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Why do so few Brits and Germans work for the EU?

March 27, 2012

According to a couple of recent news items, the European Commission has had difficulty attracting applications from some EU member states to fill its various positions. The positions range from the civil service jobs, for which applicants must sit for a test knows as the concours, to higher-level bureaucratic posts. Writing for EU Observer, Honor Mahony discusses the Commission’s difficulties in attracting economists to serve in the Economic and Financial Affairs department. The need for these positions comes after the Commission gained extra authority following the March 2 European Council Summit to monitor the budgets of member states. While the Commission is seeking to fill 59 positions, only six have been filled so far. Mahony singles out Germany and Great Britain as two countries especially underrepresented in the Commission’s ranks. While Germany represents 16.31% of the EU’s population, Germans accounted for only 6.82% of the applications for administrator posts in 2011. The discrepancy is even more notable in Britain’s case; while the country accounts for 12.38% of the EU’s population, only 2.39% of applications for entry-level positions in the commission came from Brits. According to David Lidington, Britain’s Minister for Europe, Brits account for only 4.8% of current EU Civil Service positions. You can view the composition of staff in the Commission’s various departments here, broken down by nationality, gender and other categories.

Mahony explains the underrepresentation of the wealthier member states in the EU bureaucracy in economic terms. Put simply, the concours exam is extremely competitive; Frances Robinson writes that in the 2010 round of exams, only 308 candidates emerged successfully out of a field of 51,639 applicants. Those young Germans, Brits, and Dutch who are talented enough to pass it will be able to find more lucrative employment in their home countries. For potential applicants from poorer member states, however, the EU civil service jobs are likely to look far more lucrative. A quick glance at the variation in per capita income among member states reveals just how much of a structural problem this.

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Is it realistic that a particular position with a given salary and compensation package will be equally alluring to university graduates in Romania and Denmark? If one believes that the underrepresentation of wealthier countries in the civil service is a problem that needs to be addressed, one option would be to increase salaries to make the positions more attractive to potential applicants from these countries. Such a move is highly unlikely, however, in the current climate of austerity, budget cutting, and Euro-skepticism. Indeed, as we pointed out on this blog last year, the EU itself is under pressure to cut administration costs and freeze hiring.

Besides structural economic causes, one additional factor might explain Britain’s paltry representation in the EU civil service. As Robinson points out, the concours requires near-fluency in a second language, which puts applicants from generally monolingual Britain at a disadvantage. This fact has not escaped the notice of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who tossed around the idea last year to allow a special English language only exam in an attempt to increase the number of British applicants. It should be pointed out that much of this is speculative; to this author’s knowledge, there aren’t any scientific studies confirming that low proficiency in foreign languages is the main reason why so few Brits apply for EU civil service positions. A 2006 Eurobarometer study showed that Britain does rank second (after Ireland) among all EU member states in the number of its citizens who identify as monolingual, but it isn’t an outlier. Several continental countries are only a few points behind, such as Italy, which is actually overrepresented in the EU civil service.

In any case, with an across the board salary increase for EU civil servants unlikely in the near future, there don’t seem to be any short-term solutions to the national imbalance. The most prudent course of action would be to conduct more rigorous analyses to determine the most important reasons why citizens of certain member states are so less likely to apply for these positions than citizens of other countries.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2012 12:27 pm

    Mm says it all really – more jobs available on the over bloated EU Gravy Train, all aboard please. What the EU institutions really need are more jobsworths economists making pie charts and graphs. I suspect the real reason most Germans and Brits do not apply is that they are too busy helping the growth of there own national economies than learning the complexities of French bureaucracy in the EU, and claiming expenses and perks?

  2. EuroHopeful permalink
    March 31, 2012 2:27 pm

    I’m thinking Eurosceptiscism would play a large part in the UK’s underrepresentation as well. Has anyone asked candidates what they think of Brussels and Luxembourg as places to live? Needing to relocate could also be a factor.

  3. April 6, 2012 10:17 am

    The fact that Brussels is a very French dominated public service won’t help attract British and German applicants. The system was set up by the French, so it is understandable that they walk away with most of the prized positions. And there still is a huge antipathy against French bureaucrats in those countries, plus the fact that French is a necessity to function properly. Brits & Germans rather produce things rather than talk (in French) about it…..

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