The Commonwealth Will Save Us

Ah, the Commonwealth – that quaint relic of British imperialism. Or, as some Brexiters see it, the panacea to our Brexit woes. Surely our loyal former colonies will help us fill the trade gap caused by leaving the EU?

If this is the UK’s plan, then it is going about it in a strange way. Shouldn’t the Government be trying to drum up goodwill among Commonwealth countries to lay the groundwork for a boost in trade?

Theresa May looking characteristically uncomfortable during a trip to India, the Commonwealth’s most populous nation

But no. Instead, the Government has been deporting elderly people to Commonwealth countries they’ve never set foot in. These are people of the so-called ‘Windrush’ generation, who were invited to Britain in the late 1940s to help rebuild it after WWII. Their children are now being asked to prove that they’re here legally.

A minor error, easily cleared up with a bit of diplomacy, you might think? The sort of thing that could perhaps be smoothed over at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this week?

Again, no. With trademark cluelessness, Downing Street ‘has rejected a formal diplomatic request to discuss the immigration problems experienced by some Windrush-generation British residents at this week’s meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government, rebuffing a request from representatives of 12 Caribbean countries for a meeting with the prime minister’. So, a big British two fingers up to the Commonwealth before the meeting has even started.

Undaunted by her own incompetence, Theresa May then opened the CHOGM with a call for increased trade between the UK and the Commonwealth nations. ‘Give us your trade but take back your people,’ was basically the message.

This ties in with analysis by Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, who views UK plans to substitute EU trade for Commonwealth trade with derision. He writes:

…when it comes to the genuinely vast potential of the Indian market, a UK government driven by the anti-immigration agenda of leave voters is unlikely to make great strides in that direction. For example, India seems likely to want a relaxation of visa restrictions on its nationals in return for trade liberalisation. Certainly, the issue of immigration overshadowed Theresa May’s visit there in November 2016, leading to accusations that the UK wanted India’s business, but not its people. And whatever the future holds, invoking the name of the Commonwealth is unlikely to oil the wheels of any trade deal.

Put simply, free trade often goes hand in hand with the free movement of people. That this should be any different when trading with Commonwealth countries as opposed to EU countries is symptomatic of the Brexiteers’ fantasy that you can get something for nothing. Still, at least the Commonwealth Games should be fun.

R.

Advertisements

Crumbs of Comfort

Hello again from Brussels. A small crumb of comfort tumbled down from the Brexit smorgasbord this week. At a meeting on Wednesday, the Commission agreed that British employees would not be summarily fired on 29 March 2019 (i.e. Brexit D-Day) which, incidentally, is in exactly one year from today.

Up to now the position of British staff had been looking precarious. One condition for employment at the Commission is to be an EU national, as laid out in Article 28 (a) SR of the Treaty on the European Union:

« an official may be appointed only on condition that he is a national of one of the Member States of the Union (…) »

In turn, Article 49 of the EU Staff Regulation allows for the dismissal of employees who no longer fulfil the Commission’s employment criteria. Article 50 of the same document also provides for forced retirement ‘in the interests of the service’, which is a much more vague and flexible means of getting rid of staff.

As the UK is the only country that has ever left the EU, there is no precedent for handling members of staff who are nationals of a seceding state. Interestingly though, the Commission apparently employs four Norwegians and one Icelander – citizens of states which were planning to join the EU, but never got around to it. This means that employing nationals of a non-EU state is apparently possible.

Luckily (for people like me) the Commission has now ended speculation. It decided on Wednesday that permanent officials would not be forced into retirement under Article 49 except where there was a conflict of interest with regard to international obligations (i.e. if they were working on trade deals with the UK, for example). This echoes what the Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, Günther Oettinger, suggested in July 2017.

Commissioner Oettinger – the future of UK staff is in his hands.

Not being a permanent official myself, though, I was more interested in the second part of the agreement pertaining to ‘contractual agents’ (i.e. me). Contract Agents are employed on shorter-term contracts, usually for only 12 months (though if renewed enough times the contract will become permanent). In this case the Commission decided as follows:

« la Commission est légalement tenue d’effectuer une analyse au cas par cas afin d’autoriser des exceptions dûment justifiées à l’exigence de nationalité prévue par le régime applicable aux autres agents ; la Commission s’engage toutefois à ce que l’autorité habilitée à conclure des contrats fasse un usage généreux et transparent de cette possibilité de dérogation ; son appréciation sera fondée sur l’intérêt du service. »

Or, in English, the Commission will decide on a case by case basis which British Contract Agents it will continue to employ ‘in the interests of the service’. As such this is not a guarantee that my time at the Commission will last long after Brexit, but it does mean that I probably won’t be fired on the spot on Brexit Day (or ‘Independence Day’ depending which camp you fall into).

If all goes well my current contract will be renewed in February 2019. However, while I will probably not be fired for being British, there is still no guarantee that the contract will be renewed again in February 2020. The Commission’s decision talks only about keeping staff who currently have a contract, and not about offering staff further contracts in the future.

All of which means I have 12 months to somehow become a permanent official… Or get another passport. Both of which are unlikely!

R.

Thank Goodness for Distractions

Last week, the UK and EU agreed a Brexit deal so embarrassing for the UK, that Theresa May must have been glad of the distraction of impending nuclear war.

It seems that the UK has agreed to leave Northern Ireland in the single market if no other solution can be found. The UK will also have a transition phase of 21 months (lasting from the end of March 2019 to the end of December 2020). During that period, the UK will have to abide by EU laws on fishing, and any EU citizens who arrive in the UK will have the same rights as EU citizens who were there before. Apparently this arrangement will be reciprocal. By which I mean GET OUT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN, Brits! Nobody wants to be on that last boat from Dover on 31 December 2020, escaping from Brexit Britain like the last chopper out of Saigon.

To cap it all, we also learned that the new blue British passport will be made by a Franco-Dutch firm. The rival plucky British firm was outbid. Embarrassing! Where is a proud Brexiteer to hide?

A sexy burgundy passport on the left, and an uncool, unfashionable blue passport on the right.

Luckily There Was Russia

Luckily we didn’t have to focus too hard on Brexit, thanks to all the sabre-rattling between London and Moscow. Are we getting a taste for how cold the world might be outside the EU? Is this perhaps the wrong time to be isolating ourselves from our democratic friends in Europe?

Surely not. As we all know, the real enemy is not Putin and his nukes, but rather the cheese-munching bureaucrats of Brussels. Get your priorities right, Remoaners!

Cambridge Analytica

Even Putin could only do so much to help Theresa May’s government save face. Now we are learning that Facebook data may have been unlawfully used in election campaigns, possibly even in the Brexit referendum. Hence why you may have seen the annoying advert below in your Facebook feed.

Very sneaky. Making it look like Brexit is pro-immigration and anti-racist. I wonder how many people fell for it.

And what about funding? Apparently funds were misused by Vote Leave. And according to an insider who worked in the pro-Brexit youth organisation BeLeave, the people at the top of the Leave campaign all knew about it. Did this make a difference in the referendum outcome? Sadly, I fear not. But it’s still pretty naughty.

The Remoaners of UKREP

Last weekend I spoke to someone with direct personal knowledge of the mood at UKREP. UKREP, of course, is the UK’s embassy in Brussels and its point of contact with the European Institutions. You may remember I visited their offices as a trainee, where I was spun the party line about how hard all the Brexiteers had been thinking about Brexit, and how it wasn’t just a mad exercise in self-delusion.

According to my contact, the mood these days at UKREP is grim. The people working there are mostly Remain voters. Now they are having to break apart all the progress and agreements made during the UK’s 40-odd years of EU membership. Morale is low. There is a high turnover of staff. Politicians are flown in from London to tell them what a great job they’re doing and how this will be a Good Thing for Britain. Even Boris Johnson was here this week to give them a pep talk. On top of this, Theresa May micro-manages every file, every document, but is unable to make up her mind about anything. She dithers.

The only good news from UKREP is that they will probably be hiring soon. With all the extra work they have to do thanks to Brexit, there are rumours that UKREP will have to double in size. Maybe they’ll keep a chair warm for me when I lose my Commission job in 2 years’ time?

R.

A Proper Contract

The wait is over. A dream has come true! On a bitterly cold day in March 2018, I signed a proper contract with the European Commission. No longer am I an interimaire, employed by a Belgium temp agency and signing week-long contracts every Friday. I am now a fully paid-up member of staff for the next 12 months. Hooray!

As the contract will end at the end of February 2019, there is the possibility to renew it for another 12 months. Because at that point, Brexit will not yet have happened. Whether the contract can be renewed a second time in February 2020 is anyone’s guess. Maybe Theresa May will put in a good word for me?

Theresa and Jean-Claude hashing out the fine print of my contract

A job like this was of course what I was hoping for when I first arrived in Brussels, a bright-eyed trainee still reeling from the Brexit vote, back in October 2016. I applied for this contract in April 2017 when the vacancy notice was posted. After exams in September and an interview in October, I was finally offered the position last month. So all in all, it has taken 17 months of slogging away in Brussels, and about 10 months of going through the application process. It is unlikely that many of the new British trainees who arrived at the Commission yesterday will have time to get the kind of contract I have now received. After all, there are only 12 months until Brexit D-Day on 29th March 2019.

And so, while it is great to have this new 1-year (perhaps 2-year) job, it is tinged with sadness that I might be one of the last Brits to be recruited by the European Institutions. These contracts are only offered to EU citizens, and when we stop being EU citizens they will no longer be offered to us. But even if it’s only for a year or two, getting this contract is a way of hanging my colours to the mast. Come what may, I will have worked for the European Commission as an EU citizen. This is my two fingers up to Brexit.

R.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, my fellow Europhiles. Or as they say here: Gelukkig Nieuwjaar and Bonne Année! What does 2018 hold for us in terms of Brexit? Will we have our cake? Will we eat it? Does anyone know?

I’ve been quiet on the blog of late. Mostly because, surprisingly, no one in Brussels tends to share confidential Brexit details with me. Nobody has sidled up to me in bars to whisper European secrets into my ear. As such, I don’t really have much to share except my own views and opinions. But that, of course, is why online blogs were invented!

Farage, Davis and Barnier

You have to feel for poor Michel Barnier. On Monday he had a meeting with Nigel Farage here in Brussels. Farage’s stated aim was to put across the views of the 17.4million Leave voters, whom he feared were not being represented in the negotiations. Strange. Mostly I’ve felt like it’s ONLY the views of the Leave voters that are being represented in the negotiations. The view of most Remainers, probably, would be not to have any negotiations at all.

Afterwards, Farage stood outside the Berlaymont building wearing a naff hat, and gave his account of how the meeting had gone. Mr Barnier, he claimed, didn’t understand why Brexit was happening, and was ‘surprised’ to hear that the main reason people voted for Brexit was because of EU migrants to the UK. And you know what? Nigel is probably right on that. It is worth reminding ourselves that a huge factor in the success of the Leave campaign was xenophobia. Global Britain, I think not.

In this disturbing image, Nigel Fartage (left) is wearing a hat.

The other crumb of Brexit news is David Davis’s leaked letter to Theresa May, complaining that the EU is warning British companies about the risks of a no-deal scenario. The EU has warned businesses to prepare for Britain being a ‘third country’ (i.e. not an EU member state) as of March next year. ‘This is discrimination!’ says Davis.

Pardon? Didn’t the UK vote to be a third country? Why is he surprised?

The EU is doing what the UK should in fact be doing, and preparing for all eventualities. Theresa May has repeatedly threatened to walk away without a deal if the negotiations don’t go well. Excuse the EU for taking her seriously and preparing for just such an outcome.

But what does my opinion matter. It certainly doesn’t matter to David Davis.

I’ll just have to content myself with reading Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit and sending fan mail to Anna Soubry.

The Remainers’ Bible

R.

 

Languages at the European Commission

The European Union has 24 official languages. However, running an office in 24 different languages would be mad. For ease of business, the EU has 3 so-called ‘working languages’: these are English, French and German.

The 24 official EU languages

Employees of the EU Institutions are expected to know at least one, and preferably two, of these. Anybody applying to work at the Commission, for example, has to fulfil the following language criteria:

  • (1) You must be fluent in one of the 24 official EU languages.
  • (2) You must also be more-or-less fluent in one of the 3 working languages (EN, FR, DE)

(In my own case, my language (1) is English, and my language (2) is German.)

Does this mean that meetings will be held in a mix of all 3 working languages? Can you ask questions to strangers in German? No. You cannot.

Wo ist die Toilette?

It’s no great secret that the main working language of the Commission is English. From my experience here, the 3 languages are used as follows:

  • English is used 90% of the time.
  • French is used 10% of the time.
  • German is used 0% of the time.

German is used by Germans talking to other Germans.*

“You are also from Germany?”

Last Man Standing

So far, in my 12 months at the Commission, I’ve cruised along without ever really having to speak any French at all. It’s true that French is the social language in some departments. For meetings and official business, however, everything has always been in English.

Or so it was…until now!

Recently, due to staff turnover, the linguistic makeup of my team has become increasingly French-heavy. It was with a creeping sense of horror that I looked around the table at a recent team meeting and realised that I was the only colleague left in the department who was not fluent in French. And so the nightmare began.

Over the past weeks there have been more meetings in French, emails in French, ‘brainstorming sessions’ in French. All this is very frustrating when you are meant to be taking the minutes.

I don’t know what this means for my career prospects. Maybe I’ll just send round the minutes in German next time and see what happens. What could go wrong?

“Here are your German minutes.”

Or, I guess, I could learn French.

R.

*And Austrians.

Passing the EPSO CAST exam

Lots of Brexit-related things have happened in the past few weeks. Theresa May spelt out her ‘vision’ for Brexit in a speech in Florence. Boris Johnson spelt out his competing ‘vision’ for Brexit in a 4000-word article in The Telegraph. The European Parliament backed Michel Barnier’s refusal to begin trade negotiations with the UK. The Tory Party Conference started in Manchester. Catalonia held an independence referendum. And, if anyone noticed, Germany had a general election.

Angela who?

However perverse it may seem in the circumstances, my own quiet strategy for getting through Brexit has been to get a proper job at the European Commission. Today, I came a step closer.

Job Types

The Commission’s recruitment procedures are complicated and arcane. As I understand it, starting positions at the Commission belong to the following ascending scale:

  1. trainees
  2. interimaires
  3. contract agents
  4. administrators

1. Trainees

Trainees or ‘stagiaires’ come to Brussels and work for the Commission for a 5-month stint. There are two 5-month sessions every year, for which about 600 trainees are hired in each case. The application process is long, but the position is paid, and looks good on your CV afterwards. The fact is, though, that mostly a traineeship does not lead to a job with the EU.

2. Interimaires

Interimaires are hired by the Commission to ‘fill in’ for full-time staff who are on long leave (sick leave, maternity leave, sabbatical leave, trip to the rainforest to ‘find themselves’ etc). They are hired through a temping agency called Randstad. They sign a week-by-week contract, and can in theory also be dismissed from one week to the next. (See previous blog entry on interimaires.) After 6 months of continuous employment, they are legally obliged to take a month off, for which they are not paid. This is meant to discourage employers from hiring interimaires long-term. However, there are people at the Commission who have been working as interimaires for 3 years or longer (taking a 1-month break every 6 months, of course). Interimaires are usually former trainees who were there at the right time, and who are hanging on in the hope of getting a more permanent job.

3. Contract Agents

This is where it gets interesting. Contract Agents are full employees of the Commission. The salary is a big step up from that of an interimaire. Their jobs are more secure, and they usually get a contract of between one and three years. They have the jobs that the interimaires and the trainees all want. Unfortunately, the path to a Contract Agent position is long and gruelling.

4. Administrators

When you are an Administrator, you’ve made it. This is the Golden Fleece. The White Whale. If you become an Administrator, you are set for life. Consequently, becoming an Administrator is very, very difficult. More on this in a future blog post.

Life is good at the top.

The above scale is not necessarily progressive. You don’t have to be a trainee to become an interimaire, and you don’t have to be an interimaire to become a Contract Agent or an Administrator. You don’t have to, but… It helps.

The CAST test

Since April this year, I’ve officially been in the race to become a Contract Agent. It started with creating an EPSO account and filling in the endless text boxes describing my ‘motivation’ and ‘work experience’ and ‘organisational skills’. Sometime in June, I was informed that I’d been ‘pre-selected’. What this means is that the selection committee approved my CV, and decided to send me to sit a CAST exam.

The CAST exam is one of those horrible selection tests that many civil service organisations use to cut down on a high number of applicants. In my case, the test comprised 4 parts:

  1. verbal reasoning (i.e. reading comprehension)
  2. numerical reasoning (i.e. mathematics, mostly interpreting graphs and tables of figures)
  3. abstract reasoning (i.e. picking the next diagram in a series)
  4. competency test (this relates to the job profile for which you applied, e.g. project management, communication, HR – it is mostly trivia-based. For added fun, you have to do this part in a foreign language. I did mine in German.)

Quite what these tests have to do with the actual position advertised is not clear. Abstract reasoning tests supposedly help the Commission pick candidates who can ‘make sense of unfamiliar information’, for example. This is tenuous at best.

Find the next shape in the series. Why? Nobody knows why.

For a while I was confused about why the Commission wanted to hire people who could pick the right shape to complete a series of shapes. Eventually I realised that the Commission doesn’t care whether you can pick out the right shape. The Commission wants to hire the sort of person who is prepared to devote large amounts of time to what is essentially a pointless task. In short, if you can’t be arsed to learn how the sequence of shapes work, then how badly do you really want the job? It’s a shaky argument, but it is an argument. Anyway…

In September I was invited to sit the test. And yesterday I found out that I passed.

The CAST test is hard. I can’t pretend otherwise. If you want to pass it, you have to practice. This isn’t a plug, but the most helpful way to prepare is to buy a package of preparatory questions from a company called EU Training. I started practicing about 3 weeks before the test, and practiced for a couple of hours most evenings. I’m not doing advertising for them, I’m just sharing my experience of what worked.

The next step

Alas, passing the test is not the end of the story. Passing the test simply means you get an invitation to a scary interview in front of a panel of six or more assessors. And, if you pass the interview, you get placed on a ‘reserve list’. This is a list of candidates whom the Commission can contact if and when a position opens up. There aren’t necessarily vacant positions available when the reserve list is compiled. People may be left languishing on the reserve list for up to two years.

The clock is ticking

Two years, in my case, is too long. Unlike trainees and interimaires, to be hired as a Contract Agent you have to be an EU citizen. This means I have to be offered a contract before 29 March 2019, i.e. Brexit D-Day. After that date, no more UK citizens can be hired.

Even with a Contract Agent position, the future after Brexit may not be rosy. Contract Agents have their contracts renewed yearly (I think), and it is largely accepted that Contract Agents from the UK cannot expect their contracts to be renewed after Brexit.

Still, this has been as much about thumbing my nose at the Brexiteers as anything else. Even if it is only for a year, or two years, if I get a proper job at the European Commission, I will have hung my colours to the mast. It may be short and sweet. But it is my best answer to Brexit.

R.