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European Commission: Staffing

Volume 749: debated on Monday 4 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of United Kingdom nationals on the staff of the European Commission.

My Lords, the Government recognise that there is a problem with the level of UK representation among staff working in the European institutions. The UK represents 12% of the EU’s population but makes up only 5% of EU staff, half of whom are expected to retire over the next 10 years. The Government are committed to reversing this downward trend. In the short term, we are increasing the number of civil servants whom we send on secondment to the institutions and, for the long term, we are providing additional support to candidates who are preparing for the concours.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is against our national interest that there has been such a dramatic decline in the number of British civil servants in Brussels and that, further, we have not succeeded with one British national in the concours since 2010. Does he not agree that part of the reason must be that able British civil servants are deterred by the constant sniping at Europe on the part of this Government—although not, I may say, on the part of the party that he represents? Could not that be in part allayed by giving a guarantee to any civil servant from the UK who goes to Brussels that they will be able to return if they so choose? That was something that was available when we first joined the European Community, as it was.

My Lords, the decline in applicants for the European Commission started before the current Government came into office. It is partly a question of language inadequacy; you have to take the competition partly in your second language. Applicants from most other countries take it in English as their second language, in which they are very often highly fluent; we lack sufficient English, or British, students, who are fluent in French or German, the other two languages. If I may say so, there is no evidence that there has been a decline because of uncertainty about Britain’s future relations with the European Union. May I also say that the noble Lord is misinformed, and that some 20 British candidates have succeeded in the concours since 2010? He may have read an article that said that no British civil servant has succeeded in the concours since that date.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that a postgraduate degree qualification from the College of Europe greatly facilitates employment in the European institutions? Could he tell the House whether the scholarships to the College of Europe, suspended by the previous Government in 2010, have been reinstated—and, if so, at what level?

My Lords, it is widely accepted that a year studying in both French and English in the College of Europe, in Warsaw or in Bruges, is very helpful in getting students accustomed to the ways of Brussels and what is required in the concours. The last Government cancelled the 24 British scholarships for the College of Europe in 2009. They have been partly reinstituted, with five from BIS for British officials next year, and a number of others from the devolved institutions. In addition, a small group of people, which I think includes several Members of this House, have contributed to a private scholarship scheme, which will fund three scholarships this year. So we are working at it and the number of candidates is now rising again.

My Lords, does the Minister not accept, in spite of what he has said, that many members of the UK public service may have been discouraged from applying for jobs in the Community institutions by the fact that they no longer have an assurance of a return ticket to the UK public service—quite apart from the career difficulties presented by the prospect of a referendum on whether or not we should remain in the European Union?

All I can say on that is that the evidence is not there. In terms of the secondment of national experts into the European External Action Service, the British are second after the French in the number of those who have succeeded in gaining places; so there is some considerable evidence there. The members of the Diplomatic Service have also been going round to graduate recruitment fairs over the past two years and that has helped to double the number of British applicants for the concours this year.

Surely the noble Lord—as a Liberal Democrat Euro-enthusiast; and I am also a Euro-enthusiast—would agree that the problem has been exacerbated by the uncertainty over our future position within Europe. Would he, if he were 20 or 30 years younger, really apply for such a risky position?

My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear in his speech in January that it is in Britain’s long-term interest to stay within the European Union. The Deputy Prime Minister made an extremely strong speech about the position that we will be taking on future membership. I look forward to a speech from the leader of the Labour Party—I think that Europe was not mentioned once in this year’s Labour Party conference—which will ensure that all three parties hold a similar position.

My Lords, after reminding the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that he does not represent anybody any more than the rest of us do—we represent ourselves—could my noble friend tell us what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to ensure that the, we hope, increasing number of representatives of this country on the staff of the European Commission are aware of the detail of what the national interest actually is, and that they are kept aware also of the effects of European legislation and regulation on the economy, the community and the functioning of the law of this country?

My Lords, many of these things are very informal. When I go to Brussels I talk to British officials, as do many of my colleagues. There is a British-Brussels network. The last time I was in Brussels I addressed the alumni of an Oxford college that I used to teach in. There are informal contacts and they keep in touch. However, one does not wish to instruct officials of the Commission, who are there to do a good job and to network between the national and the European.