4th Dec 2020

EU staff pay dispute ends up in court

  • European Parliament - officials may strike next week during commissioner hearings (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission Wednesday (6 January) said it would take member states to court for blocking a standard pay rise due to EU civil servants.

Gathering for a first meeting of the new year, EU commissioners waved through a decision to take the matter to the European Court of Justice.

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"The commission has confirmed its decision to take action before the court to ask for the annulment of the council decision," said a spokeswoman. She added that the commission has asked for a quick decision by the court.

The legal move came after member states in late December voted to halve a planned 3.7% annual increase in pay to 1.85%, as ordinary EU citizens are having to tighten their belts in the face of the worst economic crisis in several decades.

Gross monthly salaries for EU commission staff run from 2,550 euros for a secretary to almost 18,000 euros for a head of department.

The annual pay adjustment for EU staff, agreed by governments in 2004, is an automatic mechanism and is based on the average of the pay for civil servants in eight member states, including France, Germany, the UK and Italy, in the previous year.

The commission has sought to emphasize the legal nature of the dispute which has been going on for several weeks. "We are talking here about the respect of agreed rules. It is not an issue where political discretion is at play," said the spokeswoman.

But the pay rise has grated in a year which has seen IMF bailouts and street protests in EU states as the full effects of the downturn are felt. Countries such as the UK, which opposed the wage hike, argued that it sent the wrong message to citizens.

According to a German government spokesperson quoted by Spiegel Online, the rules should be subject to a "critical review." "It is precisely in times of crisis that political sensibilities should also play a role," he said on Wednesday.

EU civil servants however counter that the same mechanism is likely to lead to a cut in pay when wages - which will be based on 2009 pay scales - are next up for discussion at the end of 2010.

The public spat between the EU institutions and member states has been something of an embarrassment coming at the end of a year which saw protracted internal divisions over the bloc's new Lisbon Treaty.

EU parliament staff

However, the staff protests - to date not too disruptive - may not be over. EU parliament staff could get in on the act next week.

Scaling back their talk of a full-scale strike, some parliament officials say they are still planning to hinder the MEP hearings of EU commissioner nominees.

"What we've decided is to organise protest meetings, which would disrupt hearings, including the [Catherine] Ashton hearing," Tom Morgan, of the Syndicat Général du Personnel des Organisations Européennes representing around 500 staff, told EUobserver. The keenly awaited hearing of the EU foreign policy chief is one of the first to take place, on 11 January.

The pay activists plan protests in front of the hearing room to preventing people from getting in so the hearings "cannot take place."

They say they want more public support from parliament chief Jerzy Buzek if their protest is to be called off. "We want something which is a little more concrete and public. We want the European Parliament to commit to signing up to the commission's court case."

However, it is unclear how many officials will actually support the protest, although all of the parliament's six unions favour next week's action.

A spokesman for Mr Buzek said that the president has been "vocal" in saying the letter of the law governing the pay rise must be obeyed.

Any disruption to the hearings timetable could potentially delay the investiture of the next European Commission, which has been in caretaker status since 1 November following delays in ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

The hearings of 26 commissioners have been packed into two weeks with a vote on the entire college pencilled in for 26 January. Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has been keen to get the new commission up and running, with the current delay bad for the EU's image but also causing a backlog in major decisions and policy initiatives.

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