Eurocrats: Blair backs Britain to run the show

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair wants to swell the top ranks of the Eurocracy with Britons. But the hurdles in the way of new EU civil servants are high. Katherine Butler reports

British Eurocrats - 2,500 in all - were bemused to return to their Brussels and Luxembourg offices this week to find a letter nestling in their in-trays and E-mail boxes, signed simply "Tony Blair".

As Britain takes over the European Union presidency, the Prime Minister wrote: "I want to let you all know the respect and admiration which I have for the work which British citizens ... carry out within our European Institutions ... I know too that during the British Presidency the work you do in the service of all Europe's citizens will contribute greatly towards achieving the goals we have set ourselves of a Europe working for the people."

The letter appeared designed to offer amends for almost 20 years during which British EU civil servants were almost too embarrassed to admit their nationality, as a hostile London government used every opportunity to block the Commission's projects and ridicule its ideals.

But coinciding with the launch of the British EU presidency and the Blair plan to "rebrand" Europe in new Labour's image, it also looks to some insiders as a slightly ominous rallying call. Those who have grown used to working independently of London in the service of "Europe", fear they are being asked to remember where their national loyalties lie.

"He is telling us we are all great, but reading between the lines he seems also to be saying `don't forget you are British and we are going to be in charge now'," was the reaction of one high ranking British Eurocrat.

Indeed, a new government drive to groom a new generation of Britons capable of nabbing senior posts in the Eurocracy would seem to back up the theory that Blair sees a much stronger British presence at the top ranks of the EU institutions as one of the keys to his aim of getting Europe to follow Britain, rather than the other way around.

Competitions for top level vacancies in the European Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers will be announced shortly. A clear strategy has been mapped out by a special unit within the Cabinet Office to counter the traditional unwillingness of Britons, compared to other nationalities, to consider a career in Europe.

The Blair initiative will be welcomed by many who regard a geographical balance, and a more representative civil service as essential to a democratic EU. But while getting the "right" people to apply is one thing, ensuring they clear the hurdles on the path to Eurocracy quite another.

One of the problems is the notorious French inspired "concours". This is a massive public competition - 50,000 competed in the last one in 1993 for 200 places. Candidates are brutally weeded out by a bizarre general knowledge quiz featuring such teasers as: which armies fought the battle of Aboukir? Or: when was nylon invented?

In one recent competition for a senior administrative post fewer than 1 per cent of British applicants got through, suggesting that too few people capable of giving continentals a run for their money when it comes to European history or culture can be bothered to apply. Now the Government is offering potential candidates detailed advice, reading lists and even targeted training to help them overcome the cultural and linguistic obstacles.

Competition is cut-throat for the the 28,000 or so jobs in the EU's main institutions. EU hierarchy divides civil servants into grades from A (the most coveted senior administrative posts, where basic salary before generous allowances are added can top pounds 110,000 a year), down through the ranks to D grades, including ushers and doormen (basic salary around pounds 25,000) who are almost exclusively Belgian and Italian.

While EU officials are supposed to serve "Europe" not their countries, an unofficial "quota" system operates to ensure a rough balance of nationalities. particularly in the policy-framing Commission, by far the biggest employer. Jobs at the most senior level usually go to member state appointees or the personal advisers of Commissioners, rather than to foot soldiers who have worked their way up.

The Government is hoping to drum up interest in the lower and middle echelons of the A ranks, where it considers Britain to be still under- represented despite a near doubling from 4.7 per cent to around 10 per cent during the 1992 to 1994 period. These are the grades where the brightest graduates, or graduates with around five years' experience, are taken on.

Prospective candidates face a multi-choice pre-selection quiz which is being reformed to answer criticism of pro-French and anti-women bias (fewer questions on sport for example). Those who get through sit a gruelling written stage where they may be asked for an essay, for example, on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy. The final stage is a 45 minute oral exam which also tests foreign language skills.

Anyone tempted by the salary and the lure of a European lifestyle should put themselves on the Vacancy Information Service database which is operated by the European Staffing Unit, Cabinet Office, Horseguards Road, London SW1P 3AL.