We are living extraordinary times but...

It is time to move on for Eurocrat!

The Treaty of Lisbon has entered into force and the European Institutions, and in particular the Commission, are experiencing changes of a great magnitude.

For the first time in many years, the role of each institution are being redefined: in the Commission, I believe it is the first treaty which transfer some powers to the Council; the Parliament is pumping more democracy in our institutions...

Many of the colleagues are getting nervous because of the new commission (which usually bring a restructuring) is happening with the ratification of a major treaty. But I personally feel confident that we are going in the right direction, the direction of democracy and governance.

I, for my part, am moving on professionally and I am taking the opportunity to conclude my blogging experience.
It has been a very thoughtful experience and I hope I have dispelled some mis-perceptions about European Officials.

The Euro-Blogosphere is very rich and growing and I hope there will be someone else to take my small chair...



How to become a Fonctionnaire without ever passing a Concours?

Things are now settling down at the top level, with a president everybody expected and a High Representative out of the blue. The English played it very well... on that one. The gender balance did also play a critical role. But now it is time to think about a new commission and there will be a very good opportunity to join the EC without ever passing the Concours.

I remember some time ago a post by Julian Frish on the cost of hiring Officials. Te Court of Auditors investigated a bit how the European Institutions recruit and came up of a cost of 7000€ per person on the Reserve List. Now EPSO is changing the whole recruitment process: from knowledge to competencies...

But did you know that you could become an Official without going through EPSO? Difficult but not impossible... Well do you know people? do you happen to know a commissioner? Then offer to work in his cabinet, and boom! you are a Fonctionnaire. And if you are lucky, when the Commission's term is over, you will get to pass an internal concours, terribly favorable to you, to become a head of Unit. And if you are extremely lucky to be the director of the cabinet of your commissioner, you might just become directly a Director General.

Well, forget about EPSO and all this none sense Numerical and Verbal tests; just work for your favorite commissioner and start a wonderful career in the European Institutions!

The Business of Outsourcing

As the years go by, the public service is getting more and more privatized. You might have witnessed in your respective countries that we should trust the private sector to deliver a better value-for-money service. Reagan and Maggy Thatcher started it all in the 80's, and it has lead to some extreme with the financial sector or the underdogs in the Iraq war. But I am not there to argue if it is a good or a bad thing. I have my own opinion on it, but I just want to show you how it is affecting us at the EC.

When it was created in the 1950's, with Germany, France, Italy and Benelux, the Commission was seen as the ultimate public sector agent. Those guys were offered a well paid lifetime employment in exchange for their technical, managerial, political expertises. Nowadays, ADMINISTRATORS are wanted...

The critical point was the 2004, with the Kinnock reform of the Status. No more cooks fonctionnaire, no more guard fonctionnaire... all outsourced to major contractors. In a sense, was it legitimate to give the same status to all the categories. The underlying rationale was that you should give a compensation package good enough to protect the Commission's independence. So it makes some sense to provide the cooking or cleaning services through the private sector, as I remind you incentives to perform well are rarely in our organisation.

Nowadays, on the higher level, the vision of the EC is to be a public government only to administer and use technical expertise from the private sector.

So the technical expertise is outsourced to Contractual Agents and consultants. It is starting to create a quality problem. One, CA are paid correctly, but their lack of long term perspective prevents from attratcting top talents. Don't get me wrong, CA are in vast majority bright and motivated individuals, but how much people don't join the EC because of the 3 year rule. With respect to consultants, the sacred consultants, it is not that we are paying them well, it is just that our procedures are very cumbersome and rarely focused on quality. Let me give you an example, or to say our dilema. You want some expertise on a domain that you don't have in-house. So if you have a lot of budget and a lot of time, than you just tender a call for proposal, get a panel of evaluators, wait 6 months before the guys deliver the product. If it is a quick need, then you use Framework contracts: in a week you get 3 proposals from selected contractors... contractors, not really, just recruiters who post the jobs on the Internet. And don't think you get the best consultants in a week of time!

Eventually, the critical question is: how do you evaluate the work of the consultants, when they have the expertise and you are just an administrator??? Do you hire other consultants to evaluate your first consultants?

It is all about finding the right balance between technical and administrative expertises... the original status was maybe to focus on the technical one, but the reform is rushing to the other extreme. But it is how reforms go, right?

Habeus Papam!

Yes we have a winner for the post of president of the UE. Most of us are still guessing, but it is clear that we have a winner... actually winners (for the high representative as well).

The Swedes have convened a Council Meeting next week, and officially it will be a former or current head of government...It can only mean that a consensus has been reached on Herman Van Rompuy, current Prime Minister of Belgium.

Tony Blair got burnt on the last lap, by a sacrifice from Junker. Quite a rooky mistake if you ask me for a "political animal" such as Blair.

And then Van Rompuy appeared miraculously as the best, not-charismatic, from a small country, fine negotiator candidate. The ironic thing is that the stability long awaited for the Union will be at the detriment of Belgium... Another inestimable sacrifice!

For the HR position, Miliband judiciously set himself out of the game... probably to reconstruct the Labor Party next year. D'Alema is now the lead candidate for the HR position. Once again, appearing from nowhere! I am surprised that Berlusconi would leave such a strategic position to a member of his opposition, what is left of Silvio's reputation?

Let's see next week!

In the News: Treaty of Lisbon

Well, well, well... Finally, Vaclav Klaus signed the Treaty of Lisbon today! It was a long and tortuous ratification process, with many hurdles, delays and surprises and hopefully the Treaty will enter into force this December.

I thought it would be harder to get Klaus to sign, but apparently the man isn't foolish as I thought. The British Tories are now in an interesting position... But don't worry Cameron, you can still withdraw from the Union :)

It was a strange time here at the European Commission, as people got a bit surprised by how fast the Treaty and the Irish vote passed through. Some of us really thought that we would get stuck in Nice forever. Some even said that Klaus delays in signing the Treaty allowed people to get ready.

The hot topic nowadays is the External Service and the High Representative (HR). As you know, it is one of the main innovations of the treaty and the HR is likely to be become even more powerful than the president of the Union. So negotiations are ongoing on the subject and many of our colleagues in the RELEX (External Relations) family are worried by the structuring of the External Service. Because the Service will be mixed with the Commission, the Council and the Member States, everyone is trying to protect his own backyard: diplomacy, development, trade, enlargement. And even the Parliament is joining the debate, threatening with his new powers!

Many internal session to inform are being conducted but still nothing seems decided. The Treaty stipulates that the External Service is to be defined by a Council Decision on a proposal by the HR himself... Thrilling, isn't it?

In the News: Fruits and Vegetables

Well that was some time ago, but I found an interesting perspective on that...

So remember that everybody was relieved when the EC allowed ugly fruit and vegetables back in shops (see the BBC news here)?

Guess what? you can't blame the Eurocrats for that silly rule, which lasted decades. The rule was established by the United Nations (UNECE) after WWII to facilitate trade.

The only thing you can blame on us is how keen we were to adopt it. Read the following from the UNECE website:

The standardization activities of the UNECE include the harmonization of existing national standards into international commercial quality standards for a wide range of perishable products, including fresh fruit and vegetables, dry and dried product (fruit as well as vegetables), seed potatoes, eggs and egg products, meat (bovine, chicken, llama/alpaca, ovine, porcine, and turkey) and cut flowers. The UNECE Working Party on Agricultural Quality Standards (WP.7) and its specialized sections have drawn up close to 100 standards for the purpose of facilitating international trade between and to UNECE member countries (see List of agricultural quality standards). The Geneva Protocol on Standardization of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables and Dry and Dried Fruit sets the basis for this work. Worldwide Codex standards for fruit juices and quick frozen foods have also been prepared by joint groups of experts of UNECE and the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Many of the UNECE standards for perishable produce have been used as reference in the European Commission regulations.

Bloody UNcrats!!! you really got the blame on us for that...

In the News: Thanks Ireland!

A major hurdle was passed this weekend, with Ireland voting yes to the Lisbon Treaty. I think I got the trick now... for every referendum we should plan two votes from the Irish folks.

Anyhow, that was a good effort, nice participation and an unambiguous score, even though it was the 250th anniversary of Guinness apparently.

Well the battle is far from over, as we still need to convince the Czech President (still don't know how he got there though...) Shall we give him the ultimate threat: the Multilingualism portfolio in the next commission? I am not even sure it will work though.

In the News: Will the Irish get back to their sense?

This week, our Irish neighbors are voting for a second time on the Lisbon Treaty. Their choice goes well beyond the borders of Ireland, as it will decide the future of our Union.

So far, polls are looking positive. Thanks to a terrible financial crisis, the Irish realized that they might still need the EU. I have not heard of a plan B yet and do hope that it won't be necessary.

Honestly, I do agree that the Treaty is complicated, it recycles most of the EU Convention project rejected by the French and the Dutch. But I stick to its driving forces: more power to the Euro-Parliament (the real democratic player in the game) and simplified procedures to take decisions. For me, it is more than enough to vote for it. There is also the cherry on the top that is the accelerated procedures, i.e. when a set of countries want to go further in their integration while the unconvinced can seat and watch and catch up later.

Their are lot of critics on the treaty being complicated and undemocratic. Well, it was negotiated by elected governments, so I don't really understand the last point. Complication? Well, we are talking about 27 countries in the 21st century... After all we are not in the 18th century where a bunch of guys, called the forefathers, could write a constitution with 7 articles.

What really bothered me in the French, Dutch and Irish rejection is that I am pretty sure that most of the people who voted against really voted to sanction their governments... To pick on the Irish, I find utterly ridiculous that a people who enjoyed so much European Funds just bite the hand that had been feeding them for so many years. I hope that with the financial crisis they understand that the Union is for the best and for the worst.

So Irish folks: no boozing this Friday and make sure to vote with what remains of your brain... rather than you guts!

Brian Cowen:"While I have you there... we have these demands"
Cartoon from Martin Turner

I am sorry Belgium!

Sorry for the earlier outburst... truly sorry. I love Belgium, Belgians, Brussels! I love the chocolate, the fries, the beers... Promised, I won't go in exile in Antwerp!

Funny thing is that I found that that Mark Mardell, BBC's correspondent in Brussels, left for Washington DC this summer, and he shared some common feelings! Here is his post on leaving Bruxelles.

Life in Brussels

When working for the European Commission, the odds are that you will spend a large amount of time in Brussels. Your only way out is to move to Luxembourg (which I believe can be assimilated as a harsh and inhuman treatment), join one of the Agencies (preferably the one in pleasant cities) or work for the External Services in a Delegation.

For the large majority of us, we are confined in Brussels, in the European Quarter.

Well, you will always complaint about the shitty weather around here (one week of summer per year, the four seasons in a day, etc), but as a matter of Brussels is a very pleasant city in so many ways. It is relatively small and not crowded compared to other European Capitals. It is also cheap (though prices have adjusted the last five years), and accommodations remain at a great value-for-money. Transport is very decent with lot of public transport, little congestion and now better cycle lanes. The Belgian health system is also well above the European average, and education is of quality for no money...

In short, it is a small city, but with all the benefits of a big one and none of the disadvantages: great diversity of people and food, lot of entertainments, cultural activities and shopping, but you can still live in the center or have a decent commute.

One other big plus for Brussels is that Belgians are a nice and open people. They bear nicely with us, arrogant and indecently paid Eurocrats...

So what? Shall we just pray for Global Warming so we can actually have a real summer (apparently this August was exceptional)?

It is not yet heaven... You can actually go completely Cuckoo in this charming little city we call Bruxelles. You will realize, very little time after settling, that the city is highly dysfunctional. And after all this time in Brussels, I really need to get my frustrations out!

The Public Services
  • To become a resident, you have to formally register with your "Commune". Well I can only advise you to use the EC Protocol Office (when you work at the EC, otherwise, good luck to you). Some "Communes" will drive you nut for some papers, other are more easy going...
  • If you want to subscribe to a public utility (gas, water, electricity, telephone), then you have to wait for at least half a month and take half a day of leave. You set the appointment for a particular day and they tell you that the technician will come between 9am and 12pm... And some time they don't and you just wait for nothing!
  • If you want to go to the Post Office or to the Train Station, I really suggest you go during office hours (excluding Lunch Break). They staff their desks so that the bigger the queue, the less counters you have.

The Shops
You might think that most of Public Services are similar in other EU Countries, but the private sector will convince you that it is a systemic issue!
  • Get a technical advice on a item (if you can get a vendor in the first place): then you probably want to ignore it. Shop attendants have very little knowledge of what they sell and basically has no commercial skills. I am not sure that they understand who has the money. Having say that, you can find a very knowledgeable seller... beware, he will just bore you to death with the little details of his personal life (very often in the Computer department)
  • Get the Warranty to work: That is a tricky one. Be ready to lose a lot of time, a lot of patient. Whatever explanations you give to the shop, it will be ignore and the repairer will send it back as it is because he does not understand the problem.
  • Get a package from Fedex, UPS or DHL: well if it is sent at home, you better take a day off (because they come between 9am and 5pm), and sometimes they don't as well!

And the cherry on the top: The Flemish/Walloon issue!
Some says it is like an old couple breaking up... but it is worse! The country is basically schizophrenic and loves to scare the heck out of itself. Flemishes just want to end it because they got the money and the jobs. Walloons claims that the Flemish pension bill is too high and the Flemish need the Walloons for retirement. And at the last European Elections, a Walloon Party wanted to get Brussels and Wallonie to join France.

This is just way above me, because we live in a extremely diverse country (Europeans, Turks, Arabs, Africans, Asian, Latinos, etc.), and the locals are fighting each other.

I just wonder how such an international city can run like that...

In the News: Barroso reelected... a sad week at the EC

A sad week indeed at the Commission. Barroso got reelected and another weak commission in perspective.
Personally, I felt quite bitter about the vote... What can we really expect from a President of the Commission who got the support from the Eurosceptic MEPs? I heard the Socialist Spanish MEPs voted for him, God knows what bargain is going on back door!

Time will tell. Next big fight: Irish referendum!

In the News: Anybody but Barroso?

Summer is over, and the negotiations for the new Commission did not even get hot. The post of the President never really got beyond "To be Barroso or not to be Barroso". Some Member States did try to make some noise (see in the Economist, how France is trying to nuke Barroso). In the end, Barroso is very likely to be there for another term.

Interestingly, Daniel Cohn-Bendit said in an interview on Euronews about Barroso:
“Mr Barroso was incapable of leading an independent Commission which held its own against the Council,and that’s the problem. You know, Europe is an institutional triangle: a Commission, a Council and a Parliament. If the President of the Commission is simply the Secretary General of the Council, meaning the governments, European democracy cannot work. And that’s my biggest problem with Mr Barroso."

I fully agree on that point! Our Euro-democracy has to be about power equilibrium and Barroso is just too lightweight for the post! Barroso is just acting a secretary, and not as a corner of the triangle. I see several reasons in such behavior:
1) Barroso does not have any charisma. He left Portugal without a national aura... Worse, his party lost the elections quite Badly after he lost.
2) Barroso is a planner, and sucked it up during the first term, to be reconducted.

If the first is right, then it will be again a very weak commission that we will have. If the second is right, then we could some real commission for the next five year. Gut feeling: both are righ, but the first is just too big for the second.

To conclude, I will take up Cohn-Bendit's suggestion that Barrosso should instead get the Presidency of the Union, if the Member States like him so much! Anybody but Barroso (but not Blair...)

Back online!

Your favorite Eurocrat is back to blogging... and don't get me wrong, I was not on leave all that time!

Stay tune for insights, opinions and much more.
If you have some suggestions for topics, please write them in the comment section.

Out of Office: Eurocrat on Annual Leave

Dear Readers,

It is time for me to go on Annual Leave. Still have a lot of days to spend away from the office... I am a civil servant after all!!!

The offices are pretty empty nowadays, so no crazy bureaucratic legislation to disturb the summer.

I will be back in September with some new insights of the EC and a lot of discuss on the Union.

Your Favorite Eurocrat

Public Consultation: Going abroad to learn

There is an interesting public consultation on Learning Abroad, in the framework of a Green Paper on "Promoting the learning mobility of young people"
I believe that the Erasmus program and other similar exchange schemes are one of the greatest successes of the European Union, so it would be important to react and improve our policies for the coming generations.
Please feel free to react here.

In the News: Iceland Wants to join the EU

The Parliament of Iceland has voted last week in favor of opening accession negotiation with the EU. The adhesion will then be voted in a popular referendum. Prognostics indicated that the country could join in 2011 or 2012, given that it already belongs to the European Economic Area (EEA) and has already adopted over 2/3 of the "Acquis Communautaire".

After the financial crisis that almost wiped the economy of this small island up north, the interest of joining the EU and the Euro has been revived. Well the more, the merrier? A strong democratic country, with high level of incomes, living in peace with Mother Nature... can only be an asset for the EU right? Well the language is going a tricky one: we will have to recruit some Icelandic/Maltese interpreters, Icelandic/Luxembourgeois translators...

Thinking a little bit more about it, I am not so sure that it is such a positive development for the Union. I am ill-at-ease that they decide to join when they are in deep problems. Why not before? Not to share.

I see accession a bit like a wedding: we share our destiny for the best and for the worst... but what to really think about a partner who wants to marry you only after loosing his/her job, large chunks of his/her savings, etc. I bet you will be a bit suspicious. What happened when their country get better (yes eventually it will)? Will they join the Eurosceptics, play foul to protect their interests...?

Oh come on, you know I am just dreaming out loud! That can happen! We have never dealt with islanders who benefited greatly from EU funds and then voted against Lisbon Treaty, or others who, when times got better, invented stories to renounce their contribution rebates they got when times weren't so rosy...

Swedish Presidency's First Weeks

More than 2 weeks that the Swedes are in charge and we can already feel the change. The Swedish PM is like a permanent guest on EuroNews nowadays!

Maybe they have the solution for the European Construction? In the Frankfurter Rundschau...

Accountability at the European Commission: Internal Accountability

In previous posts, I have discussed how we, Eurocrats, are accountable to the European citizen, via elected officials (ie Member States and MEPs). To conclude my series on Accountability in the European Commission, I will tell more about the internal accountability which is expressed through three distinct bodies: Ombudsman, Court of Auditors, OLAF.

Maybe the more famous of the three, the Ombudsman was established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, to treat any complaint a citizen can have against European Institutions. Currently the post is held by Nikiforos Diamandouros, in Strasbourg. Not really a judge, he acts as a mediator when a citizen feels he has been bamboozled by the Institutions. You can check on his website the different cases. I never had to deal with him, but my feeling is that he helps a lot in minimizing the distance between a citizen and the administration.

Court of Auditors
The Court of Auditors is a bit older (born in 1975) and lives in Luxembourg. And we deal with them a lot... They just arrive at your floor (with a short notice), size all the documents and emails they want and lock themselves in the Archive room. So they basically do financial audits of the whole set of European Institutions (since the Treaty of Amsterdam) but also EU funded projects. And there is a lot you can learn by looking at financial accounts. You may have heard about it when it comes to certifying the Budget of the Commission. You have got to admit that the Court of Auditors is a pretty good agent for change. The Budget is now becoming more and more reliable because those guys have made sure we do a serious job.

A lesser known activity of the Court is to audit projects but also our internal procedures. They choose their sectors among the thousands of activities we have and take an external look at it. It is very interesting to read their reports on what you do. They sometimes give an opinion on what you do (and they should not), but it is how you do things that really matters. They have triggers a number of internal reforms with their reports, which shows that we are ready to accept criticism and improve how we do business.

Office Européen de Lutte Anti-Fraude or European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF)
Last but not least, the youngest of the three, born in 1999, or should I say re-born fully independent. In a nutshell, OLAF investigates any allegation of fraud which involve European money. Like the Court of Auditors, OLAF has a right to investigate internal and external accounts to prevent fraud or corruption. But unlike the Court of Auditor, they like to pop in unannounced. The Office does not have a proper enforcement mechanism, but they rely on national justice system to prosecute.
Let say that if you are investigated by OLAF, it is the worst thing that can happen to a Fonctionnaire. That was the case at EUROSTAT in 2004, with an infamous leak from a German journalist, who ended up with the Ombudsman... I heard lately that they are quite busy in Bulgaria nowadays!

In the News: Sweden takes over the EU presidency

All hail Sweden! Since a week, Sweden is holding the rotating presidency of the Union. The program is published on their website: http://www.se2009.eu/en
Interesting priorities are presented:
  • Climate (weird, as a Swede I would really not mind a couple degrees more)
  • Employment and Economy (at last!)
  • Citizen's rights
  • Baltic Sea (to save Swedish banks from the Baltic Financial Crisis)
  • EU in the World (as anybody else)
As usual a good mix of good intentions and personal interests. Unlike the previous presidency, there could be interesting alignment of interests on the economy. Sweden has developed an economic model based on competitiveness without hurting the social protection. Maybe they could teach us some few lessons of Social Democracy.

As journalists wrote, the program is not ambitious at all, just to make sure that every achievement will be ranked as a success.

But the coming 6 months are crucial to the future of the Union. Indeed, in the next 6 months:
  • We will get a new commission and a new parliament. The Battle for Barroso's re-election is going to be a fierce one...
  • The Treaty of Lisbon is likely to be implemented, depending on the Irish re-vote. This will be a major tectonic move in our institutions, with a stable presidency, a stronger parliament and a new set of governing rules at the Council.
Something I really appreciate from the Swedes is they might be one of the few countries which really cares about the general interest (or at least is not overwhelmed by parochial interests). Something welcome nowadays...

In the News: End of the Czech Presidency

Here we are, at the end of the Czech Presidency of the Union and it is time to give an assessment.

It started very well with a first controversy from David Cerny, giving a vibrant homage to Czech humor. But other Members States were not ready for that...
On the political affairs, their agenda was less ambitious than the previous one, and certainly much less egocentric!

I can't really tell you what is the outcome of this program, because the Presidency was rocked by the resignation of Topolánek, leaving a void at the top. It could not contrast more with the Omni-Presidency of Sarkozy.

Well, it was not a bad thing that Topolánek resigned... I think he has better things to do in Berlusconi Playboy Mansion...
Personally, it felt like 6 month lost, when we would have need a strong leadership in time of an major economic crisis and an important election. Really hope the Swedish do a better job.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a typology of Fonctionnaires

This is a post I have been preparing for a while. I put a lot of thoughts on it and I would really be curious to get your feedbacks.

Like any organization, the staff is an heterogeneous group with different levels of interests and motivation. Here is how I would classify my colleagues. It is not a scientific survey, just rough estimates.












Lazy Bastard












I will focus on three specific categories:
  • The Good (the Lazy Bastard)
  • The Bad (the Saboteur)
  • The Ugly (the Prick)
The Lazy Bastard
Those are officials who are known to be inactive, but remain neutral. Sometimes you even forget they exists as procedures have been established in the unit to bypass them. Several reasons can turn you into a Lazy Bastard: you reach the end of career and don't have any prospects; you have been given an inadequate position, so you just wait for your rotation; because of internal politics you have been offer a golden closet...
So if you take 15% of 23,000 fonctionnaires, it is 3,450 officials, which can represent its own DG!

The Prick
Even though there are less pricks than lazy bastards, they have a stronger visibility by complaining a lot. Instead of being constructive, they will make sure to criticize you without offering an alternative way. Of course, being constructive could force them to be productive. Some are actually experts at hiding their laziness with constant bitching. Fortunately you can just ignore them or just ask them to produce. It is actually your best defense, they will definitely shut up if it can save them from working. People get there out of frustration, being there for so long.

The Saboteur
This is the "Crème de la Crème"! If not controlled, the Saboteur can messed up your all unit. Very hard to ignore, very hard to fight, you have to be very skilled to deflect their attention to a less important subject. He will definitely break one of our Golden rules, which is no criticizing of colleagues with external people. I think some people don't know that they are saboteurs. if they are not doing it on purpose, you can still manage... it is just their personality. But the one who are doing on purpose are just mean people. Since you can't fired them, just try to promote them and hope that another unit will make the mistake of hiring him.

So how would you compared it with your own organization in private sector and national/local public sector?

European Commission in the Media

I don't know if you have notice lately, but the Commission is making a real effort to communicate to the citizens. Of course, there were the European Elections, but it seems that DG Communication is trying to go beyond for once.

On the traditional media, it seems that only Euronews (obviously) seems to pay any attention to European themes. Don't get confuse, Euronews does not belong to any EU Institutions... though it would not be a bad thing to have a European Public Channel.

But it is in the new media that the effort is concentrated. We even have our own You Tube Channel. We are totally cool :p)

Next you will be able to follow your favorite commissioners on Twitter!


"Le chef d'unité "Politique Sociale", au nom du Directeur gènèral du Personnel et de l'Administration a le regret de vous informer du décès, survenu à XXX le JJ/MM/AAAA de Monsieur/Madame XXX. [...] La Commission, et plus particulièrement les collègues de la Direction Générale XX, présentent leurs condoléances à la famille."

Twice a week on average, we receive in our mail an A5 leaflet announcing the death of a colleague. At the family's request, a message is circulated to remember a dear colleague... I personally think it is a lot of rubbish. You usually get the leaflet the day before the ceremony so you cannot physically make the arrangements for it. And I don't really understand why it has to be circulated to the whole EC. We do have a level of mobility within the Commission, but twice a week is becoming really morbid...

I could not help smiling once when a newcomer freaked out on the mortality rate of officials. Was it because of the asbestos in the Berlaymont??? Well she did not know that the leaflets include pensioners... who left long long time ago.

I read on our internal newspaper somebody actually complaining about this mascarade, highlighting also the cost incurred to the internal mail service. So I dared ask to our postman! Well he was hesitating... while it is very unpleasant, it was a guaranty of work for them.

In the News: European Elections

Results are now out, and the next Europarliament will be blue. The battle for the next commissioners is getting started.

I would like to thank the European Voter who did not make the effort to vote on this elections. To that stupid moron, I say, you have the right to remain silent for the next five years. If we, Eurotechnocrats, that your sausage should not be larger than 2cm in diameter, there is nothing you can do about it...

On a more serious note, it was clear that the abstention was going to be high. But who to really blame for that? Surely we have not been proactive enough, but the Member States have not played well on this one.

No big reaction among officials, we are very busy nowadays deleting the spams from the Unions! Yes Unions' elections was this week... Let see if we have more than 2/3 of the voters. Otherwise we can an additional 10 days of spamming!

Is the General Interest prevailing in the European Union?

Grahn, in one of his comments, quoted Guy Verhofstadt, saying that during his years on the European Council, he never heard anyone mention the European interest.

The aspiration of every democracy is to insure that the General Interest prevails over the various vested interests. When at the country level it is not very clear if the majority can truly represent the National Interest, capturing the General Interest at the level of the European Union is even harder. Can a simple electoral rule translate the European Interest?

Obviously, in my humble position of a Eurotechnocrat, I cannot make a general judgment on the topic. The only thing I can blog about is the perception that we have inside the European Commission on how the General Interest of the Union is represented.
In our daily work, I would say that this feeling can be perceived from three parts: the general interest felt through the Commission itself, from the Europarliament and from the Member States, ie the Council.

Within the Commission, my guess is that vast majority of Officials really do put forwards the interest of the European Citizens before the interest of their fellow citizens. This is actually one of my pride in being an officials. Of course there are few of us who are excessively patriotic and even fewer who succumbs to lobbies' pressure.
Even at the highest level, I can also say that the Commissioners are generally taking their role seriously. One speaking example: the Common Agricultural Policy which has with years turned into a cash machine for farmers. What is the point of spending the vast majority of the European Budget on a tiny fraction of the population? When the EC tried to reform the subsidies, it was with great pain as producing Memeber States fought to preserve their interests. Well, we are still paying the subsidies (less and less), even if it makes the consumers and society worse off.

With respect to the Parliament and the MEP who really do their jobs (not the bozos cashing their indemnities), there is a true desire to represent the European Citizens. You can be your own judge by looking at the laws that were passed: SMS rate, limitation of toxic products, etc. From what I experienced from the MEP scrutiny, it is clear that MEPs do not act like their American counterparts and the Pork Barrel legislation.

I cannot say the same about Member States... No need to work at the EC to see how each Council becomes a bargain mess whenever a major decision needs to be taken. Where most of countries agree that majority equals general interest, at the Council level it must be consensus in most case, two third at best, . But when it comes to our relations with Member States, mostly in the various committees, it can be clearer that we are not talking from the same point of view. But what do you expect? After all committees are there to make sure that Member States don't get screwed. I personally found it hard sometimes, because some have no shame in doing so.

Like any other honest public servant, I would like as much as possible serve the General Interest. So anything that strengthen the European Citizens is good for me. But only you, the European Citizen, can decide what is the best proxy for the General Interest. If at the national level, there is a agreement, it is yet to be done seriously at the European level. European Constitution, Treaty of Lisbon or anything else.

I think the ball is in your hands.

VOTE!!! or just SHUT UP for the next 5 years

Here is your time to make us, EUROTECHNOCRATS, accountable!!! So please go and vote...

If you are still not convinced by the importance of this election, here comes some of our propaganda:

Did you know that the European Parliament plays a key part in deciding how the EU budget of some €133bn per year will be spent?

45% of it, or some €60 billion, currently goes on promoting competitiveness, growth and jobs as well as on reducing the differences between the richest and poorest regions. This gap has been reduced by about a sixth between 2000 and 2006.

Did you know that the EU helps people in difficult economic conditions?

The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, approved by the European Parliament, has up to €500 million available each year to help people made redundant find new jobs.

Did you know that the EU has strengthened the rules on using potentially risky chemical substances in Europe?

New legislation on chemicals, adopted together with the European Parliament, came into force in 2007 and will assure the safe use of some 30 000 potentially dangerous substances. It puts the onus on industry to collect data and guarantee the safety of chemicals. The legislation is known as "REACH', which stands for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemical substances.
The EU is also encouraging industry to introduce more biodegradable types of plastic for bags, cups, food wrapping, plant pots etc.

Did you know that the European Parliament played a key part in bringing an end to roaming charge rip-offs across Europe?

Charges have been reduced by up to 60% when you use your mobile phone abroad.

Did you know that thanks to the EU, there is now a single emergency number for the whole of Europe?

The European Parliament together with the Commission has ensured that since January 2009 you can reach the emergency services by dialing 112 anywhere in the EU.

Did you know that you fly more safely thanks to an EU blacklist?

Thanks to a regulation adopted with the cooperation of the European Parliament, airlines failing to meet safety requirements appear on an EU blacklist and are subject to an EU-wide ban.

Did you know that as a result of legislation endorsed by the European Parliament, temporary workers in the EU have the same rights as permanent employees as well as improved working conditions?

Temporary workers in the EU make up as much as 10 % of the workforce - or more than 6 million jobs. Thanks to EU legislation, they can now enjoy the same basic working and employment conditions as their permanent colleagues. The agreement maintains the flexibility that industry needs and allows workers to achieve a better work-life balance.

Did you know that your food is now safer than ever?

The European Parliament has contributed to the adoption of a wide range of measures to ensure that food across Europe is safe to eat, and to encourage a healthy diet. These measures cover the whole food supply chain, "from farm to fork", setting standards and monitoring animal health and welfare, plants and crops as well as food imports. The European Food Safety Authority is there to give independent scientific advice.
The EU sets stringent rules for organic produce, and stops the manufacturers of 'health foods' or slimming products making inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims. EU legislation on food labelling aims to give consumers all the background they need in order to make informed purchasing choices.

Did you know that it is now even easier to travel around Europe without borders?

The European Parliament gave its support to the enlargement of the Schengen area. The area without internal border controls has now expanded to 22 EU Member States, (i.e. all of them except Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Ireland and the UK - the last two having opted out) and three associated States (Norway, Iceland and Switzerland).

Did you know that the European Parliament has a say in who can join the European Union?

The EU Member States can decide on whether new members should join the Union, only with the agreement of the European Parliament. Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey are the current candidate countries whilst Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as Kosovo are potential candidates. The European Parliament is assessing their progress and will have a final say on whether these countries become Member States of the EU or not.

Did you know that the EU is the most important development aid donor in the world?

As it aims to meet the Millennium Development Goals under the next European Parliament, the EU (European Commission plus the contributions of individual Member States) accounts for some 60% of all global aid - or a combined total of €49 billion in 2008. The EU is also playing a leading role in making aid more effective and ensuring that other EU policies such as trade, environment, agriculture etc are coherent with development goals. The European Parliament continues to be closely involved through the "European Development Consensus" established in 2005 between the EU Institutions and the Member States.

Contract Agent

STAFF REGULATION Title IV: Contract staff - Chapter 1 - General provisions - Article 79 (96): Contract staff shall be paid from the total appropriations for the purpose under the section of the budget relating to the institution.

Definition of Contract Agent: It is an official who does exactly the same task as a Fonctionnaire but for only half of the price. Not a coincidence that Contract staff is introduced in the staff regulation by article about money.

Introduced by the Kinnock Reform of 2004, Contract Agents are now an essential part of the European Institutions. It regularized quite a mess based on the status of parliamentary assistants. Without a standard format, non permanent officials used to be hired on very diverse and/or dubious conditions. Nowadays, to be hired as a Contract Agent, you need to pass a test EPSO and then your CV is put in a database for recruitment.

There are two types of Contract Agents. First, the lucky one, who works in agencies or in the External Services, is offered long-term employment. Their contracts can be renewed, and at the second renewal, they become permanent although not Fonctionnaires. The unlucky one gets a contract for a maximum of 3 years and then is kicked out. All contract agents working for the EC are on this status.

On one side you get officials who can't get fired, however bad they are and on the other side you got people that are offered limited job security.

The argument given by the EC is that Contract Agents are recruited for very specific tasks or tasks that are limited in time.
Let me tell you the truth: this is just a pack of lies! The main reason why Contract Agents are there is because the EC can't withdraw rights to officials. So they just created a second class of officials that cost half the price and don't get stuck forever in the job. I can give you hundreds of examples of posts that are permanent and that every three years you got some new Contract Agent hired to do the same tasks. Another hundreds of examples of a Contract Agent is doing the same tasks as a Fonctionnaire, some of the times much better, with the same qualification but with half of the salary.

The Unions are pretty angry on those subjects. Some says it violates sothis is just a pack of liesme of the European labor laws (on the use of successive temporary contracts and on equal qualifications+equals tasks=equal salaries). One of the unions has even hired a Jurist to write a report on the question and start a judicial action on the matter. As usual I don't knothis is just a pack of liesw if they are only barking or they will eventually bite on this one.

I really doubt that this issue will be resolved anytime soon, it is a really pity because you loose a large pool of talent every three years. Every three years, you need to hire somebody new (if you are in the specialized field, it can be quite a challenge), train him and not so long after let him go because he got a better opportunity in an Agency or outside the Commission.

My opinion is that the EC has implemented a very dubious strategy in trying to reduce costs. It is a shame that a group of colleagues are not entitled to their full rights, moreover it also has created an unpleasant atmosphere in the service. Some Fonctionnaires tends to forget that someone's administrative status is not a measure of his competencies.

European Elections: Polls

Here is a cool widget that circulated by mail today. Thanks to Lemonde.fr

The role of the Commission in the Union

For the EU Open Day, Grahnlaw, a fellow blogger, asked: "What is your response to the continuously spread allegation about unelected elites in Brussels making 80 per cent of our laws?"

Without giving a full lecture on the European Union, let me first summarize a bit the situation.

On the one side, you have the well-know 3 major actors of the European Union:
  • The European Commission
  • The Council of the European Union (Member States)
  • The European Parliament

On the other side, since the Maastricht Treaty, The European Union is built on 3 distinct pillars:
  • European Community
  • Common Foreign and Security Policy
  • Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters
As more and more treaties got signed the EC got more to do and the Europarliament got reinforced.

As to answer Grahn's question, the EC has (absolutely) no prerogatives on the two last pillars. It is the Member States (through the Council) with a sprinkle of Parliament who make the show in those topics. I have no statistics, but I sincerely doubt the 80% figure, just due to this fact.

We play only in the first pillar. On this, it was agreed democratically that Member States will relinquish some powers to the Union (not to the European Commission, to the Union). And if you have read my previous posts, we can't go rogue: we either have the MEP or a committee on our back. Even if we have great autonomy, the Council has the last word in the vast majority of cases.

One truth must be told high and loud. In our dear Union, the Council is the main legislative power! Not the Commission, the Council... So I totally agree on one of your comments: "the Commission has weakened by the shift of the 'institutional balance' towards the Council".

So what do the Brussels Elites do for a living? We are not as powerful as some Eurosceptics would like to believe. We draft policies in our first pillar and we make sure that Member States don't deviate too much from the treaties. We are definitely not elected officials, we are technocrats.

Last but not least, at the European Commission, officials works for their respective Commissioners, who vote on decisions as a college. Commissioners are not elected but they are selected by member states (after lengthy and complicated negotiations) and approved by the Parliament.

So let's make things clear: More than often, the Brussels Elite are accused of messing up with national sovereignty; unfortunately, when you look in details at the law-making process in the European Union, Member States do a non-negligible part of the work and when the Commission is in charge, it has democratic watchdogs. People should not fall that easily on this populist belief. We are just an easy scapegoat for many governments to justify their failure.

Q&A: Committees in our daily work

Julian Frisch asks: "How do these committees affect your (personal) daily work in the Commission? Do have frequent contact to member states' experts from these committees?"

It really depends in which DG you are working in. In my case, I would say that we do have to deal with a committee quite often. There are regular meetings with the Member States experts, but they are definitely not our direct bosses. With time, you start to preempt their comments... It is all about national interests, so pretty obvious to guess.

Regarding the quality of the experts in the committees, it varies a lot. Once again, it relates to national interests. They make sure they have knowledgeable people in areas dear to their agenda. You can also imagine that some countries are more inclined to protect their own interests, for example those with large industrial powers, let say.

Accountability at the European Commission: the role of the Member States

In one of my previous post, I tried to explain how we, Officials at the EC, are accountable to the Europarliament. Well there is another layer of accountability towards Members States this time: Comitology.

So you would think that the EC who is getting more and more autonomy could just act as a rogue beast and passed any legislation it wants to. WRONG! Member states are watching us and they make sure, very carefully, that their parochial interests are preserved.

Basically, the EC has the right of initiatives on a large number of topics (eg agriculture, internal market, competition, etc.) but since the 60's, Members States have developed Comitology. In short, there are now more than 250 committees that scrutinize our works and depending on the topic, the EC cannot issue a regulation without the assent of the oversight committee.

I will take two examples:
1) In the Regulatory Procedure, with regard to health for example, the EC can't do a single thing without the agreement of the Committee. If the committee rules against, the Parliament can be consulted. And at the end, the Council of the EU has the final word, ie Member States.

2) In the Management Procedure, with regard to the Common Agricultural Policy for example, the EC can ignore the committee's opinion. Still the Council of the EU has the final word.

As a conclusion, it is clear Member States have a good idea of what we are doing. If they don't and say that EC is coming up with a surprise piece of legislation, then maybe they should be more active in the different committees. I hope it is becoming clear to you what is the role of the EC in the Union. My next post will deal with that question and answer the question of Grahnlaw, a fellow Euroblogger.

Q&A: Diversity in the Workplace

From a reader: How well are the different nationalities represented among the fonctionnaires? Are there quotas? Does the current system work or are there tensions?

Let me first say that working at the EC is a blast when it comes to diversity. I can't think of any other employers who can bring so many nationalities at the table...

Having said that, it is obvious that there is not a fair representation of nationalities among the Fonctionnaires. There are several reasons to that. First, you can't expect to have as many Luxembourgeois as Germans. Demography is a major factor explaining the representation of large countries such as Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Second is History. Founding members (Germany, France, Italy, Benelux) are also well represented because you still have the old fonctionnaires in place. Also, there is Geography, with Belgians quite present for a small country but tend to concentrate in lower levels and admin (IT, accounting, etc).

So overall, it will be a while before we get a more balanced EC (remember, you can't fired Fonctionnaires, so you have to wait a long long time...)

Nonetheless, all the nationalities are there. The countries who joined between the 70's and the extension to the East are now well present and very active. In particular Scandinavians who have a strong sense of Public Service.

The EU10 and EU2 (those who joined in 2004 and 2007) are gradually getting integrated but we don't expect many Latvians or Slovenes, of course due to demographics. On the other hands, Poles are getting there in force.

There are no quotas or no quota policy (or if there is one, it must be top secret). I am pretty sure there won't be one anytime soon. However there is definitely a push to get more officials from EU10 and EU2 and very recently more management level officials from the new countries.
One way is we are informally asked to favor new countries when we have candidates with the same qualifications.
The other way is how the recruiting is being done. Simply, to be recruited, you of course need to be a "laureat de concours", and most of the concours these past 2 years are being restricted to allow only EU10 and EU2. As a result, if you want to recruit a new official, you will get in majority CV from new countries. This in fact do create a lot of tensions: old nationalities are complaining to be treated unfairly, they argue that the quality of the service is declining (Unions say that often lately).

It's hard to take a position on this topic. The question is in fact exacerbated by the decreasing numbers of concours, when the EC was asked to cut costs during the Kinnock Reform. For sure I don't agree that new officials from EU10 or EU2 are less capable, that they had it the easy way. Idiots are very diverse, and they come from the 27 countries!

Eventually, what really blows my mind at the EC is the linguistic capabilities of the Beast. The vast majority of Officials under 40 speak at least 3 languages. And if you get the younger ones you see people talking fluently 5,6 or even 7 languages without being a translator or an interpretor. That you get nowhere else.

European Institutions Open Day: All you wanted to know about working at the EC and never dared ask

For a change, I would be interested to get some inputs on my blog.

As not to hurt some of the nationalities, 8th of May is worked at the EC, but in exchange we rest on the 9th of May, which is the European Day. On this day, we also open doors to the public.

So if there is something you would like to know about working at the EC, feel free to ask and I will see if I can provide an answer or an insight.

Of course, the request has to be realistic!

Post your questions in one of the comments.

Nervous Breakdown: How Signatories can drive you NUTS!

There has been huge improvements in terms of transparency at the Commission since the resignation of the Santer Commission. For those who don't remember it, Santer and his team resigned in 1999 under allegation of fraud. There was not a single scandal in this episode, but arrogance and opacity at the EC really got on the nerves of the European Parliament and the fall of the Commission got crystallised by the fraud focused around on two commissioners, Cresson and Marin.

On big change was the creation of OLAF, the Anti-Fraud DG with a large amount of independence. Another, more subtle, is a reinforcement of the letter circuit.

Until very recently you had ADONIS, which is basically an electronic archive of letters. Let say you send a letter to the Commission, the letter is read, scanned in the system, and attributed to a service. the dogma is: All letters in ADONIS need an answer! May it be a letter from a head of government, a letter from a citizen, a firm, a lobby... So a fair amount of our work is to answer those queries in strict delays.

On the other side, you have the signatories. Of course, a Commissioner or a Director-General will only answer directly a very small number of the letter. The rest is send to low-level officials for an answer. With the letter comes a signatory where you have the circuit. Can be quite long depending on the number of signatures, visas, authorisations, for information, etc. steps on the circuit. Assuming a letter signed by the Director General himself, starting from the writer, it goes to your head of section, then to the head of unit, then to the assistant of the director, then to the director, then to the assistant of the director-general and then to the director-general himself. If at any point, one is not happy, comments are made and send back to the writer for a new round in the circuit. Depending on the urgency of the matter, you would see secretaries and internal mail running around to beat the deadlines.

Recently the two systems merged into a new IT system: ARES. Why ARES? because in the Greek Mythology ADONIS was killed by ARES... You can't invent things like this. It must have been a Greek personally in charge of IT names!

As any changes happening in an administration, the level of anxiety increased substantially with a lot of training. IT honestly replaces a lot of paperwork and movements, but the system is not yet clear to anybody....

The Stagiaires: The Bold and the Beautiful

Oh Sweet Little Stagiaires, you really are a sunshine in the darkness of the Commission, the adrenaline who keeps alive scores of old naughty officials.

So twice a year, for 5 months each time, the European Commission welcomes the "Stagiaires" from all over Europe and some from outside Europe. Either selected on their CV (Blue Book Stagiaire) or short term loan from a national or local administration, those young people integrate units to work on their thesis, to get some experience and enjoy Europe.

Doing a traineeship at the EC is actually quite a nice experience, as there is an office (run by the stagiaires themselves and during the interim by outgoing stagiaires) that takes really good care of the Stagiaires in organising parties and other social activities. You would say pretty standard in a big organisation, but maybe unlike the private sector, much more attention is given to social recreation.

There is a much dirtier side... Far from being the majority of case, but it is somehow frequent to see generally young and attractive ladies ending up working with old and ugly officials. It is not clear to me, how can this happen with a CV-based selection. It would be interesting to find out what the statistics are because I suspect that there is a vast majority of women (that could also due to me having harder time identifying male stagiaires).

Sexual harassment is common unfortunately and is far from being reprimanded. Some will try to offer a more permanent position later in exchange of some, well you know. Other won't be able to see you in the eyes. But the more often I would say are the side comments made directly or apart on the stagiaires' physics. Few will do all of this.

Kind of sad to see those old pricks taking advantage of the position to act pervertedly. What is really problematic is that the EC as a whole doesn't do shit about it. I remember that one Stagiaire had the guts to raise the issue during her final presentation to the Director General, who was quite surprise. He did move stuff a bit, that was all buried very fast (after all you can't fired those pricks...)

Accountability at the European Commission: the role of the European Parliament

European elections are soon, and it is for us, officials of the European Institutions, a very important moment that will shape our work for the next five days. It is also for me the occasion to talk about how much accountable Eurocrats are towards the European Citizens.

I am more and more bothered by those eurosceptic populists who like to portray the EC as a distant and uncontrollable beast, which comes up with stupid and irrational regulations. Once again, it is true that the Commission is a bit far away from the citizens, but is it not due in part to the laziness of European citizens?

The European Commission is in fact very much accountable to the citizens (also known as the Taxpayers) in several ways:
  • The European Parliament
  • The Member States
  • The Court of Auditors
  • The Ombudsman
  • OLAF
We are accountable through all these bodies (depending on the themes) and it is serious business! For this post, I will focus on the Parliament given the coming elections.

On many matters where treaties have given the EC the initiative on legislation, the Commission is quite autonomous in spending its bugdet. However, the Parliament has a "Droit de Regard", and many MEP do not refrain from asking a lot of questions. On our side we are required to give an answer to every single request (even the stupidest) fast.

This is what I call democracy and accountability. It surely happens at the national level in some countries, but rest assured that the crazy officials that we are, are controlled by a democratic body...

I actually welcome this scrutiny, because it just reminds us that policy isn't just a theoretical exercise. It might be harder to work through the politics of the Parliament, but it is much healthier. I quite enjoy when some colleagues get rebuffed by their parliament committee, thinking that their proposal was so well thoughts... That is not how it works, fortunate. It happens to me once as well, not so long ago where a proposal was put forward not in line with the objectives of the regulations, we tried as best as we could to disguise our text... but it was magnificently rejected by the relevant parliament committee. To be honest, it is often that we receive political pressure from cabinets, some times from ass-kissing directors, and we do appreciate when the MEPs come to rescue us.

So really, nothing does piss me off more that those people who just either don't vote at the European elections or vote useless parties and then complaint that Brussels is going too far. No vote, no voice!!!

The Belgians and the European Institutions

Brussels is now well established as the European Capital. I have learnt recently (an interview from Jean Monnet's assistant) that in fact the European Commission arrived in Brussels by accident...

At the beginning, the Commission was to settle in Sophia Antipolis, near Nice (!!!!); but the bloody Germans felt that it was too much "Club Med"... So Paris was the next serious candidate but the mayor of Strasbourg at that time was afraid that it was too close to his town and the Parliament. The Belgian government offered the Berlaymont (which was at the time a covent) as a temporary location. And it was only in the 90's that Brussels became the permant location of the EC.

In any case, we ended up in Brussels and since there has been a love-hate relation with the locals. Don't get me wrong! On my side of things, Brussels is a lovely city (except the weather of course): it is still a reasonable size, you get all the amenities you want at an affordable price, you can live fully without speaking French and Flemish, and Belgians are quite sympathetic with foreigners (much less with each other).

Though I felt very strange once a Belgian asked me if I was working for the "Common Market"!?!?!?! the guy was in his thirties. And it is apparently not unusual.

Belgians do complaint that because of the EC, life and housing are expensive in Brussels, officials act in an arrogant way and barely mix with the locals.

There is some truth in it, and there can be some improvements... Overpaid "Fonctionnaires" do act sometimes as conquerors with their large stipends and their mansions in Woluwe-St Lambert. But life in Brussels isn't expensive at all compared to similar cities: rent is still reasonable, buying a flat is still possible, and you can enjoy restaurants and theatres for a decent price.

But the real question to ask is: "What would be Brussels without the European Institutions?"
Let us think of a city without:
  • a major employer (25,000 direct well-paid jobs and much more indirect jobs) and a large majority of Belgium employed in low and middle level job;
  • a centre of activities for lawyers, consultants, lobbyists;
  • a fantastic access with Thalys to other majors European cities (Amsterdam, Cologne, London, Paris)
  • a vibrant multicultural society
So what is left of Brussels? Great chocolate, interesting comic books and a little kid urinating?

The truth is that Brussels without the European Institutions would be much more like a second-class small and boring city... Something like a much poorer Luxembourg!

The Kinnock Reform

Lately, there is some agitation in the Unions regarding a new round of reforms coming from Admin.

"TAO-AFI has already drawn your attention to the radical report on the future of the European public service, prepared by a number of Directors-General headed up by [...] This report has the rather neutral title: "Modernisation of the Commission's human resources". Actually, it involves a new administrative reform on which Mr Kallas is planning to make a communication before the end of the current Commission's term of office."

But we, officials, can sleep in peace, the Unions are protecting us...

The last battle was a terrible one at the Institutions, namely the Kinnock Reform in 2004.
Kinnock, a previous Bristish MP who could not get his party to win elections, got named Commissioners for Administration. His objectives were to shake a bit the sleeping mammoth and he did shake the mammoth quite well.

For outsiders, the situation before 2004 had not moved much from when the Rome Treaty was signed. Here are, in a nutshell, the main results of the reform:
  • scores of functions were outsourced (security guards, cooks, cleaners, etc.) Before that, all of them were un-removable civil servants who could keep their jobs as long as they show up for work every day.
  • a status was official created for temporary position: Contract Agent. Before, there was not a single way to recruit temporary staff and work conditions change substantially from on DG to an other.
  • the use of Contract Agents was to be maximized in order to reduce costs (I will blog more on that latter)
  • the salary of Fonctionnaires was decreased with performance bonus to be introduced. Actually only those recruited after 2004. Those under the "old status" kept most of their benefits.

The point is that Kinnock (with the support of the College of Commissioners) was mandated to reduce costs and give more flexibility and transparency to the European Administration. How can you do that with people you can't fire? You screw the incomers and create a new profile that you pay 50% left with little job security.

What do Fonctionnaires complaint about? Well there are more grades and over the life cycle a Fonctionnaire will get less. And they actually have to perform to move up the ladder.
But, hold on, was it (and is it still) fair to apply the "can't-get-fired" policy and ridiculously high salaries (and all the benefits of International Civil Servants) to jobs such as cooks, security guards, cleaners, etc.? Can it be justified to the European taxpayers? Should secretaries and low-level officials get so much job security? Yes of course you have to attract the best... but 80% of the staff isn't that great! They just passed a silly test, remotely related to your competences.

I do not agree with much of the Kinnock Reform, but I found somehow puzzling that some of my colleagues are so entrenched in their personal interests. Joining the European Civil Services isn't only about living a large life. So out of respect for other public servants, I believe some of my colleagues should calm down a bit.

The truth is that with Kinnock there was not a real negotiation, and the Admin just imposed its position. And I would not be surprised at all that the next commission comes with a new round of unpopular reform. And if we want to keep some of our privileges, we should get ready for real talks.

I heard that joke once:
"What is the difference with Terrorists and European Fonctionnaires?, Well with Terrorists at least you can negotiate."

The Unions at the Commission

One thing really striking when working for the Commission is the loud voices of the Unions...
Every week you receive at least 4 to 5 flyers from Unions explaining how good they are or have been when it comes to protect the well being of workers.

In the European Commission, there are 7 different Unions from which you can choose (CSE, FFPE, R&D, SFIE, Solidarité Européenne, TAO/AFI and US). I don't even know what the acronyms stands for... well US is Union Syndicale, one of the biggest spammers in terms of flyers. So don't even ask me how they differ from each other.

My guess is that they are trying to replicate the Belgium political spectrum... in which you have left and right and up and down (Walloons and Flemish). Such a mess, that only insiders really know who is doing what.

After quite a lengthy observation, I have found three main activities for the Unions:
1) They help you prepare for Concours. They publish some books on the Verbal and Numeric Q&A, as well as the European Test. They organize sessions to review the materials, which can be very useful. Their preparation to specific competencies is much less helpful as they tend to give you general tips on how to prepare. All this is actually costly.

2) They defend you against the Admin. I am sure most of the people join because at one point a decision of Admin was against them, and not to be crushed they ask the help of a Union.

3) They BARK! That is their most visible activity. Each flyer would convince you that this particular Union will defend you for a very important threat: nursery changes, lack of space in European Schools, canteens' food getting from bad to worse. They just bark but don't bite...

Unions are just extras when it comes to negotiate with Admin. Because the EC needs to show a lively social dialogue, Unions are invited (or just come un-invited) to the table and Admin just decides. For example, the last changes of the Official Statutes in 2004 (the Kinnock Reform) were rejected by all the Unions but one. Since then, the Unions like to remind you how they were against the job insecurity of AC, the outsourcing of many services, the decrease in the salary scale... What did they mobilize? Nothing... Not a single strike, just pointless petitions!

Oh they like to remind you that the reform has decreased the quality of our canteens, that AC status is illegal, blahblah... it has been for years and the Admin was already preparing a new round of reforms.

For the "Social Dialogue", I believe the Unions are similar to small dogs... you know the small dogs, which can bark very hard but would not dare bite you.

In the News: Commissioners' Leaving Bonus

Once in a while, when the subject is relevant to the inside life of the Institutions, I will try to comment burning news.
The first one, which is currently breaking the headlines, is the bonus commissioners are expected to receive when they leave their position.

Euroseptics got pretty upset when they learned that:
"The basic monthly salary is around €20,000 for a European Commissioner, and they can still receive a portion [40 to 65% depending on the length of service] of that for three years after they have left their post. If they accept a new job which pays less, their European contract tops it up."
Barroso, the President of the EC, is actually paid €24,400 (gross), similar to Obama's stipend. Not bad for an unelected official. As the matter of fact, they are both beaten by Dominique Strauss Khan (Head of the IMF) who is the highest paid public official, with around half a million dollars per year.

So a commissioner can expect €468k and Barroso €570k...

Golden parachutes are quite a drama nowadays, with the financial meltdown. Commissioners' bonuses aren't new; they were set up (and that is why there are high) during the European Coal and Steel Community, to avoid commissioners joining the industry right after serving the Commission.

But the real point is: Do they really deserve to be paid so much in the first place?
The role of commissioners is in fact quite limited. They do set an agenda and a direction for the European Commission, but after that you have to be really convincing to get Fonctionnaires to move in your direction. There has not been a strong College of Commissioners for a while (Prodi was ok, but not as good as Delors), and the recent one have been very focused on downsizing the headcount of officials... not a good incentive, you might say.

Moreover, Commissioners are politicians (usually second-class), and they are not usually appointed to a sector relevant to their experience but after a complex political game of compromises. Some DGs are having hard time working with some of them, either because they don't know what they are talking about, or they have their own personal agenda, or they are defending their member states when they are required not to.

Something really stroke me the last time I met one of them. It was Leonard Orban in charge of Multilingualism. One of the obvious questions was how many languages he could speak... 3: Romanian, English and French. And believe me is English and French were not even great!

Eventually, I find their salary to be ok. After all, it is not much different from what ministers can get in member states, and of course you want to make sure they cannot be influenced easily by lobbies. But the pension is a bit puzzling. If it was really hard to get a job after that, then maybe. Elected officials get that in member states as well. But why the top up, when previous commissioners such as Mandelson or Frattini when straight back to their government? Why not a regressive compensation? 60% the first year, 40 the second and then 20 the third... a bit like Contract Agents :)

The Fonctionnaire (Part 2): The Manager

From the previous post, it became clear that the "Can't-get-fired" policy has turn the European Institutions, and the Commission in particular, into an unmanageable beast. The reason for this policy, once again a legacy of France, was to insulate the civil servants from the politics.

But before let's recap a bit. At the AD level (Administrators), you have in order: the Fonctionnaire, the Head of Sector, the Head of Unit, the Director, the Director General. It is very compact, given that head of sector is just informal, the head of unit is the one really managing the troops. One very odd thing is that each level is only achievable with a given grade, which, in fact, poorly relates to your competencies. The grade thing (when you move one grade up, you have been promoted) was not really a reward of your competencies rather than a "tour-de-role" (it is changing now). Every year, one fourth/fifth of the unit got some promoted and in 4-5 years, the whole unit moved on step up.

As a result, you have Heads of Unit at around 50 who gets their first real management position. No time to train first on small team... And units can go up to 120 people.

But with the "Can't-get-fired" things, managers have basically no sticks... You end up with quite a huge management issue there.

Imagine yourself at the head of a team and basically no way to reward or punish your people. Quite often, you focus on those people who are still motivated (because they are usually new) or on Contract Agents. On the other hand, you have some unmotivated or lazy bastards who do nothing... What you do with them? you just gave them good points at the end, hoping that another unit will get them!

Heads of Unit are not generally bad bosses. But at this level the competencies required are management skills, and I don't think people are prepared well enough in their transition from technicians to managers.

Eventually, you have units working at the 100% level with only 50% of the headcount. It is not then unusual to have people working until late (those who have a minimum level of motivation or ethic)... The others are just, well, they are just waiting for retirement.

It is now changing, since 2004 with the Kinnock reform, for the worst or for the best... but that will be the subject of an other post.

The "Fonctionnaire" (Part 1)

This is now the beginning of a long serie of posts on the "Fonctionnaire" or Officials (the proper English term).

The Fonctionnaire is a civil servant of the European Institutions who has successfully passed a "concours".

According to Wikipedia:
"Policy makers are divided into a set of grades: from AD 5, the most junior administrator grade, to AD 16, which is a director-general (AD = administrator). Below the AD category is AST (assistant). [...] EU civil servants work 37.5 hours a week, though they are theoretically available 24/7. They receive a minimum of 24 days of leave a year (maximum of 30), with additional leave on grounds of age, grade and distance from home country. The lowest grades receive between €2,325.33 and €2,630.96 each month, while the highest grade receives between €14,822.86 and €16,094,79 a month."

Among other, Fonctionnaires, like other type of employees of the European Institutions, have reduced income tax rates, 16% premium if they are not Belgium, the right to buy furniture and a car VAT-free for a year, free tuition for children at European Schools, family allowances, yearly travel to their country of origin and generous social security and pensions.

So on top of a nice salary, lot of benefits which make the position particularly attractive.

It is not unusual for a 50 year old Fonctionnaire of grade AD to have net stipend of €10,000 per month.

Oh something you should not forget: they cannot be fired! Literally. Unless of course they steal some money (but some have managed to stay even with grafting) or murder somebody.

I believe the Fonctionnaire Status was inherited from the French Tradition of Civil Service when the European Institutions were set up. This would explain a lot of the articles in the Status. Basically the Status (you can find it here) is the Deuteronomy of Fonctionnaires.

This "Can't-get-fired" clause is quite an interesting one as it has create a very special dynamic in the administration.

With such salaries and job security, you would believe that every Fonctionnaire is a happy one. Not really. I would say that there is a high level of frustration, that have even pushed some colleagues towards suicide (that serious). So in latter posts, I will blog about the daily life of a Fonctionnaire, his career expectations, his management perspective, his relation with contract agents (and other temporary staff), his trouble relation with young and attractive female stagiaires...

Microsoft vs. EC

Microsoft is releasing soon its 8th version of the infamous Internet Explorer. Microsoft and the European Commission have maintained a bitter relation, the latter accusing the former of abuse of market position. A fine of €497 million was imposed on the Redmond giant in 2004. An addition €899 million was billed in 2008 for non-compliance...

Yes the European Commission is protecting the right of European customers, after all why IE8 when I can use Firefox, why WMP when VLC is much better.

BUT... what does the Commission use on its computer? MS Office, IE7, WMP and many of the Microsoft goodies. Count over 24,000 employees and calculate the licensing fees!

There is no Linux, no Firefox, no OpenOffice available. I doubt it's a technical issue, as DIGIT (DG in charge of IT) is a very capable DG (I will blog more on that). So why is the Commission not putting its words into actions? Maybe the fine was just to repay the licensing fees...

Admin for newcomers

To inaugurate this blog, let me share the crazy experience of getting a job offer at the European Commission.

So you have passed the numerical and verbal tests, you have excelled on the European Union Knowledge, you mastered your competency test, you survived your panel... Well you are now a laureate of a "Concours", unfortunately you are not yet an official of the European Institutions.

If you are lucky enough, you will be invited to an interview and then you can consider yourself a new European Fonctionnaire! Well not really. Unlike any other regular employers, you will not sign your contract (and be sure to have the job) only after you start your job!

In the meanwhile you are required to deal with Admin. Admin is the DG in charge of Administration (the more schizophrenic as well). Admin will first check your references, ask you to pass a medical test and "fix your right". During all this time, you need to give your notice and hope that all will go smoothly...

I don't fully understand why Admin is so afraid to commit. Maybe they know that once you are in, there is no way out...