Inside the mind of European Commission Spokepersons Service chief Koen Doens

Koen Doens is the image of the perfectly buttoned-down bureaucrat. He's president Barroso's right-hand man and head of the EC Spokesperson's Service, responsible for all political communications from the EC. But Alex Benady suspects there lies a more interesting hinterland behind a man who takes pride in being dull.

Is Koen Doens having a laugh? He is sitting in his spacious grey office looking dapper in his sleek grey suit on the fifth floor of the European Commission’s vast grey headquarters in downtown Brussels. The Berlaymont, as it is known, is a Kafkaesque two-and-a-half million square foot modernist office building, virtually the size of a small European state on its own. It is just one of 60 EC buildings in the area.

One of the great laments of Eurosceptics is that the lives of ordinary people are blighted by the European Union’s bloated, time-wasting, profligate administration. But Doens sits there large as life and argues that the EC really does not deserve its reputation as the mother of all bureaucracies.

"I fundamentally contest that," he says. "I don’t think that the European public administration is a huge bureaucracy. It is no more bureaucratic than any public authority in member states. There are 33,000 civil servants working in the EU. That is fewer than the city of Paris."

Administration, including buildings, accounts for just six per cent of the total EU budget he says – although he doesn’t mention that amounts to €8.4bn this year alone. But after the next round of "tightening", which will consist of a salary freeze and a reduction in staff numbers, he promises that the Eureaucracy will be even leaner.

No, Doens is not joking but it does sound like he might just be spinning. And if he were, it would not be so surprising. Doens is the head of the European Commission Spokespersons’ Service, responsible for "anything that is political communication". It is a huge brief. His output includes press releases, speeches, statements and Q&As, as well as social media content relating to any of the EC’s 28 commissioners. In one day he could be dealing with issues ranging from the economic crisis or the Ukraine to anti-dumping measures, green plastic technology and tax relief on video games.

His job is further complicated by the fact that few people in the commission are speaking in their native tongues. Although the official EC working languages are English and French, most officials seem to speak four or five languages to a fairly high level. Nonetheless, you get the impression that nuances and subtleties can present a problem.

For those at the back who haven’t been paying attention, the European Commission is the civil service of the European Union. It is the executive body responsible for implementing and policing legislation. But unlike the British civil service, it is the only body allowed to propose legislation.

There are 28 commissioners, one from every country, including the president. Together they form a cabinet. But they do not have their own press offices. "Every commissioner has a spokesperson handling his or her relations with the media. But, contrary to habitual practice, these spokespeople are not part of the commissioner’s private office," explains Doens. "The spokespeople are brought together in the Spokespersons’ Service, which is answerable to the president of the commission."

So Doens has 100 spokespeople, press officers and assistants reporting to him. But his one report is direct to commission president José Manuel Barroso. The way he tells it there is not too much bureaucracy in that relationship either: "I have direct access and I see him most days. I can go up to the 13th floor to his office if I want and see if he’s there. We speak on the phone, we exchange SMS.

I am a direct interlocutor for the president." Doens occupies a sort of Alastair Campbell position in Europe ("I wouldn’t dare compare myself with the mythical Alastair C," he laughs). But you can tell from his measured manner and unassuming good humour that he is no Malcolm Tucker. You will not find him duffing up errant spokespeople or intimidating the woman from El Pais in one of the Berlaymont’s many corridors.

"No, we don’t do the kind of spin that you see in The Thick Of It. We are nowhere near that," he says. But it depends how you define spin. "We definitely try to point out to the journalists that what we do is the right thing and we stress the political angles and fairness. But we will never go into a spin overdrive where we will give a twist to what we do to make it look more than it is."

Herculean task

Imagine one Whitehall department responsible for all government communications. Apart from being the biggest vipers’ nest in the world, it would be slow, unwieldy and cumbersome. It would be a Herculean task just to get out the occasional press release. Doens’ department produces as many as 25 a day. Isn’t it hideously complicated?

"Not at all," says Doens. "We have upstream planning where we look at what is coming up on the commission’s agenda in the next three to six weeks." The commission is obliged to communicate immediately a measure is adopted. So sometimes the publicity schedule tail wags the legislative dog and policies are delayed by a day or two to avoid them getting buried by other announcements.

Then Doens’ office starts looking at the messages: "What is the main message, how do we want to portray it, what is the output and how do we want to capture that in press material?"

When the commission reaches the final stages before adopting an action or law the relevant spokesperson liaises with the commissioner and the responsible department to identify key political messages. Then the spokesperson produces a draft. It is circulated to the commissioner’s staff and one or two people in the spokesman’s service and then Doens, and only Doens, signs it off. The whole process takes a few days. For breaking news, much less.  

If you read the EC’s press material, you will notice a definite house style. It is detailed, informative and, well, a bit boring really. There seems little attempt to sell, no modulation, just the passionless monotone of officialese.

Doens looks almost pleased when I say this. It is deliberate, an expression of what you might call the EC brand values, he argues: "It is firmly linked to what we are as an institution. National governments get their edge from an ideological stance. You are left or right. Liberal or Conservative. The commission does not position itself on an ideological axis because this institution doesn’t serve an ideology. Its composition is multi-ideological."

Anyway, he says his job is to serve the European general interest. Not a member state or group of member states or ideological grouping. "That’s what gives being political at the EU level its distinct flavour and character," says Doens.

It is a perfectly poised, polished performance. Warm, polite and convincing, Doens is the very model of a Brussels mandarin. But hints of a more rounded, perhaps even seditious, personality occasionally peek through the emollient façade.

On his office wall hang large framed photos of Freddie Mercury, Leonard Cohen and Peter Sellers. A showman, a poet and a clown. Possibly not what you would expect from a senior civil servant. And Doens has the slightly disarming habit of smiling as if he has just had a really funny thought that he would like to share but can’t. Maybe it’s just a nervous grin, but it feels like maybe he is signalling that he recognises the essential absurdity of all this political nonsense going on around him.

So when he starts talking about the president’s phrase "The technical charisma of the EC", and gives a little smile, the thought occurs: is he having a laugh? Is he being ironic? It is hard to tell. But Barroso’s description of the commission – "objective, neutral, solid, subdued" – are clearly its brand values and perfectly describe what Doens is projecting through the Spokespersons’ Service.

Therein lies one of the difficulties for the EU, the EC and Doens. The USA has a vision of democracy and freedom at its heart and people are drawn to it from all over the world. Europe, in contrast, seems to have no big idea, no banner to get behind. Neutral and subdued don’t quite cut it when it comes to vision. Doens agrees that this is a real problem. "You’ve put your finger on something we have been addressing," he says. He thinks there are two strands to a motivating vision for Europe.

The first is what he calls "the real concrete stuff", by which he means consumer rights legislation such as European action on roaming charges or the recent regulation requiring a single mobile charger. "We put forward proposals that makes people’s lives better, easier or cheaper," says Doens.

But if consumer rights seem like small beer on the motivation front, then there is the big story. The powerful motivating vision: "We have had a heartbeat in the past. It was the original vision of the EU and it still stands. The original idea of Europe was that it was a project that bought together two former enemies that fought two world wars. It was a project for peace and that’s why we won the Nobel Peace Prize [in 2012]."

Perhaps the EU has been too successful. No one appears seriously worried about the prospect of a war between EU states these days. Instead, there is a new vision and it is a return to the four freedoms expressed in the EU’s founding document, the Treaty of Rome: mobility of goods, services, capital and labour. You could call it European fundamentalism. "We started to bring down borders. We’ve had a moment with the internal market, Schengen and so on bringing down the borders so you can travel and study across the borders of Europe, so that goods and services can move more freely. This has created a second heartbeat."

Or a second heart attack, if you happen to be UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Not that you have to anti-European to think that the unrestricted large-scale movement of people is a challenge and it needs managing. The idea that the unmanaged movement of labour could form the basis of a unifying vision seems slightly bonkers. Doens drily points out that the country that was most strongly behind labour mobility was the UK.

However, there is the possibility of a "third heartbeat", suggests Doens, which might be more motivating. It could be described as ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. "We now live in a globalised world where new powers have entered the stage, the BRICS countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China South Africa]. In this multipolar world even the biggest member state is too small to stand its ground. But together we can."

He believes that only by emphasising common ground between European countries, rather than differences, can Europe prosper in the world: "There is a solid set of communalities. While keeping our diversity there is a trunk that binds us together. That’s what we need to rally around. That’s the only way we are going to defend our prosperity and our view of the world."

The search for a unifying vision

The real problem seems to be that Europe is prevented from mobilising the one idea that could give it a clear sense of purpose, such as the US vision of democracy and freedom. The reason for this is that it can never have a higher purpose than the member states. That would threaten sovereignty. They do not want it and will not allow it.

So Europe is left scrabbling around trying to fashion its purpose from the detritus of legislation, regulation and harmonisation, and there is always the inevitable fact that national governments tend to claim the EC’s successes as theirs, while failures are inevitably attributed to the EC.

Perhaps that is why nationalist parties such as UKIP and its ilk are so able to attack Europe for the quantity and madness of its regulations. Consider for a moment the straight banana edict. According to urban myth, bonkers EC bureaucrats were said to have banned bananas that were too curved.

It is not an urban myth, says Doens. Back in the mists of time there really was a directive about the quality and standards of fruit. One of those standards really did say that "bananas shall be free from deformation or abnormal curvature".

Doens admits that the EC was perhaps overzealous on that one: "Did we get it right there? Probably not. Was there a reason we did that? Probably yes. So sometimes, like any public administration or company, we make mistakes. But in the case of the EU, when we make mistakes they have the potential of acquiring a mythical nature."

So just as the EC is trying to cut the size of its administration, it is also attempting to reduce the volume and intrusive nature of legislation it produces, he claims: "There is homework to be done by us. Some of the regulations are too prescriptive. We have screened all EU legislation under our REFIT programme and have proposed ways to make EU law lighter, simpler and cheaper."

Does that mean he feels the EC does not always get a fair press? "The press is by definition fair. You won’t hear me say anything else." He is doing that smiling thing again. But now he really is joking. Probably.

While the nature of EC coverage may be variable, it does have one huge advantage, says Doens: the EC press corps that meets every day at midday in the press centre on the ground floor of the Berlaymont: "I am radically positive about having one of the biggest press corps anywhere in the world. It’s a major asset because the press is an essential stakeholder to get our message out. It knows how Europe works. It is interested in Europe and looks at it from a European perspective."

Ouch. Is that a little barb aimed at Her Majesty’s press corps and its often ill-informed Euroscepticism? So how does the EC handle media criticism?Well, it depends whether it is accurate or not: "We have a clear action plan.

Every morning we screen the media in all member states. We identify where we have good press and those where an urgent follow-up is needed because it is wrong or nasty or twisted."

Who can he possibly be talking about? "Then we need to look at the damage and potential spill-over. That allows us to decide whether we need to do something about it. Most of the time it’s not about twisting. It’s about lack of correct information, in which case we ask the spokesperson responsible to write a little email to the journalist."

There are many ways of dealing with outright lies: "It could be a letter to editor. We could respond through other media. Very often wrong stories generate interest through other journalists who ask the questions at midday during daily briefing. It gives us a chance to put the record straight."

Then there is the naughty step, the EC website Setting the Facts Straight. It is the place for the EC’s rapid rebuttal and it names and shames media that publish Eurotrash. It is the least measured and most gung-ho in tone of the commission’s output. You can sense frustration bordering on anger in some of the articles. "But it’s also fun to write," says Doens. Recent entries include ‘No EU plan to standardise toilets’, ‘No plans to introduce mega-trucks everywhere in the EU’ and ‘What EC president Barroso really said in the European Parliament’.

The Dailies Mail, Express and Telegraph are among the most frequent offenders: "We respond though the web. So we take the story itself, get the facts straight and then we tweet it."

Doens admits that the relentless pressure can be wearing. It is intensified by the 24/7 news cycle, which is turning faster and faster. The key is not to get too hung up on the process and the minutiae and retain a sense of overall direction, he says. "It’s in the nature of my job to be stress resistant," says the man who practises yoga and listens to Led Zep for relaxation. You can get worked up every minute of the day because there’s so much happening. But that’s when you need to stay calm and have sound judgement. You can’t chase every rabbit. I like this quote from The Doors: ‘Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.’ The essence of my job is to keep my eyes on the big important issues."

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