed in 1973 under François-Xavier Ortoli as Commissioner for the Internal Market and the Customs Union, re-appointed as Vice-President for Agriculture and Fisheries in the Roy Jenkins Commission, and demoted to mere Commissioner for Agriculture under Gaston Thorn. However he lived only a week into his third term, dying aged 55 on 13 January 1981. Born in 1925, he was a career diplomat who had served as Danish ambassador to the UN and the EU, and also vice-president of GATT.

Finally (and let’s hope it stays that way), Alois Pfeiffer was appointed as Commissioner for Economic Affairs and Employment in the first Jacques Delors Commission in 1985, as one of the two German commissioners. He died on 1 August 1987 aged 62. Born in 1924, he was a forester and then a trade unionist, and was nominated by the SPD. He never held elected public office, and was seen by some in Germany as a bit too European and not sufficiently German.

All three of them were simply replaced by nomination by their home government. These days a new Commissioner has to go through hearings in the European Parliament as well. (We’ve had four resignations out of 27 from the current crew, all replaced in that way.)

There is a much more recent case with some similarities: the most recent President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, died a week before the end of his term in January 2022 aged 65. Born in 1956, he was a print and TV journalist in Italy until becoming an MEP for the centre-left Democratic Party in 2009. When he emerged as a front-runner to head the Parliament in 2019, there was a lot of head-scratching. He performed perfectly well in office, however, until falling ill in 2021. His immediate successor in an acting capacity was the First Vice-President, Roberta Metsola, who was then elected to the job at the scheduled election a week later, and is still there until the elections this summer. Presumably if a vacancy occurs a bit earlier in the term, there would need to be a full election process, but it was hardly worth it for seven days.

iLobby.eu, by Caroline de Cock

Second paragraph of third chapter:

In order to ensure that you adopt the most effective strategy, it is therefore critical to understand and master the EU legislative process. It is part of your 3Ps (People-Power-Procedures) and I have known several brilliant lobbying strategies failing because the intricacies of procedure were poorly addressed.

This is a book about lobbying in Brussels, published in 2010. As such it is somewhat out of date; the institutional rules have not changed much in that time, but the way things really operate has moved on a bit; and about a quarter of the book is dedicated to kindly explaining that social media actually matters and giving guidance on how you might dip your toe into it. Those were innocent days, in retrospect! (My good friend Jon Worth is mentioned, in the context of the doomed Citzalia project.)

I’m not sure why I got it when I did; I once had aspirations to write such a book myself, but I must say that seeing how quickly such a project could be overcome by events is a bit of a disincentive. Still, the description of the legislative and policy-making process is accurate and useful, and made me realise how much of it I have internalised in my 25 years working here. You can still get the book here.

This was the shorter of the two remaining books on my shelves acquired in 2017. Next is the last of those books, Rule of Law: A Memoir, by Glynnis Breytenbach. This was also the last book that I finished in 2023, so I’m two and a half weeks behind at the moment.

The Popes and Sixty Years of European Integration

Second paragraph of third papal document (Paul VI’s Apostolic letter Pacis Nuntius of 1964, proclaiming St Benedict as the Principal Patron of Europe):

Sic igitur spiritualem illam unitatem Europae coagmentavit, qua quidem nationes, sermone, genere, ingenio diversae, unum populum Dei se esse sentiebant. Quae unitas, fideliter annitentibus monachis, disciplinae tanti parentis alumnis, peculiaris nota facta est mediae, quam vocant, aetatis. Illam, quae, ut ait Sanctus Augustinus, «ommis pulchritudinis forma» est, lugenda rerum vicissitudine discissam, quotquot sunt bona praediti voluntate, restituere temporibus nostris conantur. Libro, seu ingenii cultu, idem venerabilis patriarcha, a quo tot monasteria nomen vigoremque traxerunt, vetera litterarum monumenta, cum liberales disciplinae artesque obruebantur caligine, diligenti cura servavit et ad posteros transmisit, atque doctrinas studiose excoluit. Aratro demum, seu re rustica, aliisque subsidiis loca vasta et horrida in agros frugum feraces et hortos amemos mutavit; et precationibus fabrilia iungens, secundum verba illa «ora et labora», humano operi excellentiam addidit. Haud immerito ergo Pius PP. XII Sanctum Benedictum «Europae patrem» appellavit, cuius quidem terme continentis populis ille amorem et studium recti ordinis inspiravit, in quo socialis vita eorum inniteretur.It was in this way that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture, perceived that they constituted the one People of God – a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages. It is this unity, which St. Augustine calls the “exemplar and model of absolute beauty”, but which regrettably has been fragmented through a maze of historical events, that all men of good will even in our own day seek to rebuild. With the book, then, i.e. with culture, the same St Benedict, – from whom so many monasteries derive their name and vigour – with provident concern, saved the classical tradition of the ancients at a time when the humanistic patrimony was being lost, by transmitting it intact to posterity, and by restoring the cult of knowledge. Lastly, it was with the plough, i.e. with the cultivation of the fields and with other similar initiatives, that he succeeded in transforming abandoned and overgrown lands into fertile fields and greaceful gardens; and by uniting prayer with manual labour, according to his famous motto “ora et labora,” he ennobled and elevated human work. Rightly, therefore, Pius XII hailed Saint Benedict XII as “the father of Europe”; for he inspired the peoples of this Continent that loving care of order and justice that forms the foundation of true society.

This is an old-fashioned little publication (108 pages), lent to me by a colleague, pulling together fifteen major statements by the popes on European integration from 1957 to 2017. It is nicely illustrated, the photograph of the EU leaders meeting the current Pope in the Sistine chapel is particularly striking.

There’s nothing very surprising here for anyone familiar with the EU and the Vatican. Successive popes have been opposed to war and to Communism, and the EU was constructed as a bulwark against both. More recent themes include an emphasis on social justice and on environmental protection, with the Church’s own particular wrinkles on those themes. There’s not much here that anyone could object to, frankly.

There was a time when the relationship looked closer. Of the six founding mamebr states of the EU, four are largely Catholic by religious tradition and the other two (the Natherlands and West Germany, as it then was) were balanced between Catholicism and Protestantism. Now things are vey different; of the 27 current member states, you’d have to put at least four in the Orthodox column, three in the firmly Protestant tradition, and anyway most of them are part of the rising tide of secularism. The European People’s Party, Europe’s largest political grouping, came from the post-war Christian Democrat tradition, but has moved firmly away from anything too church-oriented (though often gets tempted by anti-wokeness, which is not quite the same thing).

I do remember attending a conference for Northern Ireland party activists in the early 1990s, at which a Unionist participant informed us that Pope John XXIII had endorsed European integration in order to ensure Catholic domination in Europe. One of the others present snorted that not many of John XXIII’s plans for the church had worked out in the end. The EU’s two openly gay prime ministers are both from traditionally Catholic countries. Pius XII would not have approved.

Anyway, this is co-published by the EU External Action Service and L’Osservatore Romano, and you can get it from their websites, here and here.

Representing Europeans: A Pragmatic Approach, by Richard Rose

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Europe has always been a continent of diverse peoples but diversity has never been an obstacle to political union. To strengthen alliances or gain territory, monarchies arranged dynastic marriages that created the multi-national empires that dominated Europe before 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an extreme example of diversity, for the majority of peoples living under the Habsburg crown were neither Austrians nor Hungarians. However, nationalist movements led to the break-up of multi-national empires. After the First World War, new nation-states were created that emphasized ethnic exclusivity, even when they had large minority populations and Germany under Adolf Hitler sought continental domination claiming to represent a Herrenvolk (master race). The Second World War discredited claims to national superiority while the Holocaust and the displacement of minorities increased the ethnic homogeneity of European states.

Richard Rose will turn 90 in April this year; his first two books, co-authored in 1960, were an analysis of the 1959 election and an investigation of why the Labour Party kept losing. He also carried out a very important analysis of public sentiment about politics and government in Northern Ireland just before the Troubles broke out, which has become an essential baseline for understanding what happened last century. My father greatly respected him, and when he came to Brussels in between the Brexit referendum and the pandemic, I made contact and we had a couple of very friendly dinners on the Grand’ Place.

He was kind enough to give me a copy of this short book about the political system of the EU, and its democratic deficits. It’s a lucid guide to how the structures actually work – too many such guides are hypnotised by the institutions’ own accounts of themselves – and makes a lot of the points on the dangers of disconnection between the EU decision-making process and the citizens who are affected by it. The book came out before Brexit (and assumes that it won’t happen) and before the pandemic, both of which have changed things a bit but maybe not all that much.

I’m going to disagree, however, with a couple of the points he makes. He spends an entire chapter criticising the allocation of seats between countries in the European Parliament, which (as you know, Bob) varies between Malta’s six (one MEP per 80,000 population) to Germany’s ninety-six (one MEP per 800,000 population). I don’t really think that this is a problem. Divergences from proportionality are tolerated in a lot of democratic electoral systems for different reasons, usually in order to give extra representation to groups who need it. The large member states already have a massive amount of soft power within the EU system, and I don’t find it outrageous that they shave a couple of the MEPs that they would have been entitled to on a strict population ratio, in order that the diversity of voices from smaller states is not completely extinguished. I think Rose’s argument also faces an issue about differential turnout between different countries, which he doesn’t address.

He also has a solution that I disagree with – holding EU-wide referendums on crucial issues. Here I think he unrealistically discounts the practical and political difficulties of doing this; election laws and procedures are very different across the 27 member states, referendum laws even more so; and how do you explain to, say, Slovaks that the democratic choice they make nationally can be over-ridden by French and German voters? My own feeling is that we should not try too hard to erode the extent to which the EU is a union of member states, since that’s an important element of its legitimacy.

Anyway, these are debating points surrounded by thorough and lean analysis. You can get it here.