UK Politics

Drop in UK staff in Brussels 'risks influence', MPs say

EU leaders in Brussels last month
Image caption The European Union draws staff from all its member countries

The falling number of British diplomats working in the upper echelons of EU institutions risks limiting the country's influence, MPs are warning.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said there was a "generation gap" with senior UK officials retiring and not being replaced in the same numbers.

UK nationals make up fewer than 5% of the European Commission's staff, compared with nearly 10% from France.

The UK has been encouraging graduates to pursue a career within the EU.

In their report, the cross-party committee said the UK remains under-represented in Brussels and efforts to reverse that trend have not yet paid dividends.

Language skills

While the UK accounts for 12.5% of the EU's total population, the number of British staff working for the European Commission has fallen by 24% to 4.6% in the last seven years.

While a generation of staff who started working in Brussels in the 1970s have now retired, the report concluded, they have not been replaced in the same numbers by people working their way up the EU's various institutions in recent decades.

The number of British staff with responsibility for policy development in the Council of Ministers has fallen to 4.3% while those working at senior levels in the European Parliament has fallen to 5.8%.

UK nationals accounted for just 2.4% of total applicants to the EU Concours - the EU's recruitment and examination process - last year while the pass rate was on a "downward trend", the MPs noted.

They said the language requirements - applicants need to demonstrate a "good level" of French and German to be considered - were one of a number of obstacles to increasing British presence in the EU's apparatus.

While the competition was understandably tough, the MPs said potential applicants often had a "lack of awareness" about what a career in the EU entailed and what was required.

'Important channel'

The committee says the Foreign Office should increase the number of secondments to the European External Action Service to help ensure that British influence in EU foreign policy is maintained.

It also recommends the Foreign Office should provide annual updates to Parliament on the number of UK citizens working for the main EU institutions and the performance of UK applicants in EU entry exams.

"Having British nationals on the staff of the EU institutions can be an important channel for UK influence in the EU," said Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, who chairs the committee.

"The extent of the UK's influence in the EU is, in turn, a key element in the debate over the value of EU membership."

While ministers should be "commended" for recognising the importance of having staff in key positions and trying to redress the decline in overall numbers, Mr Ottaway added that "there remains work to do".

UK officials say there is an opportunity for graduates to work in a wide range of fields in Brussels.

They point out the recruitment process has changed in recent years to place more emphasis on general skills and abilities rather than in-depth knowledge of the workings of EU institutions.