Balance of power in EC top management shows geographical divides

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Despite the rocky start of the Parliamentary vetting process, the new College of Commissioners led by Ursula von der Leyen is still expected to take office starting from November the 1st. While often sneered as ‘faceless Eurocrats’ by its staunchest critics, the College of Commissioners is mostly composed of career politicians whose task is to provide political impetus to the powerful executive machine of the EU, which is currently made up of about 30.000 civil servants. 

However, changes will not be limited to the top political positions within the European Commission, as a reshuffle of the senior management of the Commission (Directors-General, Deputy Directors-General and Directors) is also to be expected. While the public is unaware of the names or the profiles of these (otherwise very influential) top civil servants, the upcoming changes in their roles within the European Commission is rather important to follow. It is these civil servants who prepare all reports and legislative files, hence most of the time they know the technicalities much better than the Commissioners themselves, as well as their likely practical implications. As the old saying goes ‘the devil is in the details’, and the EU civil servants are the masters of the details

We looked at the current composition of the upper ranks of the European Commission to identify any trends in the concentration of power among geographical areas.

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The Irish are the most ‘over-represented’ nationality in the EC senior management, the Polish are the most ‘under-represented’

The EU civil servants represent the interest of the Union as a whole, hence the staff of the European Commission is not supposed to think in national terms. However, some inner (natural) biases due to the different cultural upbringings can influence the behaviour of individual managers, especially when these may have previously worked in (or been supported by) their national governments. The importance of national balance is also recognized by the European Commission itself, which adopted guiding rates to monitor whether some national groups are significantly under-represented. It has to be noted that the guiding rates set by the European Commission tend to favour the smaller countries, i.e. they are not fully proportional to the population of a state.

Despite the efforts to ensure proportional representation, there are still significant deviations from the guiding rates of the European Commission, meaning that some nationalities are under-represented/over-represented within the EU executive body. The analysis of the senior management of the European Commission shows that the Irish are, proportionally, the strongest represented national group when compared to the EC’s own targets, followed by the Belgians and the Austrians.

Importantly, there seems to be a significant gap between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Member States when it comes to top management positions in the European Commission: most of the national groups from countries that joined the EU in 2004 or afterwards are significantly under-represented at the level of Directors-General, Deputy Directors-General and Directors (compared to their size). The Polish are found to be the most under-represented (4% of top management), followed by the Czech, Romanians and Hungarians.     

Overall, only 14% of senior managers (Directors-General, Deputy Directors-General and Directors) are from Central and Eastern Europe, while the region accounts for about 20% of the EU population. The imbalance is also present, more generally, within the the higher echelons of the Administrators (above AD8), from among whom the future managers will be recruited. Given the slow rate of promotion within the EC, this means that this imbalance is unlikely to be easily addressed anytime soon. While the Commission has acknowledged the problem and it has committed to make all possible efforts to address it, the fact that the imbalance still persists 15 years after the big-bang enlargement exacerbates the current debate over the representation of CEE within EU institutions, in a moment where the divide between East and West seems to be widening. 

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Competition department led by French, more Germans in economic affairs                               

While the Irish punch above their weight when it comes to EC management positions, this does not mean that the Irish are the most influential in absolute terms, as the national groups from the biggest EU countries can clearly count on a higher number of top managers. The highest number of top managers comes from France (13%), followed by Germany (12%) and Italy (12%). Remarkably, while the Germans are, overall, somewhat under-represented among the EU top civil servants, they manage to appoint their nationals in key positions of political influence: during the Juncker Commission, the Germans had a stronger presence in the Commissioners’ cabinets than the French.

A strong share of French managers is found in key departments dealing with economic regulation, in particular FISMA and COMP. Furthermore, senior management from ‘Latin’ countries is strongly represented in these two departments as, in addition to the French, there are also a number of Italians (FISMA) and Spanish (COMP). However, the fact that these two departments will be under the remit of Baltic Dombrovskis (in the case of FISMA) and Danish Vestager (in the case of COMP), as they were during the previous Juncker Commission, will ensure a more proportional geographical balance within these two departments.

While Germans are under-represented in the overall top management of the Commission, a strong German presence is observed within ECFIN, which deals with the economic governance of the EU. This is a key department for Germany, which has been at odds with Southern European countries on matters concerning monetary policy and public spending by national governments. This provides compensation for the fact that both outgoing Commissioner Moscovici and likely future Commissioner Gentiloni tend to be more favourable towards bigger public spending (compared to the Germans).            

Conversely, not many managers from CEE are found among departments such as FISMA and ECFIN. This is no big surprise, since most of the countries from this region are not part of the Eurozone and the Banking Union. However, CEE is more represented within the management of some other DGs that play a key role in the regulation of the Single Market, such as Environment (ENV) and Employment (EMPL). The focus on employment and social affairs is in line with our previous findings on the high concentration of CEE MEPs within the dedicated EP Committee. Unsurprisingly, CEE managers are also found within the strategic Enlargement department (DG NEAR), but also the DGs dealing with most EU funding (DG AGRI and REGIO).

Comparison between EP and EC shows differences in concentration of nationalities by policy areas                       

There are some similarities between the concentration of nationalities within EC departments and the dedicated committees in the EP. For instance, CEE are more strongly represented in both the Commission’s DGs and EP committees dealing with agriculture and regional policy, while the French are strongly represented in both the Commission’s DG and EP Committee dealing with international development. Our previous findings of significant Italian under-representation in the EP committee dealing with migration (even though the topic is quite prominent in Italy) is also matched by lack of Italian top managers in the corresponding DG HOME.

However, there are also some differences between the trends observed within the European Parliament and the European Commission. For instance, the strong French presence within Commission’s DGs dealing with competition policy and financial regulation is not ‘matched’ by equivalent French representation in the EP Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (according to our previous report, this is the Parliamentary committee with the lowest share of French MEPs).

In addition, while Germans are substantially under-represented in the EP Committee dealing with environmental matters (ENVI), they are more fairly represented in the dedicated departments within the European Commission (DG ENV and DG CLIMA). Similarly, a low share of Spanish MEPs sitting in the ENVI Committee is compensated by the (currently) stronger Spanish presence within the top management of the environmental DGs of the European Commission (in particular CLIMA).

More male senior EC managers than females, but among ‘new’ Member States it’s the other way around

Discussions on the gender balance within the EU institutions are featured high in the public debate and the new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen decided to play the game and use this common theme to increase popular support. To what extent gender influences the outcome of Commission’s proposed policies (which is what the citizens are ultimately interested in) is still up to debate. It is worth noting that so far, our observations of the voting patterns in the European Parliament could not find significant gender-based differences in voting behaviour. However, we thought that it would be interesting to dig below the political echelons of the Commission and this is what we found:                                     

The macro-picture of the European Commission as a whole (including the lower grades of EC administration) indicates, interestingly, that men are under-represented compared to women (55% of the total personnel working with the European Commission are female, while 45% are male). However, when looking at the senior management positions (Directors, Deputy Directors-General and Directors General) the situation is different, namely there are 39% women vs 61% men.

The biggest concentration of males is in the FISMA DG, which has 0% female senior managers, followed by CNECT (20% of senior managers are female) and GROW (25% of senior managers are female). On the opposite side of the picture, the management of DG JUST is heavily female (80% of senior managers are female). There is also a bigger concentration of female (than male) top managers in DG CLIMA, COMM, TRADE and EAC (i.e. Education, Youth, Sport and Culture). 

The analysis of personnel by gender among nationalities reflects the overall EC Commission trend of a pre-2004/post-2004 divide. Women tend to be under-represented among national groups from the ‘old EU15’, whereas they are over-represented among national groups from countries that joined the EU in 2004 or afterwards. Notably, 100% of Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian and Cypriot senior managers are women. Top managers from Bulgaria are also predominantly female (67%), whereas Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark and Sweden) also have more female managers than male ones.

Conversely, the lowest share of women is found among staff coming from Western European countries, such as Ireland and Belgium (0% of senior managers are women), Portugal (17%), UK (27%) and France (27%). There are a few exceptions to this pattern though, such as the case of Hungary (0% of Hungarian top managers are female).

These differences are also reflected in the totality of the staff. Among the AD category of all ranks, there are big differences between EU15 and ‘new Europe’ personnel. At one end of the spectrum there are the Dutch (there are 3 Dutch males for every Dutch female among the AD Commission staff), while at the other end there are the Baltic countries, where the proportions are the other way around (ie. there are roughly 3 Baltic females for every Baltic male).


This is the overall picture of the EC’s top management just before the new College of Commissioners takes office. Keeping track of the upcoming changes is the key to forecasting shifts in agendas and priorities within the Commission. VoteWatch Europe will keep reporting on the future political developments in the European Union institutions. Contact us at [email protected] for more information, data-sets, specialized research or training on the new EU landscape.

Methodological note: the overall statistics refer to the composition of policy-oriented DGs. Officials from technical and logistic DGs (such as translation, IT, human resources) were excluded from the calculations. Additionally, while the nationalities of most senior officials are publicly available, this information was not available with regards to a limited number of cases. 

One thought on “Balance of power in EC top management shows geographical divides”

  1. Excellent analysis.

    There are some reasonable explanations.

    First, the French produce many first-rate officials. They have a finishing school for them.

    Second, the Irish may be over-represented for three simple reasons: they have produced two excellent Secretary-General; a recent influx of British officials to the Irish family may have inflated the numbers; and, importantly, no-one really dislikes the Irish, so when it comes to promotions, they get the job.

    Third, I recall DG MARE at one time seemed to come from one town: Vigo.

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