As the Belgian section of the Association of European Journalists, we are always glad to make an excursion into history from time to time and excited to bring back into memory some of our great Belgian Europeans who were part of the launch of what is the EU today.

Collegiality in the European Commission: where does it come from as a practice?

Remember Albert Coppé, the first European Commissioner for Belgium, was born 110 years ago in the city of Bruges.

Today, the 26th of November 2021, it’s been 110 years since Albert Coppé came to this world. His rich career as a politician and professor at the KUL (the Catholic University of Leuven) deserves extra attention these days, as he may be considered to have been the main instigator of the collegial way decisions are taken within the European Commission and of the use of all national member state languages in the official communication by the European institutions.

The impetus to this development was aptly described by René Jacques Rabier, one of Jean Monnet’s close collaborators and the very first Spokesperson of the European institutions, in an interview with our former president, the late Michel Theys. Here’s the translation:

‘Being Flemish and the only former minister in the first college of the European Coal and Steel Community (first of the European Institutions of what is now the EU) who was able to express himself fluently in German, English and in a French that most of his French-speaking compatriots should envy, [Coppé] courteously but firmly campaigned to have Italian and Dutch recognised as official languages of the newly created Community. He started this battle by addressing Jean Monnet, the first President of the CSCE and author of the Schuman Declaration, with a memo written in Dutch! He won the fight and so we may consider owing it to him that we now have 24 official languages in the EU. (…)

To render complete justice to Albert Coppé, it’s fitting to bring into memory that this flamboyant personality engaged in a fierce battle with Monnet – a fight he won. The meetings Monnet organised with his German VP Etzel to prepare for the following day’s College meetings did not amuse the Belgian, who feared, possibly in error, a Franco-German stranglehold on the young institution.

As a prompt reaction, [Coppé] preemptively convened a meeting between the Benelux and Italian commissioners, so that it was visible to all that two preparative meetings were held in parallel a day before each College session. This was not positive for the image of the institution and thus appealed for a peace of the brave. Monnet called him in and said: “Coppé, I want you to stop organising these meetings.” To which Coppé replied: “I’ll stop doing so if you stop with yours.” Which is exactly what happened. This exchange of views sealed the fate of collegiality as a rule for the Commissioner meetings.’

Adapted from: Jacques René Rabier, Fonctionnaire Militant au service d’une certaine idée de l’Europe par Michel Theys, P.I.E. Lang, 2017, pg 71.

Further readings on Coppé:

In Dutch; (Ten huize van, 1974).