Out of Brussels: Getting into Europe can be a hell of a job

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IT SOUNDS like a graduate's dream job. Live and work in sunny Brussels, issuing orders to the British government in London. Salary: about pounds 31,500 a year before tax. Perks include two months' removal allowance, Euro-schools for your children when they come, and a month's holiday in August. Qualifications: university degree, a foreign language at A-level, and aged under 32.

This is actually a real job, and applications for about 150 places are open until 24 August. Before you apply to work for the European Commission, however, you should pause for thought. For one thing, the Commission is a less powerful institution than it was in the late 1980s days of the Community rampant, when it felt itself able to stick its nose into anything and everything. Nowadays, the shibboleth is 'subsidiarity', which means leaving things to national or local governments unless there is a good reason not to.

More important, though, getting a job at the European Commission is not quite so easy as it sounds. After filling in your application form, you are invited to sit an examination in London. It has two stages: first, late this year, a basic multiple choice, to test intelligence, current affairs, knowledge of the Community and competence in a second language. Then, if a computer thinks you passed the first, a more serious test, including an essay paper, 'Is the European Court of Justice a political or a constitutional court?', and a sample in-tray to work through.

That is barely the beginning. Those who score well get flown to Brussels for a formal selection board, receiving daily subsistence of 25 ecu. (Don't bother to apply if you need to ask what that is in real money). Perhaps a year from now, the 150 or so best of the 10,000 expected candidates will be put on the 'reserve list'.

Only then do the 150 have the right to look for a real job, touting their skills around the various directorates-general of the EC bureaucracy, trying to catch the eye of a senior Eurocrat with their knowledge of every subject from raspberry-growing to semiconductors. Some will be successful quickly; others may not actually step through the door of the Breydel building in Brussels for their first day of work until 1995.

This system - borrowed from the French bureaucracy - is one that the Commission has used for a generation. It has its advantages: in particular, it is a good way to find talented, public-spirited lawyers and economists in France and Belgium.

But it is also inflexible, and makes it nigh impossible for the Commission to find talented civil servants at short notice. Because the number of its employees - 4,000 in the professional grades, at the last count - is determined by the EC's 12 member states, the Commission has so far been unable to hire regularly every year. Miss one concours, as the open competitions are known, and it may be another two years until the next.

There are also the unions to contend with. Despite the fact that the Commission's employees are of 12 different nationalities, they make it hard for any changes to be carried out. Disgruntled applicants have even been known to take the Community to court - to the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg, whose case-load is choked with complaints from the Community's own litigious civil servants.

But things are changing. After years of complaint from Britain, officials say the competition is henceforth to become an annual event. And a study is being prepared, by a Briton, on how the Commission might improve its recruitment procedures.

Yet the civil service in London is not relying on Brussels for its salvation. A scheme has been set up, the first in the EC, to get more Brits into Brussels. Known as the European Fast Stream, it consists of hiring 30-odd university graduates and giving them temporary jobs in the UK civil service while they go through the painful application process. In the meantime, they get language training, EC-related work, and the occasional freebie to Brussels or Luxembourg; when the time comes, contacts at the British representation in Brussels will help ease them into powerful slots up the road at the Commission.

In the long term, however, the scheme may face a problem. Attractive though they are for new graduates, more senior Commission salaries soon start to fall behind those of British diplomats abroad. The European Fast Stream may be a way into the future government of a federal Europe; for money, stick to diplomacy any day.