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.