What does austerity mean for EU civil servants?
by Justin Stares
While there is talk of downsizing, the European Union's civil service is unlikely to face any of the severe cutbacks seen in the bloc's periphery
The pay and perks of officials are under attack. The European Commission wants to increase the basic pensionable age from 63 to 65. Overall staff numbers are due to fall by around 5 per cent, while the working week is to be lengthened slightly. But these are not "key issues", says Pierre-Philippe Bacri – who is president of the European Civil Service Federation, the union representing staff across the institutions. "Most staff already put in a working week of 40 hours or more," he tells PublicServiceEurope.com.
What the federation wants, he says, is to avoid greater use of agency staff among the secretarial grades. "To maintain a competent civil service, we need people coming from all over Europe," he adds. Greater use of agency staff would see a big influx of Belgian secretaries into the Brussels institutions. The European Parliament, in Strasbourg, would get more than its current share of French natives and the European Court of Justice, in Luxembourg, would presumably find itself teeming with Luxemburgish-speaking locals. "We need to maintain the geographical balance," the union president explains. "We refuse to see these people turned into contractual agents".
There are between 3,000 and 4,000 secretarial grade staff working for the EU. Contracting out their jobs to agencies could weaken the union movement. Other than this controversial point, negotiations are otherwise focusing on technicalities such as staff promotion schemes. There is, Bacri says, no justification for replicating the dramatic cutbacks seen in countries such as Ireland and Greece. The EU's civil service is not bloated, he claims. Its salary scheme has been designed to reflect the trend across all member states.
While this trend is undoubtedly downwards in the most cash-strapped countries, other administrations are doing very nicely. In Germany, he points out; civil servants will this year have their Christmas bonus doubled. Unlike supranational officials, civil servants in some member states are still paid 13th and even 14th-month salaries as year-end bonuses. "Downsizing in some countries means applying a diet for a sumo wrestler," says Bacri. "The same diet should not be applied to an anorexic."
And EU salaries would normally be increased by a fixed formula reflecting the average across member states, though this year the European Council - which represents national governments - has signalled its intention to bypass the formula by invoking an emergency clause applicable when there is a "serious and sudden deterioration of the economic and social situation in the EU". Bacri says the onus is on the council to prove that the EU as a whole has, indeed, suffered such a deterioration. If it can, this year's pay rise could be pared down, or even put to zero.
On its website, the federation says it "embraces a modern trade union spirit, which goes beyond confrontational relationships between employer and employee". This, though, has not stopped federation chiefs from warning the commission that members will strike if their deal is unsatisfactory. A meeting called to back the federation's negotiating stance was attended by around 2,000 staff, Bacri says. At the same time, he downplays the threat of industrial action. "It was just a warning," he says. Past strikes by Brussels bureaucrats have not shown any signs of rampant militancy; a half-day stoppage in 2009 was designed to allow normal business to continue.
And despite a ramping up of the tension between negotiators, there is no expectation of compulsory redundancies. Any workforce reduction will be achieved through natural wastage, such as by not replacing those who retire. The cuts will, if the federation gets its way, be "reversible" when the good times return. Neither will staff face forced salary cuts. All savings will be phased in over several years, says Bacri. Like all things European, the pace of change is gradual.
Meanwhile, the EU is expected to function with some 30 000 officials or so - as much as the city of Mulhouse/mulhausen in Alsace. The French ministry of finance, alone, has three times as many. Ridicule does not kill, but regular attacks do kill a civil service.
vieilledent catherine - brussels