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 :)