There’s something striking about the British Foreign Secretary’s speech today. While the idea that this is one of a series of “repositioning” speeches is interesting, and the wider world politics are interesting, for EU geeks (and there’s a lot of us), here’s the interesting section…
we are determined as a Government to give due weight to Britain’s membership of the EU and other multilateral institutions.
It is mystifying to us that the previous Government failed to give due weight to the development of British influence in the EU. They neglected to ensure that sufficient numbers of bright British officials entered EU institutions, and so we are now facing a generation gap developing in the British presence in parts of the EU where early decisions and early drafting take place.
Since 2007, the number of British officials at Director level in the European Commission has fallen by a third and we have 205 fewer British officials in the Commission overall.
The UK represents 12% of the EU population. Despite that, at entry-level policy grades in the European Commission, the UK represents 1.8% of the staff, well under the level of other major EU member states.
So the idea that the last government was serious about advancing Britain’s influence in Europe turns out to be an unsustainable fiction. Consoling themselves with the illusion that agreeing to institutional changes desired by others gave an appearance of British centrality in the EU, they neglected to launch any new initiative to work with smaller nations and presided over a decline in the holding of key European positions by British personnel. As a new Government we are determined to put this right.
Now, it’s great news that the lack of Brits in Brussels is being acknowledged. It is after all one reason why the European Fast Stream (EFS) has been reconstituted.
Graduates of the UK with French or German A-level (grades A-C), I’d urge you to try for this. The EFS as an interesting way of getting EU policymaking experience in an environment where what you do actually counts.
But if there’s a gap at Director level (and there will be as the 1973 intake of Brits retire), and a shortfall of Brits overall, bringing in more Brits at ground level will mean it takes time to get them to filter through to senior roles. And if issues like adding a language to gain a promotion are still prevalent in the coming years, then only the few will actually make those dizzy heights in any case.
It is in the spirit of genuine interest from the outside that I float a few radical suggestions I’ve come across today:
i) lobby for the UK staff already in the Commission to get key roles- other Member States are not shy about doing this, so there’s no need for the UK to be shy either. At the moment, other than at Cabinet time, Commission contacts indicate the UK is less prominent in doing this (or just subtle?);
ii) really think about what key positions are: for example, France seems to put a lot of effort into securing Head of Legal Service jobs across the Institutions- why? Because interpreting EU competence is a key role…
iii) think about pursuing parachutage, for example using temporary agent contracts to address the deficit in the short term. There are quite a few UK experts with wider ranging EU experience (from UKRep to SNEs, to the UK’s last Presidency of the EU) that understand the EU’s inner workings, and, combined with their knowledge and experience of policy development and delivery at the national level too, could provide a valuable service to the EU overall until that next generation filters through.
I’ve written before about why I’m not going for the next concours.
But the problem goes much wider than just me and the husband/ mortgage/ children/ part-time issues I faced in taking that decision.
There is a lost generation of Brits – there was nearly a decade without a generalist, English language concours, and an awful lot of bright, capable and (by now) experienced Brits who missed out as the accession of ten new Member States lead to the necessary prioritisation of fonctionnaires from those countries.
Even those that passed recent concours haven’t necessarily actually found jobs at the end of it.
Surely seeking to put some of them in as temporary Heads of Unit would help sort out the problems identified in this very interesting speech?