about us
  areas of expertise
  our projects
  ideas & resources


  Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article


How Brussels Kills Europe

Omkar Goswami

Here are my two favourite bureaucracy quotes. The first is by Thomas Sowell, an American writer and economist of sorts. It runs thus: “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” The second quote is from another American writer and commentator, Mary McCarthy: “Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism”.

Nothing describes these quotes better than the huge bureaucracy created by the European Commission (EC) in Brussels. Headed by the President and 26 other commissioners, the EC has over 25,000 full time employees, who are split into departments called Directorates-General and Services. This excludes the 10,000-odd ‘external staff’ — consultants, contractual agents and national ‘experts’ — who are on the payroll, many for one assignment after the other. The largest single DG is the Directorate-General for Translation with a staff of over 2,200 which translates countless reams of paper into the various languages of the member countries. This vast bureaucracy, centred in Brussels and spread across Europe and every major national capital of the world, routinely produces enough paper to destroy forests (example: well over 2,000 press releases a year translated in different languages) and also shackles basic sanity. If you thought our bureaucracy is the worst, think again. There is little to beat the babus of Brussels.

The European Working Time Directive (EWTD) states that any worker is entitled to a rest period of no less than 11 consecutive hours in each 24-hour period during which he works for the employer. Thus, no work-shift can be longer than 13 hours. Fair enough. Now consider the latest example of bureaucratic absurdity — one that would make all trade unionists proud. The European Commission has ruled that from 1 August 2009, no junior doctor in any European Union member state can work more than 48 hours per week; they must have two rest periods of at least 24 hours in every fortnight, plus four weeks of annual leave. In addition, two judgments of the European Court of Justice have clearly stated that if a junior doctor on call in hospital, but happens to be resting in bed, she or he will still be considered to be working. Hospitals face stiff penalties if this rule is broken. And this rule comes into effect when swine flu is raging across Europe, especially the UK.

Read the two directives together, and it is obvious how this ridiculous ruling will have disastrous consequences. Assuming a 12-hour shift, from 1 August no junior doctor will be allowed to work more than four days per week. No country in Europe has enough junior doctors to ensure that its hospitals will have a fully staffed rota on a 24/7 basis and still adhere to nobody being allowed to work more than four days per week. Even when the EC had the rule of 56 hours per week, member countries disregarded it for the want of sufficient doctors. A list compiled by Professor Roy Pounder of the Royal College of Physicians in London shows that 17 of the 27 member states led by France and Germany have openly said that its doctors will have to work more than 48 hours week to keep their hospitals going. I suspect that the remaining 10 stated 48 hours or less so as to avoid needless attention from Brussels.

Implementing such a rule will have disastrous consequences for health care. For one, there just won’t be enough junior doctors per shift. For another, patients will have to see keep seeing ‘new’ doctors who often won’t understand their problems. As Professor Pounder put it, clinical care will suffer as each new doctor has to re-learn a patient’s problems; will neither see the evolution of an illness — a vital educational experience for any junior doctor — nor appreciate the subtle changes in a patient’s condition from day to day. Since the average stay for an acute medical admission in the UK is 7 days, multiple handovers will now be inevitable, to the detriment of patient care.

Dr John Black, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, has been more blunt. He has warned of an impending catastrophe in the British National Health Service with the coming of the 48-hour working week. According to him, Britain will face an acute shortage of surgeons, leading to operations being cancelled and wards closed down.

Who thought of this absurd rule? The babus of Brussels. Were they doctors, and did they know anything of how hospitals are run? Absolutely not. Why then the rule? Because if truckers, stewardesses and pilots cannot work for more than hours a week with a minimum rest period of 11 hours in each 24 hours, then so should doctors. Three cheers for Brussels! May it bring more jobs for Asian doctors!


Published: Business World, August 2009


                 Index of Articles          Index of Perspectives            Next Article