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Klaus Welle’s secret to survival

by editor

Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.

If the reshuffle at the top of the European Parliament results in Secretary-General Klaus Welle losing his job after 13 years as the institution’s most senior official, then he will go out on a high. 

Just last month, in negotiations over the European Union’s annual budget for 2022, Parliament secured approval for 142 permanent employees and 180 external staff. 

At a time when other EU institutions are seeing their payroll numbers frozen or cut, this increase provoked howls of indignation inside the European Commission and the secretariat of the Council of the EU. But the Parliament had made its approval of the EU budget conditional on those jobs and stared down the disapproval of member countries and the Commission alike — yet another triumph in Welle’s long campaign to build up the institution’s resources. 

The archetype of a behind-the-scenes fixer, Welle has been one of the most powerful unelected bureaucrats in the EU for more than a quarter of a century. He has had a profound effect on the balance of power between the bloc’s institutions — and on the physical appearance of the city of Brussels.

Over the years, Welle’s allies and dependents took charge of most of the important positions in the Parliament’s bureaucracy, fueling resentment from those who were passed over. His political enemies now believe that his handling of the COVID-19 saga and the end of David Sassoli’s term as president make him vulnerable.

Hence the demand from Socialists and Democrats (S&D) that he should be removed in return for their backing for Roberta Metsola, who is the candidate of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) for the presidency.

Albeit he now holds an administrative position, Welle is a card-carrying German Christian Democrat, and his longevity can to some extent be explained by the strength of that faction in the Parliament. But the party is no longer what it was, neither in Strasbourg nor Berlin. If he is ousted, it will be symptomatic of the weakness of his compatriot Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP group and a member of Bavaria’s Christian-democratic Christian Social Union.

Conversely, if Welle sees off this latest attempt to unseat him, it will owe something to a general awareness in the Parliament that his reign has brought benefits for almost all its political parties — even if those benefits were not always distributed evenly. 

Welle served his apprenticeship in the EPP, the pan-European federation of what were then largely Christian Democrat parties, becoming its secretary-general at the age of 30 in 1994. He was at the right hand of the experienced Wilfried Martens, the EPP president and former prime minister of Belgium, as they expanded the group to recruit emerging political parties in post-Communist Central Europe. 

Five years later, he moved into the European Parliament as secretary-general of the EPP group of MEPs, which was then led by another German, Hans-Gert Pöttering. Next, he made the transition to a non-party-specific post in the Parliament’s secretariat, as director-general for the EU’s internal policies, before returning to work for Pöttering as chief of staff when the latter became president of the Parliament in 2007. 

Part of what has made Welle so formidable an operator on the Brussels scene is that his fascination with political science and history — not uncommon in a party apparatchik — is combined with an unusual appetite for the logistics of politics, what he terms Parliament’s “administrative capacity.”

He has immersed himself not just in who gets which job but also in the buildings, the technology and the support services. And in doing so, he has outperformed his counterparts at the Commission and Council — helped, it is true, by a more generous administrative budget.

There have been mishaps along the way, of course — security breaches and collapsed ceilings  — but Welle has mostly kept his political masters happy while pursuing his long-term agenda. 

Welle’s vision has slowly and steadily reshaped the physical setting of the European Parliament in Brussels: The opening of the Parliamentarium, the Parliament’s visitor center, was followed by the creation of the House of European History, a museum for which the Parliament transformed one of its oldest and most handsome buildings in the adjacent Park Leopold. More recently, Welle struck a deal with the Brussels authorities to repurpose the Wiertz Museum, on the other side of the park, for Parliament’s use. 

Less obviously perhaps, but in a similar incremental fashion, Welle has also steadily built up Parliament’s power to hold the Council and Commission to account. His vision of the EU’s future is that it should and will eventually conform to a clearer separation of powers along American lines, with the Parliament and the Council equating to the two houses of Congress, and the Commission becoming the executive.

In Welle’s view, Parliament should have the final say on EU appointments, the presidency of the Commission should be decided by the European Parliament elections, and the leading political parties should agree on a program that sets the terms for an incoming Commission.

What is striking about him in the EU context, where the protagonists are so often at the mercy of events and stumble from crisis to crisis, is that he has long-term goals — whether for a security perimeter around the European Parliament, or for a federal Europe — that he works toward relentlessly. 

Forward planning was the constant theme of Welle’s tutelage with Martens. Whether drafting political programs, preparing EPP summits or making appointments, the challenge was always to look ahead.

It is with this mindset that he will view the effort to unseat him. The current struggle will not come as a surprise. Welle will have seen it coming, and he will have prepared. 

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