Tuesday

5th Dec 2023

UK not the only losers in EU 'generation game'

  • Square opposite EU parliament, more Polish, less English heard in cafes (Photo: FallacyFilms)

On the streets between Schuman and Place Luxembourg that mark out the EU quarter, English is the most spoken language.

The supermarket shelves stock Heinz baked beans, Tiptree's marmalade, and tea and biscuits - popular creature comforts for Brits abroad - at a hefty mark up.

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But British nationals in the EU institutions are an increasingly endangered species even though a referendum on its continued EU membership, if it ever happens, is still years away.

The number of Brits working for the European Commission has fallen by 24 percent in seven years. They represent just 4.6 percent of the EU executive's staff, well short of its 12.5 percent share of the EU's population. Its numbers are also falling in the European Parliament, with UK nationals accounting for just 5.8 percent of senior administrative-grade (AD) posts, down from 6.2 percent in 2010.

By contrast, France, which has a marginally bigger population than the UK, accounts for 9.7 percent of commission staff and 8.6 percent of senior parliament officials.

If there is a crumb of comfort for the British, it is that they punch their weight amongst the EU's diplomatic corps. Of the 308 positions held by national diplomats in June 2013, the UK held the second highest number at 25, behind France with 39.

Does all this matter?

British leader David Cameron's government clearly thinks so, going as far as to establish an EU Staffing Unit devoted to beefing up the presence of its civil servants in the EU institutions.

For example, the government will be funding more seconded national experts (SNEs) to the EU institutions in areas considered to be of strategic importance, such as financial services.

The timing is rather awkward, however, amidst mounting speculation about Britain's continued membership of the EU.

On top of this, the 24 percent fall is just the tip of the iceberg.

A paper sent by the UK foreign office to a committee of MPs in the House of Commons earlier this month conceded that, although the UK had never taken its full share of EU staff, "the problem has become more acute and is set to get worse before it gets better."

More than four in 10 British officials will be enjoying their retirement by 2020 and, based on the number of applicants in recent years, most of them will not be replaced.

UK entrants for the 2012 concours competition made up just 2.4 percent of the total number, while the latest statistics for 2013 reveal that a mere 289 British nationals have applied, fewer than Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Finland and Lithuania.

The trend is part of what foreign secretary William Hague has described as a "generation gap."

The generation of staff who joined the commission when Britain joined the then EEC in 1973 are either retired or retiring, while officials who moved to Brussels in the 1980s to establish the single market are coming to the end of their careers.

But the problem does not just affect the Brits.

Senior Luxembourgish and Danish employees are the other nationalities set to be more depleted.

One in four German senior staffers will have begun to draw their pension by 2020. In total, 10,000 officials, including 27 percent of senior civil servants from the fifteen EU member states who joined before 2004, will have retired by the end of the decade.

Commission officials say that the 2004 austerity measures for officials, which included a 20 percent starting salary pay cut for senior civil servants, have made it tougher for the EU executive to attract high quality candidates from "old" Europe.

"The problem is particularly acute for the UK," says Antonio Gravilli, the commission's spokesman on institutional relations, who also cites the limited second language skills of many British applicants as another contributing factor.

"The trend is for the geographical imbalance to get worse in the coming years, particularly as we are not recruiting enough new staff from the rich member states," he explains, adding, in reference to the new settlement for EU staffing, that "the 5 percent cut in staff from 2013-2017 will obviously not help to rectify the situation either."

By contrast, only 5 percent of AD ranked officials from the eastern European intake will leave the service.

Not that there is anything sinister behind this statistic which reflects the fact that their countries have not been members for long enough to have significant numbers retiring.

At present, there is little the commission can do to maintain a country-by-country balance amongst its staff.

Current rules forbid them from any kind of positive discrimination. Neither they nor member states can parachute large numbers of new staff into senior positions within the EU Institutions - the only way to increase the number of permanent staff from the UK and elsewhere is through success at the concours.

However, the revisions to the EU's staff regulations, currently being finalised by MEPs and ministers, could give the commission the power to hold targeted competitions by nationality as early as 2014.

If nothing else, the demography of the "Brussels bubble" - and, potentially, its gastronomy, will change. Perhaps British ex-pats should start stockpiling their jams, biscuits and beans. The Polish delicatessens are coming.

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