Magazine article The Spectator

The Driving Force

Magazine article The Spectator

The Driving Force

Article excerpt

Brussels

'AND now, if there are no more questions on hormones in beef,' said Signor Prodi's spokesman after he had delivered the day's quota of euronews to us at dictation speed, 'there will be a technical briefing from the cabinet of Neil Kinnock, Commission vicepresident in charge of reform, on strategic questions of .....

He might just as well have screamed Tire!' as the hacks began to gather up their notebooks and to move calmly, but rapidly, out of the salle de presse in the direction of the bar. But I remained with the swots, for I was keen to see if Kinnock's people were going to tell the world what was really keeping Neil awake at night. So I sat through the spiel about his whistleblowers' charter and took notes on how the newly appointed Commission, clothed in its hair shirt, would spring-clean la maison from top to bottom.

But Neil's people failed to fess up about the drivers with whom they had had a crisis meeting but an hour before. They somehow omitted to mention that Kinnock, the man who had seen off the unions and Liverpool City Council with a speech so powerful it lifted the hair from the back of the neck, could not shaft the chauffeurs, an 80-strong team of wheezing, Mercedes-- buffing, seen-it-all geezers who seem to have him by the short and curlies.

This is what it's all about: the chauffeurs earn a basic salary of L35,000 a year,. and probably double with overtime; they are proper fonctionnaires; and they work alternate weeks, a routine made possible by the fact that the Commissioners are all 'Two Jags' here, in the sense that they each have two drivers at their disposal. So, if you allow for their five-week holiday entitlement, the chauffeurs work a Stakhanovite 22 weeks a year, with a productivity rate that averages out at five km per hour per working day.

'They're taking the piss,' said my man, Stephen Morris from DG9 (Administration), which is the Kinnock camp. 'I mean, most have got second jobs. There's one who doubles as a ski instructor in Austria. You know, that one with the year-round suntan.'

As far as Mr Kinnock was concerned, the moment was ripe. A new Commission had arrived. He was the new broom. It was time for the drivers to sacrifice this life of Riley on the altar of his reform strategy. (The Commissioners, you see, had already made this terrific sacrifice of their own: they were giving up the right to buy their cars and stereos minus VAT.)

But, when informed that the number of drivers per Commissioner was to be halved, the drivers went postal. They threatened to strike: a nuclear option, indeed, if you consider that this would mean that the 20 Commissioners would have to use taxis, or even public transport, to get around (and it should not be forgotten that, as a result of the idiotic arrangements here, the top brass is chauffeured continuously between Luxembourg and Strasbourg, as well as all over Brussels). And Kinnock backed down. Now, Neil, his people and the drivers are in continuous session in a working group to discuss 'future arrangements'.

The drivers hang out, when they're not polishing their cars, in the Loge Chauffeur in Avenue Nerviens, a stone's throw from Prodi's headquarters at the Breydel building. Among the posters of racing cars, the Loge is decorated with cartoons of a pregnant Kinnock and the words 'The Kinnock Reforms Will Not Be A Happy Event'. …

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