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19th Aug 2019

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Lessons learned from EU police academy's soft Brexit

  • The police academy's former British home in Bramshill. (Photo: Leonard Bentley)

Theresa May has already presided over a Brexit. It was a small dress rehearsal for what is coming in March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU, and holds some valuable lessons for the real deal.

May, during her time as home office secretary, decided to sell the land in Bramshill where Cepol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training, was located, forcing the agency and its staff to find a new home on the continent.

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  • "The transition is traumatic, but it is also a novelty - it can bring new things, new experiences into one's life that could be life changing," said Cepol deputy head of training and research, Stefano Failla. (Photo: Daniel Horvath)

May notified Cepol, a small agency dealing with police training, of her intentions in December 2012 and the news soon was relayed to employees.

A long legislative process ensued in the EU, as the European Commission was hoping that the move could give impetus to an earlier plan of merging Cepol with Europol, the EU's police agency. But that came to nothing.

Soon after, seven member states scrambled to relocate Cepol, with only Hungary's capital, Budapest, applying from the "new" member states.

Based on an earlier understanding that new member states receive preference to host EU agencies whenever possible, and because Hungarian authorities practically offered the site for free, Budapest won.

The Council of the EU, the body representing national governments, agreed in 2013 and, with the European Parliament's consent, the official decision was made in 2014.

There were debates in the EU parliament on whether a country like Hungary, with a patchy track record on the rule of law, should be the host for the policy academy. But those political concerns were dismissed.

Based on the latest EU parliament audit, the relocation from Bramshill to Budapest costed approximately €1,006,515.

Some €570,283 was financed by the UK and the EU commission equally, and the rest of the money came from Cepol via savings from its budget in the new low-cost location. The move to Hungary meant reductions in wages of EU workers, due to the so-called correction coefficient which requires wages to align with the local cost of living.

Soft exit and landing

Although the decision was known for years, legislative and political wrangling left Cepol employees with little time to prepare for the move.

"It is a big move in everybody's life," Dr Stefano Failla, the deputy head of training and research at Cepol, told EUobserver. He had been involved in the agency's relocation from Budapest.

Several staff meetings were held in 2012 and 2013 about the relocation, but the precise timeline was only given in 2014 - the year the decision and move were officially announced.

Seven employees filed a complaint before the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Four struck an amicable deal but three went to trial - partly because their salaries were cut to match Hungary's lower cost of living.

But they also argued that the month notice they were given to make a decision on whether they wanted to move was insufficient.

The employees lost their case when the ECJ ruled in 2016 that reassignment of an EU official or staff member does not constitute an "abnormal and unforeseeable" event in his or her career. The EU rules also provided for extra money to move - a reimbursement of relocation and travel costs.

The three, who still work at the agency, appealed the decision.

Personal complexities

The court case highlighted the personal complexities for moving an entire agency, which was recently evident when news emerged that between 19 and 94 percent of the staff at the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) would not want to leave the British capital, depending on the selected new host city.

The EMA and the other London-based agency slated for relocation, the European Banking Authority (EBA), employ 1,050 people who will need to move to the continent.

Cepol only has 52 staff members from 19 different countries. Three of their staff members clearly indicated their opposition to moving with the agency to Budapest and stayed in the UK when it relocated, citing family and financial reasons, Cepol's press officer told EUobserver.

To prevent fallout, Failla said that Cepol designed a very detailed relocation plan ahead of time, which aimed for the minimum negative impact on staff. "It didn't come out of the blue," he said of the decision, noting that the preparations had begun in 2012.

He added that while it is not unusual for civil servants to be asked to move from country to country, the fact that people's lives and families are involved has to be taken into account.

"The most precious resource is the team, so make sure to have the least possible negative impact on them, the rest is logistics," he said, when asked what advice he would give to the other agencies facing relocation.

"Everybody needs to have a soft exit and landing," he stated, saying that working on school arrangements and addressing diplomatic privileges with the host government are top priorities.

Planning ahead is crucial and employees should try to approach the move positively, he argued. "The transition is traumatic, but it is also a novelty - it can bring new things, new experiences into one's life that could be life changing."

Failla suggested that people try to get to know the local culture before they arrive. Cepol's new headquarter, for instance, is in the heart of Budapest, only a few steps away from the magnificent Opera building.

From an institutional point of view, good infrastructure, logistics, a good connection to the airport, good schooling, flexibility for the staff and transparency are all priorities.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Regions & Cities Magazine.

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