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Interview in the Wall Street Journal’s blog

I was recently interviewed in the WSJ blog on EU recruitment exams. Here is the original, and below is a copy-paste of the text. Enjoy!




U.K. Fails Tests for Eurocrats

Spring in Brussels. The season when would-be eurocrats start taking the concours, the complicated series of exams and interviews to become one of the 55,000 European Union civil servants. These jobs are well-paid, sometimes interesting and not subject to national taxes, but there’s a growing problem with the recruitment process.

“We are having difficulty attracting people from big, rich countries, even though we’re meant to have a broad geographical balance” reflecting the relative populations of the 27 member states, says Antony Gravili, spokesman for inter-institutional affairs at the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. “The imbalances are starting to worry people at both the EU and national level.”

There are several factors behind these imbalances, and others to suggest they won’t be addressed soon.

Ireland, the U.K. and Denmark joined the EU in 1973, meaning many of the civil servants who started their career then are set to retire soon. EU regulations currently prevent the commission from organizing exams in specific countries to even up the balance. A court case means the entry-level concours won’t be held in 2013. And exams are taken in candidates’ second language, which means monoglot Britain is “chronically under-represented” in the EU staff, Mr. Gravili adds.

The U.K. makes up 12% of the EU population, yet British nationals hold only 4.8% of commission posts and 1.8% of those at entry level, according to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This situation isn’t improving: in the 2010 round of exams there were 51,639 candidates, from which a total of 308 emerged successfully–just seven of whom were U.K. citizens. To try and rectify this, Foreign Secretary William Hague has launched EU Careers Month and the FCO is touring universities.

“It’s no secret that the U.K. is severely under-represented in the EU institutions,” a British diplomat said, adding that once prospective candidates have been found, “we can help them with every step of the process, from preparing for tests to finding successful candidates the right job.”

Currently, the concours is taken in all 27 countries simultaneously;  there are steps underway to change this as part of the EU staff reform, which is likely to be approved this year. This would enable the European Personnel Selection Office, EPSO, to organize exams specifically for shortage countries. Still, this leaves the language barrier for the U.K., where foreign-language learning is usually restricted to a few cursory lessons between ages 11-14. Moreover, while two languages are enough to get in, you need three to get promoted past the first pay grade.

“The kind of staff the EU institutions are looking for is specific: employees of the EU institutions must be experts in their field, they must speak at least one foreign language at professional level – and usually more, they must be able to work in a multicultural environment and they must be willing to move with their families to another country,” the commission said when setting out the staff reform.

The need to be multilingual is less of a barrier for neighbouring Ireland, where a combination of compulsory Irish Gaelic  in schools and its status as an official EU language since 2007 means that future eurocrats from Dublin can take the exams in English.

Though an extreme case, the British aren’t the only underrepresented nationality: Dutch and Germans are too, while Italians are overrepresented.

One reason governments like to have their citizens working for the EU institutions is about exerting a subtle influence on the lawmaking process. Fonctionnaires are meant to leave their national allegiance at the door when they get an EU job. In practice, governments sometimes to prefer to influence policy via their own citizens in the bureaucracy instead of in high-profile clashes when member governments are discussing legislation at a senior level.

However, even the most motivated, multilingual Maltan will have to hurry up. Applications opened last week, and there won’t be the chance to apply next year. In one of the twists that only inter-institutional EU relations can produce, the 2013 concours will be cancelled to allow those who took the exams in 2010 to re-sit them.

That’s because Dimitrios Pachitis, a Greek candidate who sat the exams in 2010, took EPSO to the European Court of Justice to challenge the way the computer-based first round of tests was conducted. He won, so there will be no new candidates next year.

Mr Pachitis’s legal victory, and anecdotes such as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s reported and unrequited request to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to relax the language rules, means the concours remains a controversial way to select people for these much-coveted jobs.

There’s a whole industry to demystify the various stages of the selection process, with classes organized by Brussels-based trainers, prestigious universities and EU embassies, and books such as “The Ultimate EU Test Book” and “Préparer les concours européens.”

While EPSO says there’s no special preparation needed, this whole sector exists because, as Andras Baneth, Director of the European Training Institute says, “anyone can run 100 meters, but not everyone can be Olympic champion.”

“These jobs have an attractive salary, especially at the start of one’s career, great job security and the chance to move every 2-3 years,” says Mr. Baneth. “Given the dire economic situation in the U.K., that might drive some more citizens to apply.”

Posted in EU Affairs

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