TRANSPARENCY NOTE: I have been teaching at the College of Europe in Bruges for 5 years. I teach the Negotiation Simulation (compulsory course, taught with 2 others) and a short optional course entitled “Online Communications in EU Policy-Making“, both courses in the Politics Department (there are also Law, Economics and International Relations and Diplomacy departments in Bruges). I am one of the “flying faculty” (or in my case ludicrously-long-train-rides faculty) – I am not based in Bruges, but go there only for the time required to teach my courses. I have never taught at the Natolin campus, or for any course other than the Politics course. I have never met and do not know Federica Mogherini, and I once met Herman Van Rompuy at an event almost a decade ago but do not know him. What I write below is no commendation of the candidature of anyone in the running to be Rector. I am writing purely in a personal capacity.
On 22nd April at 19:52 a message arrived from a contact in Brussels, alerting me to the existence of Document C(2020) 9013 final entitled “DECISION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION on former High Representative / Vice-President Federica Mogherini’s application and envisaged post term of office professional activity as Rector of the College of Europe“. The PDF of the Decision is time stamped 11:41 on 22nd April.
This was the first that I had heard that Federica Mogherini‘s name was in the frame to be the new Rector (i.e. boss) of the College of Europe. A little bit of asking around also revealed that it was the first that plenty of other people had heard of the issue. At the time of writing there is still nothing on the College of Europe website about Mogherini’s candidature for the position.
Upon hearing the news I wrote this rather sarcastic tweet, a tweet that – it turns out – was wide of the mark. I had assumed this were some sort of done deal at that stage, but it is not the case. Mogherini still is just a candidate for the position, although exactly what happens next and whether she will be appointed is hard to know precisely, and is the subject of this blog post.
But how did the College of Europe even get to this stage?
Here was where I then started to delve into the process to recruit a new Rector for the College of Europe.
The digging started with the Job Advertisement that is still on the website of the College of Europe (it’s on the Wayback Machine too, just for safety). It stipulates that candidates should apply by 30th September 2019, and that interviews are scheduled for 27th November 2019. The new Rector’s term will then start 1st September 2020.
And here Herman Van Rompuy enters.
The ex Belgian Prime Minister became head of the Administrative Council of the College of Europe on 1st November 2019, replacing Íñigo Méndez de Vigo. And Van Rompuy was also chair of the Selection Panel to appoint the new Rector, with the interviews scheduled for 27th November. Those interviews I know did take place but proved to be inconclusive – no decision could be reached. All candidates who made it to the interview then are still, even now, to be considered candidates and are officially in the running. However Van Rompuy was charged with finding new candidates, and that then leads us to him ‘finding’ Federica Mogherini.
However with Van Rompuy there is always a reason, and always a strategy. Describing him as a “damp rag” was, even by Farage’s standards, completely wide of the mark. Van Rompuy is one of the most cunning and tricky political operators you will find – you do not become Prime Minister of Belgium without that. Jean Quatremer is right to his role in the whole Mogherini saga in this piece in Libération.
Which then leads us back to what the Rector is, and back to the job advertisement.
There are two especially relevant paragraphs – emphasis is mine:
Candidates must have the nationality of a European country and should demonstrate substantial academic qualities in the field of European studies, a proven experience of the administration and management of an academic structure of some complexity, and should be able to combine the pursuit of academic excellence at international level with sound budgetary management.
The rectorship is a full-time position, which excludes the pursuit of any other professional activity or academic affiliation. It requires permanent residence in Bruges and a regular presence in Natolin.
The problem is that the candidate Van Rompuy found does not comply with the criteria the College of Europe has set for the position. Mogherini has a degree (laurea in Italian) in Political Science from Sapienza in Rome, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Tampere. She has never run an academic structure (complex or not), and when it comes to budgetary management… well the European Commission threw an extra spanner in the works there – back to the European Commission Decision, again my emphasis:
In order to keep the potential future Rector’s responsibilities entirely separate from the College’s position as a beneficiary of EU funding allocations, the College of Europe undertook to formally transfer the empowerment to sign the annual EU institutional grant application and any document relating to its execution from the Rector to the Treasurer of the College, in case Ms Mogherini is appointed as Rector
Quatremer reckons it is half of the College’s budget that comes from the EU. Which basically means the Commission has prevented a Rector Mogherini carrying out an important function of the job.
The full time position issue is also interesting – is Mogherini really going to commit full time to this position, and spend her time dealing with matters as tedious as problems with the canteen or disputes over the footnotes in theses? Or is that, ultimately, Van Rompuy’s game – that together with the higher levels of the administration of the College (that have never been known for their nimbleness), it would make his and their lives easier to have a part time, part engaged Rector, as opposed to someone hungry and determined to make something of the position? There is also the intriguing side issue I stumbled across when researching this blog post – I know that KU Leuven also has a campus in Bruges, but it turns out that Van Rompuy sits on the Board of Governors there too, although maybe all of that is just coincidence.
Now don’t get me wrong – you can make a case for a political Rector of the College of Europe. Someone well connected in Brussels, a smooth operator in the corridors of power. Mogherini is definitely that. And indeed Rectors of the College of Europe were, up until 2001, that sort of person. But if that is the aim, then say so. Rewrite the job description for the position accordingly. Restructure the College accordingly. And bring those of us who teach and learn there into that process.
My own view is that a political Rector just duplicates what the College of Europe is already good at – connections with power – but would not address the issues with the administration of the institution and the quality of the academic programme. But my view on that issue does not really matter – Mogherini’s candidature does not fulfil the stipulated and official criteria.
Anyway what happens now?
As far as I can tell no decision has been made. There will be a further round of interviews. Yet with the post due to start 1st September time is beginning to get tight, and this process has been rumbling on since the autumn. I presume Mogherini will be interviewed along with those others still in the running from the first round, although some of those may now struggle to free themselves from other commitments in time for the scheduled start date. If Mogherini does eventually emerge as the successful candidate, it is going to require a lot of work to explain why someone who does not comply with the stated criteria were appointed, and those questions would of course have to be answered by the Chair of the Selection Committee, Herman Van Rompuy.
Meanwhile the College of Europe continues to drift, lacking direction and clarity. That is no good for current and future students, and also no good for those of us who teach there and whose own reputation is somehow connected to the place. That it has taken a blog post like this to explain what is going on ought to draw pause for thought inside the College, not least after previous fiascoes over the past 18 months – training for Saudi Arabian diplomats and allegations of sexual harassment – where a lack of transparency and communication compounded the initial problem.
There is of course a different way to do this. To communicate with clarity and transparency. The College of Europe even has a course about it.