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22nd Sep 2018

Feature

British EU officials in limbo if UK leaves

  • Manager-level UK officials, numbering some 450 in the commission, expected to stay on Norway model (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

It’s a small comfort for UK nationals who work in EU institutions that the European Commission still pays the wages of four Norwegians and one Icelander.

They were hired to prepare for the two states’ EU accessions, which fell by the wayside in 1994 and in 2015, respectively.

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Polls indicate the UK is heading for a close-call referendum on its EU membership, possibly in June.

If it votes to leave, it will put the 1,200 UK officials in the European Commission in the Norwegians’ boat.

There are hundreds more Brits in the European Parliament and in the EU Council. There are more again on temporary contracts and in the offices of the 73 British MEPs.

Goodbye?

Under article 49 of the EU staff regulation they could be forced to go because they no longer fulfill article 28a eligibility criteria, on being a national of an EU country.

It wasn't invoked on Norway. But neither the commission or the British government want to speculate if the UK would get the same treatment.

Alexander Winterstein, a commission spokesman, said: “Our hope is that a fair deal - for both the UK and the other 27 member states - can be reached, and I would like to leave it there.”

A British goverment spokeswoman said: “The civil service is working round the clock on supporting the [EU] renegotiation.”

But there is genuine concern.

Simon Coates, a British EU Council and trade union official, said he’s heard of UK colleagues who are seeking dual nationality in Belgium or other EU states.

A British commission official, who asked not to be named, said: “An increasing number of UK officials are finding second passports.”

A parliament source said the same.

Lame ducks

Sources expect that senior UK officials, at director level or above, would be let go because they have a political role.

Manager-level officials would likely stay on the Norway model.

Many rank-and-file officials would also stay because EU institutions need their language skills.

There are about 60 British directors in the commission.

But they’re expected to get a “golden handshake,” under article 50 of the staff rules.

They earn some €15,000 a month. They would be paid about 70 percent for the first five years, then 60 percent. But when their pension starts, they would get up to 70 percent again.

If they stay, it’s unclear what the 450 or so British managers in the commission would do.

Asked what the four Norwegians and the Icelander do, Winterstein said: “Given the small sample even general information about grade and jobs would in fact be specific personal information about individuals - which we can't really provide.”

More than half the British managers are over 45, so they might not care if they’re parked to one side.

But a British official said younger Brits have more to lose.

“Even if you stay, what would happen to your career progression? You can hardly expect to rise to a top post if your country isn’t an EU member,” he said.

In parliament, British MEPs would also be lame ducks.

But their mandate ends in mid-2019 anyway. If the UK votes to leave in June, it would take until at least mid-2018 to negotiate its terms of exit.

“They’ll find an accomodation for the short while,” a parliament source said.

Pensions

The League of Nations also offers some comfort.

The league was a proto-UN body created in 1920. It had an HQ in Geneva and 58 member states in its heyday. It was dissolved in 1946, but former officials got full pensions.

“You can’t take someone’s pension just because their country leaves ... We’ve acquired rights by paying a monthly contribution to the [EU] pension scheme,” Coates said.

“League of Nations officials were paid their pensions until they died because member states found a way to honour obligations.”

If the UK leaves, obligations will be decided under article 50 of the EU treaty.

It says that if an EU state goes, “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that state, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”

The exit deal is concluded by EU states “acting by a qualified majority” after getting EU parliament “consent.”

No hard feelings

An EU official said the destiny of British staff would depend on “how acrimonious the Brexit negotiations are.”

“Regarding the Norwegian precedent, Norway [still] makes contributions to the EU budget … this could be relevant,” he said.

He added that “there might be a clash” on whether ex-officials’ EU pensions would be taxed under EU rules or under UK law, which is much less generous.

Another EU official said that, to his knowledge, nobody has seriously considered what might happen if the UK exits.

“There's no document here on those issues. My guess is that that's the kind of situation nobody wants to tackle before it becomes reality,” he said.

Whatever happens, the changes would come as a shock to some British officials who’ve spent the best part of their professional lives in Brussels.

Jonathan Faull, the EU’s top negotiator on Brexit, for one, has lived outside the UK for so long he can’t event vote in the referendum.

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