By Phillip Souta
At the end of a low-key European Council meeting last week, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said that Britain had formed an ‘unprecedented alliance’ of like-minded states focused on boosting growth through completion of the single market and other reforms. The 20 February letter co-signed by him and 11 other EU leaders including Mario Monti of Italy and Mariano Rajoy of Spain was the latest example of UK driven letter-diplomacy.
The British Brussels Network’s (BBN) second event in Brussels also took place during the European Council last week, on 1 March, and British influence was also the focus, but from a slightly different perspective.
Jonathan Faull, Director-General for Information Society and Media at the Commission, Robert Madelin, Director-General for Internal Market and Services, Richard Corbett an adviser to the newly re-appointed President Herman van Rompuy, and Michael Collins from Citibank came together to discuss the level and effectiveness of British representation in the European Union’s institutions.
Making up 12 per cent of the EU’s population, Jonathan Faull pointed out that UK nationals made up only 3.9 per cent of the Commission’s 33,033 employees in 2011. He said that whilst Brits were well represented at the senior levels – with six directors general – that was about to change as the 1972 intake heads toward retirement. Under 2 per cent of all the applicants to the last concours, the competition to become an official in the institutions, were British. He said that as a lecturer in the College of Europe, a sort of finishing school for budding officials, there wasn’t a single Brit in his class.
Robert Madelin, the other senior British-EU official on the panel, said that the “British public administration ethos adds value”, and that in order for a European public administration to work effectively, it needed the “knowledge of all member states”.
Jonathan Faull said that the “UK ethos adds quality”, but that after the veto on 9 December, he had numerous conversations in lunch queues where people of other nationalities asked “why don’t you just leave?”. He said that this problem of perception ran counter to the fact that the UK has lots of friends in Europe, in Central and Eastern Europe having pushed enlargement and with other common-law countries in the EU such as Malta and Cyprus.
Michael Collins, from Citibank and a former official in UKREP, said that “nationality isn’t a priority for a large multinational” and that there were more important criteria for his interactions with EU officials. He argued that it was more important not to be corrupt and to have “high standards of public administration”, adding that commitment to “evidence based policy making” and being “open and transparent” were also at the top of the list. He said that it was an open question as to whether UK nationals were more likely to meet those criteria.
Richard Corbett, advisor to Herman van Rompuy and a former MEP, also argued that focusing on nationality was too simple – in the same way that MEPs do not divide nationally but rather politically, he argued that it was far more likely that individuals would be more likely to approach issues of policy on a case by case basis. He argued that the climate of opinion in Britain towards the EU would make it less likely that Brits would seek out careers in its institutions.
The discussion after this initial exchange of views quickly focused on language, before moving back to the question of whether it mattered that the UK was quite significantly under represented in the EU’s institutions.
Paul Strickland, the head of unit for editing in the Directorate General for Translation said he was “surprised by the blase attitude” that he thought some of the speakers showed towards the fact of British under representation.
He pointed out that 93 per cent of English documents in the Commission are not written by English speakers, and whilst Jonathan Faull pointed out that this was inevitable, Strickland argued that the quality of written English made for bad communication from the Commission and that poor drafting would result in “bad legislation” that would get challenged in the European Court of Justice five years hence.
Everyone in the room agreed that the parlous state of language education in the UK was a significant factor in British under representation in the institutions.
A representative from Astra Zeneca spoke up to disagree with Michael Collins of Citi, arguing that UK under representation did in fact damage British business interests and furthermore that if the UK were to move to the exit of the EU, many multi-nationals which based their European operations in the UK would consider moving.
The gentleman from Astra Zeneca also argued that the Commission should be far more open to fixed or short term contracts for specific posts with more relaxed language requirements. Jonathan Faull echoed this saying his career, where he entered the Commission in his 20s and would leave it in his 60s, having not had another job, would not be so attractive for “Generation Y.”
The discussion finally turned to what the UK government should do. Tammy Reynolds from UKREP said that a lot of the Brits whom she spoke to in the institutions are “worried about career progression” and that the lack of performance related pay was also an issue.
Robert Madelin ended the event suggesting that the UK government should, “spend time back home, explaining what ‘Europe’ really brings to UK Ltd, for example, by supporting the back-to-school visits that Berlin, Rome, Paris and others actively support already” for UK nationals working in the institutions along side EU officials from other countries to give them a flavour of UK public administration.
The aims of the British Brussels Network (BBN) are to provide a platform for debate on EU issues from a British perspective; bring together Brits working in EU affairs in Brussels to network and discuss relevant issues; and provide Brits in Brussels the opportunity to engage with senior EU and UK officials. The BBN is managed by Business for New Europe, a coalition of British business leaders seeking positive reform in Europe and who believe that the UK should be fully and positively engaged in the EU. Partner organisations of the BBN include the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, the ICAEW and Nucleus.