EU gives work experience a new meaning: £74,000 salary

Never can work experience have been so enticing or lucrative.

In May, one top official from each of the 10 countries about to join the EU will take up a six-month post as a European commissioner.

Each will earn a gross salary of £74,000 or €18,000 (£12,400) a month and enjoy the trappings of life as a commissioner, including an official car with a driver, an office and a small team of aides. But what they will not have is a proper job.

Though the newcomers will vote in formal meetings, they will not control a department, but spend six months "shadowing" existing commissioners. They have already been nicknamed the "trainees with Mercedes".

This arrangement is the most tangible example of the logistical problems posed by the EU's expansion to include 10 new, mainly former Communist, countries. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta become members of the EU on 1 May.

To recognise their new status, each will gain a seat on the commission, which already has 20 members (one per country except for the biggest nations which, until the end of the year, have the right to send two representatives).

However, the timetable for enlargement does not dovetail with the tenure of the existing commission, led by the former Italian premier, Romano Prodi. It is due to finish its term in office on 31 October.

That leaves the tricky six-month interim period and, since this stretches over the summer holiday period, it hardly seemed worthwhile re-organising the entire commission. Instead, the powers-that-be hit on the idea of giving the 10 new commissioners - most of whom are expected to become members of the next commission - a few months to acclimatise while enjoying symbolic parity.

"Nobody can imagine how this is all going to work," said a diplomat from an acceding country. "Of course it will depend on the personalities of those selected. But I think it will be very difficult to leave the new commissioners to do the photocopying."

A colleague from an existing EU member state added: "Of course there is a whiff of the absurd about it. But the symbolism of giving the new countries a commissioner with full voting rights from day one is important."

Nonetheless, many issues remain unresolved as the new nations try to get to grips with how the system will operate. The portfolios to be shadowed have yet to be decided, which means that office space cannot be allocated in the right buildings. Then there is the question of whether each new commissioner should get a press spokesperson, or whether that task should be left to a member of their private office or cabinet (which will be slightly smaller than those of existing commissioners).

The identity of the newcomers is still be finalised. The 10 new nations are nominating their candidates who have to be approved by Mr Prodi, and by the European Parliament. As those who arrive in May are expected to continue into the next commission, the posts are hotly contested.

Mr Prodi, who struggled to get the existing 15 EU countries to nominate five female commissioners in 1999, has set a target of three new women.

That looks likely to be met. Poland, the biggest of the new countries, is expected to nominate its well-regarded Europe minister, Danuta Hübner, despite some political opposition at home. Latvia has nominated its Foreign Minister, Sandra Kalniete, and Lithuania is expected to put forward its Finance Minister, Dalia Grybauskaite.

Quite what this team of over-achievers will make of their spell as office interns remains to be seen.

But as one diplomat put it: "€18,000 a month is a lot of money, particular in eastern Europe.

"I don't think they are going to be losing too much sleep about the situation."

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