EU AMA: Who is the highest-paid EU official?

In Ask Me Anything, we tackle questions about the European Union that intrigue and perplex. This month, Linda A Thompson pores over regulations and protocols to identify the highest earner among the EU’s top brass
Illustration by Shirin Begmyradova

By Linda A Thompson

Linda A Thompson is a Belgian journalist who writes on EU policy and legal activism

30 May 2023

Inconveniently, the names and salaries of the best-paid European Union officials are not itemised on a handy Commission website. Instead, the task of identifying the biggest salaries in the Brussels bubble involves a long and winding fact-finding odyssey.  

First port of call is a 2016 council regulation. It states that the salaries of the EU’s top brass are determined by applying a certain percentage to the salary of “an official of the Union on the third step of grade 16”.  This particular spot is held by the directors-general and deputy directors-general who helm the Commission’s various policy departments and have been in this role for six years or more, a spokesperson for the European Commission tells The Parliament.    

To discover how much the third step of grade 16 gets you, we must turn to another document. The snappily titled ‘2022 Annual update of the remuneration and pensions of the officials and other servants of the European Union’ reveals these civil servants are paid, at time of writing, €22,646 per month.  

If we go back to that 2016 regulation, we can see that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Council Charles Michel, and the President of the Court of Justice of the European Union Koen Lenaerts, all make 138 per cent of what these civil servants earn. A quick – if not entirely painless – calculation suggests this triumvirate earns about €31,200 per month and €375,000 per year pre-tax.  

They are tailed by the High-Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, who rakes in 130 per cent of the salary of the highest paid-civil servant, or about €29,400 a month and €353,00 per year pre-tax, making him the fourth-best paid official. These top officials’ salaries are all supplemented with a series of allowances, some with curious sounding titles. Entertainment allowance, anyone?  

The Commission, it should be noted, has no say in how much its top people are paid. The highest salaries have been set by the European Council – the governments of the EU’s 27 member states – since 1967, according to the Commission spokesperson. 

The European Parliament, thankfully, makes it much easier to find out what members elected to the hemicycle make. A list of frequently asked questions put to the Parliament’s Spokesperson’s Unit gives it to us straight – MEPs all make 38.5 per cent of the basic salary of a judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union. Currently, that’s just over €9,800 per month or roughly €118,000 annually pre-tax. 

A common misconception has it that Brussels bubble folk pay zero tax on these generous salaries. The truth is that von der Leyen and the like fall under the Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of the European Communities, as a result of which they don’t have to pay Belgian income tax, which would see a big chunk of their salaries being taxed at a whopping 50 per cent – Belgium being one of the EU countries with the highest tax burdens

Instead, their salaries are taxed under a progressive tax with no fewer than 14 rates “for the benefit of the European Communities” – meaning the taxes withheld go into the EU budget. Almost the entire salary bill of the Commission’s top earners is taxed at the highest rate of 45 per cent. The EU giveth and the EU taketh away. 

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