Barriers blocking Brits in Brussels

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Eiffel Tower lit up with EU flag
Image caption,
There is a feeling that some countries embrace the EU more than Britain

A starting salary of £45,000 plus a relocation bonus of £7,200. A pension worth up to 70% of your final salary and 24 days of leave plus "travel" days. Oh, and a job for life.

All this, and more, is up for grabs if you manage to pass the entrance exams to work for the European Union.

So it is little wonder that in excess of 50,000 eager young Europeans attempt the process known as the Concours every year.

They compete for a mere 320 places and so are, it is argued, the Praetorian guard of European civil servants.

However, while the UK has about 12% of the EU's population, it provides only 5% of the EU's staff.

And the coalition government is desperate to increase British representation by recruiting more.

In the latest move, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Foreign Secretary William Hague are to spearhead a campaign to convince university students that they should enter the fray.

'Getting worse'

The man trying to sort the problem out, is ironically enough, a Brit.

"It's going to get much worse in the next five years," says David Bearfield, who is in charge of EPSO, the organisation which runs recruitment for the EU institutions.

"A lot of people joined the EU after enlargement in 1973. This big cohort of people are going to be moving through to retirement in the next few years. Representation is going to sink dramatically"

And the statistics back up Mr Bearfield's view.

In the first part of the Concours process, candidates sit a series of psychometric tests. The UK fielded 755 candidates this year while France put in 4,300 and Italy saw 8,478 of its citizens take part.

The EU will not release details of how many people got through to the second "assessment-centre" phase, but given that the UK only provided 1.5% of the total participants, it is possible that not a single Brit will enter the top levels of the EU institutions this year.

So why is this happening?

Partly it is to do with ignorance that such jobs are available, says Mr Bearfield, with the EU not currently a regular at graduate recruitment fairs.

And he points to the "negative impression" many have about the EU.

"We all hear the stories about the gravy train; the fat cats; the straight bananas, the bent cucumbers," Mr Bearfield adds.

But, he says, there may be a deeper, simpler problem.

"You have to have a very good level of French or German to get through our tests and there are very few Brits who speak a foreign language. I think that's the biggest single issue we face today."

Given that less than 50% of students in England and Wales take a language GCSE, this is unlikely to improve. The equivalent figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland are not much higher.

'Misses the point'

Some will ask, whether this matters at all? So what if hardly any Brits work in Brussels? After all, we still have political meetings and hardly a day goes by without a government minister getting off the Eurostar and heading straight into an EU conference.

But for Britain's ambassador to the EU, Kim Darroch, this misses the point.

"Brits working in the EU are not working for the British government, they are working for the European Union," he says.

"But what they bring is an understanding of British culture and of the importance in the UK of enterprise and of the British common law system. It's a reality that when you're working with a commission official, if you have a common background, then the relationship is different."

This subtle impact is acknowledged by the few Brits who have actually made it through the exams.

"The people who win in Brussels get 90% of what they want at the Commission (the executive arm of the EU)," a senior British EU official told the BBC, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"You don't then need to send ministers in to defend red lines. It is simply a more elegant way of doing business, having people drafting the legislation who think in a British way influences law around Europe."

And there is also a frustration at the perception of the EU back home.

"This is an exciting place to come," the official says. "You work with a bright bunch of people and you make policy that affects peoples' lives."

'Extremely difficult'

This was certainly the appeal for Nick Hirst, 26, who, after leaving his job in a law firm, tried the Concours this year.

Image caption,
Some argue more Brits in Brussels would put UK interests at the heart of decisions

He was among the thousands who failed, though a degree from Oxford in French and Spanish meant language wasn't the problem - rather it was the sheer scale of the competition.

"The Concours was extremely difficult but I wasn't too disappointed. A lot of people take it and right from the start I was conscious that many do this a couple of times before getting anywhere."

But the British government is tired of hearing stories like Nick's.

It has already re-started a programme called the European Fast Stream to prepare British candidates for taking the exams.

The event in London on Monday, with Mr Clegg and Mr Hague, is part of the ongoing project of trying to raise the profile of the EU as an employer.

But that may not be enough.

The BBC understands that there could be dramatic changes to the whole entrance system as a result of the "British problem".

From next year the initial phase of the Concours will be available in the candidates' first language.

But the Commission is currently considering going further and making even the interview phase possible in English too.

It would not go down well with other EU countries, whose citizens work so hard to learn English but, as one commission spokesman declared, "currently the British are an endangered species".

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