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.

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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.

Eurospeak: Foreseeing the Glash

I was reading about Brexit on the Guardian the other day (as I often am). And who should I stumble across but my dear friend Guy Verhofstadt? You may remember he sent me a very kind email to say that he was doing everything to protect my future.

Anyway, in the Guardian he was suggesting that Theresa May would make an intervention around 21st September which could delay the Brexit negotiations. What is she going to announce? Has she discovered she has an Irish granny? Guy Verhofstadt said:

Apparently there will be an important intervention by the British prime minister in the coming days, it is foreseen on the 21 September.

Brexit aside, one aspect of his statement couldn’t escape my notice. You may have heard of ‘Eurospeak’ – that strange mix of English, French and jargon in which employees of the EU institutions become fluent. Other former trainees have also written quite savagely on the topic of ‘Eurospeak’. ‘Foreseen’ is a common example of Eurospeak.

“Verhofstadt. Guy Verhofstadt.”

At every meeting I’ve attended, somebody has used the word ‘foreseen’ in a way that an English native speaker would not. ‘Our next meeting is foreseen for next Tuesday,’ for example. My guess is that this is a direct translation from the French ‘prévu’, meaning ‘planned’. Or, indeed, a direct translation from the Dutch ‘voorzien’ (Guy Verhofstadt is Flemish). In which case, whenever an EU politician or bureaucrat says ‘foreseen’, he or she probably means ‘planned’.

However, in the first few weeks I thought that nobody knew for sure when the next meeting would be, but that someone had ‘foreseen’ Tuesday as the most likely date whilst gazing into their crystal ball. The first weeks of my traineeship were spent in confusion.

The Joy of Being an English Speaker

Harmless infractions against the English language are just one of the joys of being an English native speaker abroad. Whether you work at the European Commission, or at any company where the majority are not native English speakers, your command of English instantly assigns you the role of ‘chief proofreader’. Colleagues are generally willing to accept your opinion on what is and what isn’t correct English.

The chief proofreader receives another proofreading request.

It is not all plain sailing though. Sometimes your advice is received, and then discarded.

In times gone by I used to work for an online fashion retailer in Germany, where my job was to write descriptions of shoes in English (in retrospect, one of the best jobs I ever had). One day, the company was preparing to launch a new fashion range, and the managers decided to come up with a creative English-sounding name to market it. They asked the small group of UK employees whether they should call the new range ‘Glash’.

The German managers had clearly never seen an episode The Inbetweeners. As such, they were oblivious to the hilarity that this label would cause to their British customers. They didn’t see the problem.

The Inbetweeners. A UK cultural institution.

However, to the members of the UK shoe-description team, the horrible repercussions of releasing ‘Glash’ upon the UK market were very much ‘foreseen’.

But who knows? Maybe after Brexit, European companies won’t bother trying to market things to us at all.

R.

Summer is Over

Hello all! It’s been a while since my last post on Brexit and Brussels. Which is not to say that I haven’t been keeping a close eye on Brexit developments. However, even the most die-hard of Brexit commentators needs a break for the sake of their sanity. I have spent the summer running through fields of wheat, and doing other things similarly naughty.

Due to its lack of wheatfields, I have spent the past few weeks outside of Brussels. As an Interimaire, I’m contractually required to take an unpaid month off after every 5 or 6 months of work. This is supposedly to protect Interimaires from being shamelessly exploited by unscrupulous employers, since it is annoying for said employers to be short-staffed every 5 or 6 months. I think the idea is that the employers are therefore supposed to give Interimaires a more permanent contract. In practice though…

Still, a month off is not to be sniffed at.

Write in if you can spot Theresa May

Summer Round-up

The big Brexit news of the moment has to be Labour’s change of stance, with the Party now supporting UK membership of the Single Market and Customs Union during a transitional period, with the possibility of permanent membership if they can get the EU to agree on reforms to freedom of movement.

As readers of this blog will know, I have not been the biggest fan of Labour’s response to Brexit up to now. Labour’s ambiguous line on Brexit was the main reason I voted for the more vocally pro-EU SNP in the June general election. Infuriatingly, it has taken the Party over a year to stake out a position that is distinct from the Conservatives’, probably out of fear of alienating pro-Brexit Labour voters. But, as Toby Helm writes in The Observer, it has probably now dawned on the Labour leadership that the young voters who supported Labour in June are largely Remainers. As Toby points out, Labour is now the party of ‘soft Brexit’. (That is to say, it is the largest party of soft Brexit. The Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and other small parties have been screaming in the wilderness for a soft Brexit for over a year.)

Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn loitering outside my office earlier this year

This is all well and good, but the fact is that we still have a Tory-DUP government which will be doing the negotiating, and I doubt they’ll be willing to call another general election anytime soon just because the Labour Party has come up with a more attractive alternative to the May-Davis cliff edge scenario. Speaking of which, David Davis is back here in Brussels tomorrow, for all the good that it’ll do any of us.

Contact Form

Today, for the first time in several months, I checked the email address which is linked to this blog. I apologise for not doing so sooner, because one or two readers have written to me, mostly asking for advice about doing a traineeship at the Commission. Or more specifically, asking whether there’s any point applying for it if you’re a UK citizen.

My answer to these enquiries is yes, there is definitely a lot of point in applying. While the UK is still a member state, UK applicants should be assessed under the same criteria as applications from other EU nationalities. My guess is that the EU will not want to discourage the interest of young Brits in the European Union by turning down their traineeship applications out of hand. So go for it, and good luck!

Happy trainees jostling on the Commission’s application website. It can be this good!

Some Light Relief

Somebody has remixed Theresa May’s story about running naughtily through fields of wheat. The addition of a sick beat somehow makes it very watchable.

Cheers,

R.

Guy Verhofstadt is a Lad

In a world with few heroes left, Guy Verhofstadt stands out. Since the Brexit vote last year, Guy has been standing up for the rights of all those left uncertain and dislocated by the referendum result. His CV is long: MEP, leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium… And all-round lad.

Guy Verhofstadt – a ray of hope

In February this year the Independent reported that Guy was hoping to offer “associate EU citizenship” to UK citizens who wanted it. I probably don’t need to tell you how my heart leapt at the prospect. “Thousands” of Brits had already requested a continuation of their EU citizenship, he said. And so, in a flurry of emotion, I looked up Mr Verhofstadt in the EU’s internal email address book, and I fired off a message to him, to add my voice to the chorus.

Imagine my surprise when yesterday I got a reply!

Group hug for anyone who loves the EU!

In a kind email, Guy assured me that he fully understood my worries and uncertainty. It was necessary to “look at what special arrangements could be put in place for individual citizens…who want to continue their relationship with the European Union”, he said. He acknowledged that it would be hard, and that success was not guaranteed. But he finished with the promise that:

I will do everything I can for people like you who feel European, did not vote for Brexit and are concerned that no one is listening to them. I hope this reassures you that your voice is being heard and that I am doing all I can to fight for your rights.

What a top bloke! Guy, you are my knight in shining armour. You join the short list of people who give me any hope about Brexit.

Queen Elizabeth of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha flaunts her EU credentials. I always knew she was on our side!

Now let us turn to the other side. While Guy Verhofstadt, the former PM of Belgium, is championing the rights of me, a British citizen, what is my own government doing?

It is hardly worth wasting time on Theresa May’s “generous” offer to EU citizens residing in the UK, which will involve all 3 million of them applying for something new called “settled status”, in a move which the EU dismissed as “below our expectations”.

“Below our expectations” – Donald Tusk is not impressed

Furthermore, if ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and champion of austerity George Osborne is to be believed, in the days after Brexit, every single member of David Cameron’s cabinet agreed to reassure EU nationals that they would be allowed to stay in the UK. Every single member, that is, except the Home Secretary Theresa May, who blocked the motion.

There was a brief moment after the general election when I felt a bit sorry for Theresa May. Then I was reminded of her “Go Home” vans that she sent into neighbourhoods with high immigrant populations. And her campaign against the Human Rights Act. And that time she lectured a nurse about “magic money trees”. And the xenophobic tone of her first Conservative Party conference. And how she had been determined to force through the hardest of hard Brexits. And now, it turns out, it was her that blocked any chance of citizens’ rights being guaranteed right from the start. This was presumably so that she could later use these people’s lives as bargaining chips.

One of Theresa May’s notorious racist vans

Theresa May waited a year before making any kind of offer on citizens’ rights, and her offer is disappointing. It is very telling of these times that I feel my rights are being better represented by Guy Verhofstadt and the European Union than by my own government in London.

Theresa and Guy – I know who I have more faith in

On a related note, I have not yet written to my new Tory MP as planned in a previous post. I’m waiting to see how long this current government lasts before wasting a stamp.

R.

Post-Election Thoughts From Brussels

It would be churlish, caddish, to kick someone when they’re down. It would be mean to react to the results of Theresa May’s snap election with a resounding HAHAHAHAHA. And so, I will hold back, and chortle silently into my sleeve at my desk here in Brussels, instead.

“Did somebody say ‘hung parliament’?”

A Hung Parliament

After a night spent sitting up to watch the results come in, I am now hanging as badly as our parliament, or, indeed, as badly as Theresa May’s credibility in Brussels. However, it looks as if the Conservatives will cling on to power, with Theresa May at the helm, propped up by the DUP. The DUP’s apparent condition for their support is that Northern Ireland will not get any special treatment in a Brexit deal. Sporting of them to want to be screwed as hard as the rest of us.

Aside from Schadenfreude and Fremdschämen at the Tories losing their majority, there are scant reasons for liberal-minded voters to be cheered by the result. Yes, Labour won more seats under Jeremy Corbyn than under Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband; however, they are still about 60 seats short of a majority. The only way to see it as a good result for Labour is to reflect on how low expectations were at the start of the campaign. Managing expectations has played a role on both sides: despite becoming the biggest party, the Conservatives pitched too high, and made it seem as if anything short of a landslide would be a disappointment. Labour on the other hand was expected to do badly, but instead managed to gain a number of seats. Still, not enough. Meanwhile the Lib Dems and SNP do not hold enough seats between them to prop up a government of progressive alliance with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. Whichever way you cut it, we will still have a Conservative government led by Theresa May.

A slightly saggy and bloated-looking map of the UK election results

North of the Border

As mentioned in a previous post, the political situation in Scotland is different from that in England. The SNP held 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats following the 2015 election; this has been slashed to 35. After years of returning only one MP north of the border, the Conservatives have gained several seats in Scotland including, it irks me to say, my own constituency. Rest assured my pen is a-quiver as I write to congratulate my new MP and ask politely how he plans to champion my rights as a UK citizen living in an EU country. Rest assured I will share his reply.

What is frustrating is that, in many seats where the SNP were unseated by the Conservatives, the difference  was adequately made up by those who voted for Labour and the Lib Dems. So much for voting tactically. In these cases a vote for the SNP would have helped Jeremy Corbyn more than a vote for Labour. Still, not to be helped.

Jean-Claude Juncker showing how much confidence he has in Theresa May’s chances of getting a good Brexit deal

Where Does This Leave Brexit?

The European Commission has reacted with dismay at the fact that they are still unclear who they’ll be negotiating Brexit with. It is no secret that they would have preferred to be dealing with a Prime Minister who represented a firm majority of whatever colour. A Prime Minister with a broad enough support base would have felt more confident making concessions. A Prime Minister clinging to the flimsiest of mandates is more likely to be captive to the demands of ever smaller sections of her own party. If Theresa May is forced to demand things from the EU which are unworkable, simply because she fears the rebelliousness of the hard Brexit right of her party, then the chances of talks collapsing are increased.

Another unfortunate outcome of this election result is that most likely we have not seen the last of the Three Stooges, the Brexit clowns, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris J*hnson. Fearful of angering their supporters in her party, May will be unable to consign them to the political bin, where they have long belonged. Interestingly it was Davis who said, on election night, that if the Conservative majority had been badly reduced, then this was a sign that voters did not support the Tory vision for Brexit. He dropped a saucy hint that remaining in the Single Market might now be an option.

The Three Brexiteers. Humpty, Dumpty and Numpty.

So there is that to hope for. Here in Brussels, one can only look on aghast. The uncertainty and stability caused by the Brexit vote a year ago has continued unabated. So much for strong and stable government. A humiliated Theresa May will now have to show up at the negotiating table, in full knowledge that her credibility is in tatters. We shall see what kind of a Brexit deal that ends up getting us.

It seems needless to add that all this could have been avoided if the British public had voted differently a year ago on 23rd June 2016.

R.

The UK Election: A View From Brussels

In some ways the UK general election tomorrow presents voters with difficult choices. With a hard-right Tory party and a far-left Labour party appearing to be the only real options, many voters will feel that their more centrist views are not represented.

In another way, it is not a hard choice at all. The Conservatives will pursue a hard Brexit, make those needing social care worse off, and allow the reintroduction of fox hunting. And yet, there are Labour voters who say they won’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn because he “just doesn’t look like Prime Minister material”. This is a strange cognitive leap. Even if you can’t picture Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, surely the alternative is not to vote for pure evil?

“Bring me those foxes.” You know pure evil when you see it.

A View Through The Brussels Prism

Here in Brussels, it is hard to forgive Jezzy Corbz for his lacklustre “7 out of 10” performance during the Remain campaign. Barring a surprise Lib Dem landslide, it looks like whichever Prime Minister we end up with after 8 June will be pursuing some form of Brexit. Still, I would much rather have Jez and Keir Starmer negotiating a soft kind of “I can’t believe it’s not Brexit” than Theresa May and D*vid D*vis crashing us out with no deal and no friends.

It is no secret that the powers in Brussels do not like Theresa May. May’s relationship with Angela Merkel is thought to be ‘almost non-existent’. Her pre-Brexit dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier was described by EU sources as ‘disastrous’. Her unwillingness to criticise President Tr*mp for pulling the US out of the Paris climate deal has alienated her from European leaders. Personally, as a UK citizen living in another EU country, I feel ignored by her policies and embarrassed by her government. Never in the short span of my political awareness have I felt less represented by those in power in London.

Best friends.

To The Polling Stations!

It might now seem strange, after all this, when I say that I am not in fact going to vote for Labour. My home constituency, where I will be voting by proxy, is in Scotland. And Scotland, for better or worse, is a whole different kettle of fish. The vocally pro-European SNP has swallowed much of the Labour vote, with the result that the election has successfully been presented as a two-horse race between the SNP and the Conservatives. While my admiration for the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson rose during the EU Referendum campaign, in which she lacerated B*ris J*hnson for lying to the British public, her decision to now toe the Tory party line on Brexit is lamentable. Though my views on Europe are best represented by the Lib Dems, the polls do not suggest that they will do well. A vote for Labour, meanwhile, risks splitting the so-called progressive vote, and letting the Conservatives in “by the back door”.

From here in Brussels at least, it has long felt as if the loudest pro-European voice in the UK is Nicola Sturgeon’s. A minority Labour government supported by a pro-European alliance of the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems seems to me like the best possible outcome. It is for this reason that I will be casting my vote tomorrow for the SNP.

Save us Nicola! The voice of reason on 24 June last year.

R.