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Participation in EU Commission meetings: A measure of Ashton’s lack of influence?

Catherine Ashton is well known as one of the hardest working people in Brussels.
James Morrison, Head of Cabinet of Catherine Ashton

I had a good laugh when I read this quote in a blog post of the EU Commission Representation in the UK today.

I was laughing because, when you are in Brussels, a lot of people complain about the way EU “foreign minister” Ashton works and this description thus almost sounds like sarcasm from her head of cabinet. The quote is also strangely funny given the fact that there are probably a lot of officials working hard in and around the EU institutions (although some might object to this assumption…), and maybe even harder than Ms Ashton.

The blog post itself was a reaction to this Telegraph article by Bruno Waterfield, journalist and EUobserver blogger, in which Bruno criticises Catherine Ashton for her lack of attendance of Commission meetings.

But while Bruno finds that having missed 17 out of 42 Commission meetings (participation rate of 60%) over the last year is too much, Ashton’s head of cabinet, Morrison, argues that

“an attendance record of more than 60% at Commission meetings is astonishing given that Catherine Ashton has done the jobs previously done by three people“.

claiming also that

Her attendance record is comparable to some current and former colleagues

Especially this latter quote found my interest and so I took a look at the Commission website and the page with the Commission’s meeting protocols for 2010 in order to see how Ashton’s participation rate was in comparison to others.

[Update on 10 Jan: After this article has been written, the list of protocols has been completed and was brought into order. Thanks at the responsible webmaster for being so responsive!]
The first thing that you notice on the meeting protocol page is that a) the list of documents is not well-ordered, and b) that not all meetings are actually linked. Luckily, the links to the protocols are regular, so you can jump from meeting to meeting to meeting, just by changing the link. Simply take “” and add 1 to the number in bold for the next meeting (the last one for 2010 is 1940).

So I went through all the protocols of the Barroso II Commission in 2010 (36 in total, starting with the meeting on 17 February 2010) and coded the participation of the Commissioners in an Excel file which I have uploaded to Google Fusiontables (follow the link; please check against possible mistakes).

In the table, 1 stands for participation in all agenda items, 0.5 for partial participation (which can be 1 agenda item up to all but 1), and 0 for absence. At the bottom I’ve done the calculations for participation in each meeting and on the right for each Commissioner. For the 1st sum, I’ve simply added up the numbers. For the 2nd sum I have only counted participation in the full meeting. For the 3rd sum I’ve counted both complete and partial participation as full participation.

The results are as follows:

If you count the amount of times she has been present at least for a part of the agenda of the Commission meetings of the Barroso II Commission in 2010 (sum 3), you arrive at 21 meetings (i.e. 58% of the 36), a figure confirming Bruno Waterfield’s calculations. On this measure, Ashton ranks last among all Commissioners, with Commissioner Piebalgs being just ahead with 22 meetings. The next one is Commissioner de Gucht with 27 meetings while Barroso and Ciolos each just have missed one single of the 36 meetings.

This gap kind of confirms the argument of Ashton’s head of cabinet that absence from Commission meetings may be explained by international duties, given that Piebalgs deals with the development portfolio while de Gucht is dealing with trade, both rather external policy fields with development being even more clearly directed to the external dimension (similar to Ashton).

Yet, it is also interesting to look at another measure, that is meetings in which Ashton has followed the full agenda (sum 2). Here, she only arrives at the penultimate rank that she shares with Commissioner Oettinger, both having only 12 full Commission meetings (33%) on their accounts for 2010 (Barroso II). Behind them is only de Gucht who doesn’t appear to be a huge fan of Commission meetings or who must be incredibly busy, seeing his amount of non- or short-time appearances. On the measure of full Commission meetings, the list is led by Ciolos (Agriculture), Damanaki (Fisheries) and Dalli (Health and Consumers).

Taking into account these figures, on may ask whether the following statement by Ashton’s head of cabinet is really true:

Even when Catherine Ashton is not able to attend the European Commission’s weekly meeting, the process in Brussels ensures that her voice is heard and that her views are fully reflected in Commission decisions“.

Given that it took her until recently to build up the EEAS team, I doubt that with her limited amount of involvement into the core Commission work (represented through her participation record) she really was having her voice heard at the strength her head of cab is trying to make us think.

I’m fully aware that there are many possibilities to exert influence and that sitting around in meetings may not always be the activity that makes you influential, but I wouldn’t go as far as fully dismissing Bruno Waterfield’s criticism.

It may be true that less participation in meetings is not a measure of how much a person works. Nevertheless, taken together with other information we’ve heard on her first year in office (e.g. the fact that she’s been missing other important meetings, too), it doesn’t appear to be unrealistic to deduce conclusions on Ashton’s standings within the EU Commission and within the balance of powers of the EU institutions by looking at the amount of time that she has spent in (full) Commission meetings during the last year.

What do you think?

[Update on 10 Jan] Bruno Waterfield has followed up on his Telegraph article with a longer blog post that also references this post.

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