Thursday

29th Feb 2024

Staff leaving EU diplomatic service amid bad working conditions

  • EEAS official: 'All the people I know are looking for other jobs' (Photo: tacker)

Working for the new European External Action Service (EEAS) used to sound like one of the sexiest jobs in Brussels.

But in the past nine months almost 60 staff have left amid reports of bad working conditions.

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According to its own figures, 27 people have gone off to the EU Council, the member states' secreteriat. Sixteen others went to the European Commission. Six left for the European Parliament and seven have gone to the private sector. Another three quit the cabinet of EEAS chief Catherine Ashton herself.

The departures have handicapped individual departments - one unit which organises EU crisis management operations abroad has lost six out of 12 secretaries.

Senior people are also going, with five "A grade" crisis management officials abandoning ship.

David O'Sullivan, a top EEAS civil servant, told EUobserver the numbers are not significant because they are less than four percent of his 1,500-or-so Brussels-based staff.

"I don't think we have a problem with people leaving. Some people may not be happy, but these are teething problems in a new institution ... it's not that we have a general problem," he said.

If O'Sullivan was running a private company, he would be worried.

Blue-chip firms expect to lose up to 8 percent of workers a year in so-called "natural attrition." But alarm bells ring if more than 2 percent go because of "regrettable attrition" - people who do not like their jobs.

The EEAS departures are mostly "regrettable."

Contacts described management as "an absolute mess ... a nightmare ... chaos."

One EEAS director said: "There is a major dysfunction." An EU staff trade union delegate noted: "If the EEAS was a private company and people had to work in these conditions, it would go bankrupt."

Two years after the EU began creating the new body, personnel do not know who does what in the organisation. Many cannot get access to email or do not have a working telephone on their desk. Reimbursements for foreign missions, medical fees and children's school fees are paid months late, making EU diplomats reluctant to travel and making life hard for secretaries on low pay.

Dozens of EEAS embassies abroad do not have computers cleared to send secret files to each other or Brussels, forcing staff to hand-deliver documents. Even Ashton's private office does not have a top-level-cleared computer.

The day-to-day gripes come in a general climate of bad faith.

Ex-Council EEAS staff say ex-commission colleagues get preferential treatment by the European Commission's human resources department, which handles EEAS internal affairs.

EU countries cause jealousy by parachuting in diplomats for attractive jobs.

And Ashton herself has bad relations with important departments. "Some of the questions she asks SitCen [her classified information branch], you could get the answers on Google ... You get the feeling she doesn't care," a contact said.

O'Sullivan predicted big improvements when the EEAS is installed in its new headquarters in March.

Asked what he would say to staff thinking of leaving, he answered: "It would be a shame to make a career decision based on these issues ... I would advise people to reserve judgement until this point [the March move]."

But trade speak unions speak of a worst-case scenario.

One source said if things do not change, the EEAS could fall apart, with most work going back to the Council and the commission, leaving behind a rump of Ashton and her policymakers.

For their part, the Council and the commission are building new departments which could take back EEAS powers if the opportunity arises.

Senior Council official Leonardo Schiavo has created a unit handling EU foreign affairs, while commission secretary general Catherine Day has built one for EU foreign relations spending.

"These new structures are designed to undermine Ashton and I am amazed she is letting them get away with it," an EU diplomat noted.

"There is a Taliban of people in Brussels who want to see it [the EEAS] fail," an ex-EEAS official said.

Ashton spokesman Michael Mann sent this website a "rebuttal" after the story was published.

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The EU's new diplomatic service is to be housed in the so-called Triangle building in the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned in the lobby in December.

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Letter

Unsubstantiated tittle-tattle from anonymous 'sources'

Your article "Staff leaving EU diplomatic service amid bad working conditions" is riddled with inaccuracies and appears to be based entirely on unsubstantiated tittle-tattle from anonymous 'sources'.

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MEPs have backed changes to working conditions for EU officials designed to save over €1 billion a year and to improve ethical standards.

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