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EU institutions desperately need Brits!

by Fiona Christie on October 22, 2010

The Foreign Office on Monday afternoon 18th October was full to the brim with the great and the good of University Language departments and Careers Services. A daunting number of professors present. All of us had been invited to hear Nick Clegg, William Hague and David Lidington talk about “Communicating EU Careers to Students”.

On arrival apologies were given to us from Nick Clegg and a letter distributed in which he talked about his own experience of working in Europe and he wrote “We desperately need good British officials in the EU institutions, pursuing our values, our views and our ambitions”.

William Hague began proceedings by expressing his grave concern about the diminishing numbers of British nationals working in the EU institutions. David Lidington, Minister for Europe went on to talk about the generation gap in British officials at the EU. It seems that many of the British nationals working in the EU are of the “Baby Boomer” generation working at fairly senior level but there are very few British “Generation Y” staff working at the entry grades. David Lidington said British people working for the EU should not be considered as representing Britain (that’s the job of the MEPs after all) but rather having British people working in the EU helps to contribute to “due weight” being given to British influence within the EU institutions. The British in the EU are known for their pragmatism and efficiency, he said.

OK so no prize for the underlying reason for a lot of this – the British are lousy at languages (I include yours truly in that) and to get a job in the EU you do need to have a working knowledge of at least one other European language even though 70% of the work of the EU is done in English. Big problem…meanwhile most other European graduates will routinely speak English in addition to the mother tongue (at least).

David Bearfeld, Head of EPSO, the European Personnel and Selection Office (and a Salford alumni, I am chuffed to say) gave the most informative presentation giving us some facts which included

  • Over a third of EU staff are due to retire in the next 10 years
  • The UK population represents 12% of the EU population but only 6% of EU staff are British.
  • Last year only 1.44% of applicants to the EU were from the UK. That’s 700 applications in total (that’s terrible)

David Bearfeld also admitted that the system of applications for the EU is simply out-dated and overly bureaucratic; currently an individual could expect to take 16 months to go through the selection and open competition processes. So EPSO plans to speed things up. It is introducing computer-based pre-selection methods, a clear competency-based framework and also allowing individuals to do the Councours in their mother tongue (good for the Brits).

It was stressed that for many generalist EU jobs a mother tongue English speaker would be expected to have ‘A’ level standard language ability, though obviously translating and interpreting roles the standard would be vastly higher.  Once in post, you would have to be motivated to get much better at languages though.

This move from the government to encourage our students and graduates to apply for the EU is welcome. However, there were lots of questions from the floor which exposed the deep-seated problems with Brits working for the EU.  University staff  commented on the fact that Modern Language learning is still not a big enough priority in the British education system.  The Commercialisation of Higher Education means that some Languages departments and courses are shutting; the coalition government has abolished the statutory expectation that children should learn a language in primary schools; languages are also not a popular choice in secondary schools (they don’t even have German though they have Spanish and French at my son’s school which is an excellent Manchester comprehensive!). So effectively we are not doing enough to stem to tide of monolingualism amongst mother tongue British speakers. One academic did stand up with a bit of good news and say that there is a growth in the number of students who are doing a language module as a part of their degree programme – he estimated 75,000 in total in the UK. David Lidington said he’d talk to David Willetts and Michael Gove about this! I’d love to be a fly on the wall.

For more information – EU Careers

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Fiona Christie November 2, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Here is some of the feedback from the event and additional information we have been sent by the FCO:

Key emerging themes from the day

1) Many found it helpful to know about the changes to the EU recruitment system which helps candidates from the UK. This is summarised below.

In 2010 the application process changed to one which British graduates will be much more familiar with:
* the ‘EU knowledge’ test has been removed;
* the system is now ‘competencies’ based (testing skills and behaviours);
* assessment exercises (reasoning tests, group exercises etc) are similar to those used in the UK; and
* the whole application process will be completed within 9 months.

In 2011 there will be two more helpful changes:

* only the final stage (assessment centre) has to be done in French or German;
* undergraduates in their final year will be able to apply.

2) There was widespread support for encouraging graduates to consider the EU as a career destination.

3) Many thought a good way of getting the message across was to ensure that EU civil servants and government representatives took time out to visit universities to spread the word and illustrate to students what an EU career could ‘look like’.

4) There is enthusiasm for EPSO’s pilot EU ambassador scheme, and a hope that it can be rolled out more widely.

5) Negative media coverage of the EU does not help get messages across.

6) We need to communicate that an EU career can give graduates real influence over issues they feel passionate about (eg climate change), to negate any impression that it is all about bureaucracy and processes.

7) Competence in foreign languages would help British graduates feel closer to the EU (though most of the work within the EU is now conducted in English).

8) Our communications should also consider that most language students may not be interested in a career that is language focused, and target undergraduates taking a language module as part of a broader degree.

9) The FCO’s short term focus on language students and graduates aims to increase the numbers of applications with good standard of French and German for the EU Recruitment registration process in March 2011. However, in the medium term, we will also be targeting graduates from other disciplines and specialisms with sufficient French and German skills, as well as those with less developed language skills who can supplement them with modules to get through the recruitment process.

Further information

Below are some websites that are helpful resources for graduates considering a career in Europe. Pease feel free to circulate these amongst those who have an interest.

* FCO website: a basic guide of the different options available when thinking of a career in the EU –
* European Fast Stream: information on the UK European Fast Stream process and how to apply –
* UK representation in Brussels: Brussels focused pages on opportunities within the EU –
* EU Careers website: graduates apply here and find information about the application process and existing jobs. Includes dates to apply, sample tests and useful links-
* EU Careers Facebook pages: Students can follow (or ‘like’) the page to receive regular updates. They can also ask questions on the ‘Wall’. -
* EU Careers on Twitter: get updates on EU Careers and take part in Q&A sessions –

Where we go from here

Our campaign to raise awareness of EU careers is an ongoing one. We’re working with a number of partners to drive it forward. We’d like to keep you informed of initiatives that we set up over the course of the next academic year. For example we’re shortly producing a graduate survey and are exploring the idea of a digital EU recruitment fair to promote to graduates at the turn of the New Year.


AK November 15, 2010 at 5:41 pm

They would have no problems finding British workers if they could actually PAY them properly. Too many jobs barely cross the minimum wage line nowadays.
They also need to allow on-the-job training for people who have potential but may possess other skills. There are so many hidden talents out there – but the EU is too conservative and narrow minded to utilize the people around them.

Just look at the U.S.: with no background in a specific field, you can rise to enormous heights anyways, on your input and willingness to learn alone.

EU has a lot to learn from the U.S….


EU Hopeful February 13, 2011 at 2:04 am

Personally I am British and I would love to work for the EU. I was one of the 1.44% of British candidates who applied to the last concours. But I didn’t make it past the first round. I have got everything I need to work at the EU (relevant experience, proven ability to do the work, relevant degree and respectable foreign language skills) but I just didn’t pass the CBT test with high enough marks. What can / will the UK government do to help people like me?


EU Hopeful February 13, 2011 at 2:42 am

I should add I did apply to the European Fast Stream in 2009 but was knocked out at the first stage with the same problem – not high enough marks in the computer based testing. A bit ironic really….


Fiona Christie February 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Dear EU Hopeful – Thanks for commenting. Have you managed to get any feedback from them. They were talking about providing extra coaching/advice etc. I know it’s EU Careers month now – so there should be real reps from EU on campuses this month – I know we have some staff visiting on 23rd Feb to Salford to our Languages event. Perhaps you should be writing a polite letter to David Lidington….


EU Hopeful February 14, 2011 at 9:39 am

Hi Fiona,
thanks for replying! Actually I did not think to ask for feedback – the information I was given was that I passed the CBT but my marks were not high enough to progress to the next stage, and I saw on facebook that some candidates scored 35 or more out of 40 so I knew I really fell short. Do you have any more information about the coaching that might be provided? But I’ll look into attending a campus event…and yes, it would be very interesting to write to David Lidington!


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