Page last updated at 07:35 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

EU revamps search for top talent

By Laurence Peter
BBC News

Translator in EU office (pic: European Commission)
The EU employs an army of translators for 23 official languages

The EU is scrapping the dreaded general knowledge quiz in its initial selection tests, so aspiring Eurocrats will no longer fall at the first acquis or passerelle clause.

The European Commission - the EU's executive arm - says it is bringing EU recruitment into line with best practice in public administration worldwide, overhauling procedures that date back to the 1950s.

"Better, faster, stronger" is the slogan for the new system, launched on Thursday by the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO).

But making the entrance exam more skills-based, rather than knowledge-based, may not be enough to attract more candidates from the UK, which is under-represented in the Brussels bureaucracy.

UK nationals account for 1,289 of the commission's 25,019 staff - or 5.2%. But official data show that similar-sized countries have more - Germany 8.3%, France 10.2% and Italy 10.3%.

Belgium, the host country, provides 19.8% of the staff. Belgium is arguably over-represented right across the grades.

The situation for the UK is no better if all the EU's bureaucrats - more than 40,000 - are considered.

A recent study by the Paris-based Robert Schuman Foundation, a think-tank, shows that Belgium again tops the list, accounting for 16.3% of EU staff in total. France is second, with 10.8%, and Italy third with 9.8%. The UK accounts for 5.1%.

European Commission - Berlaymont building
Founding states have the highest numbers in the European Commission

The new recruitment process will not make concessions for the often weaker foreign language skills of UK nationals, compared with their continental counterparts.

All successful candidates will still have to be fluent in one of the main EU languages - English, French or German - in addition to their mother tongue.

The commission says it has ruled out any nationality quotas, though it can encourage candidates of a particular nationality to apply.

Speedier process

The nerve-racking waiting time for candidates anxious to know whether they have made the grade will be cut to a maximum of one year.

Myriam Watson, a French official at the Commission, said she had applied in September 2005 and did not get her result until April 2007.

A Commission spokesman, Michael Mann, told the BBC that the global jobs market had become more competitive and "if it takes candidates two years they may go to work somewhere else".

Across the [EU] institutions they are crying out for British people
UK official at Commission

The EU knowledge test in the first stage of selection tended to favour candidates already working in EU institutions, he said.

Both he and Mrs Watson said the oral exam at the second stage of the process was one of the toughest hurdles.

"I had to do a 10-minute presentation before a panel of eight people, but the whole oral lasted 45 minutes, and I had to answer immediately," said Mrs Watson.

"Still, I had done a simulation before with some people I knew and it was more stressful than the real thing. I didn't want to look bad in front of people I knew."

English new lingua franca

The EU has recruitment cycles for three main categories: administrators - for example, lawyers and economists - linguists and office assistants. The competition is such that candidates with degrees are now applying for assistant-grade jobs in Brussels.

The entry-level salary for administrators is 4,267 euros (£3,886; $5,809) a month before tax - but the income tax is a lower, special EU rate, and staff enjoy numerous other perks.

In the new format, candidates who pass the initial computer-based selection tests - verbal, numerical and situational reasoning - will spend a day at an assessment centre in Brussels.

The assessment will be "more focused, professionalised - and there will be more use of human resources personnel," Mr Mann said.

According to Mrs Watson, the old system did not sufficiently test candidates' ability to work in a team.

The assessment day, including the oral, will be conducted in the candidates' second language.

English has now superseded French as the main language of communication in EU institutions, since the major eastward enlargement of 2004.

Yet ironically the institutions do not have enough native English speakers to handle the ever-increasing quantity of documents requiring translation.

The EU now has 23 official languages - and many translations, for example from Maltese into Lithuanian, go via English.

A UK official at the commission, who asked not to be named, told the BBC that "across the institutions they are crying out for British people, because English is the main drafting language in the commission".

The official blamed the low take-up of UK nationals on a lack of British awareness about EU careers, coupled with a decline in foreign language teaching in UK schools.

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