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.

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.

The Return of Ralph?

Everyone remembers how they felt when they heard that Ralph’s Bar on Plux had closed down. Grief, panic, indifference… Any of the above. Ralph’s was the place where trainees were lured into parting with their meagre earnings in return for supposedly discounted Carlsberg and wine.

And then, in November last year, it closed.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

Often irreverently referred to as the EU’s unofficial 7th Institution, Ralph’s absence was keenly felt by the trainees of the October 2016 intake. Ralph was, after all, one of the places where they were led to believe they might find an employer. In reality, chances of this were slim, unless Ralph had an opening for bar staff.

Nonetheless, by the time the next intake of trainees arrived in March 2017, Ralph’s reputation as the melting pot of the traineeship had been assumed by Pullman’s, an equally insalubrious bar next door. Life, as ever, moves on.

The punters at Pullman celebrate the sad demise of Ralph

But wait. On an off-peak trip to Plux last Friday, I happened to notice that Bar Ralph was shrouded in stygian darkness no longer. No, its doors were open, people were moving about inside, and its parasols were up and fluttering in the unseasonably cool breeze. Is Bar Ralph back in operation? Who can clear this up for me?

Needless to say, I didn’t go in to investigate myself. In my view, the only place to be seen on Plux is Quartier Leopold. The main reason being that Quartier Leopold sells Pilsner Urquell, a superior beer.

Pilsner Urquell. I know I want one now…

It is also the bar where I once saw Alyn Smith MEP knocking back a few pints amidst a group of admirers. Starstruck, I failed to ask him why his press officer had never responded to my speculative job application.

Alyn Smith MEP, about to receive a standing ovation from the European Parliament the day after Brexit

Oh well. I’m sure she’s getting round to it.

R.

 

Being an Interimaire: Coffee and Toilets

I have been an interimaire now for almost a week. As a trainee I had easy access to all my coffee and pain-au-chocolat needs. In this new building however, things are different.

Pain au chocolat. Never start the day without one.

Coffee

The route to the cafeteria is long and complicated. You have to take the lift up two storeys, walk down several corridors until you are actually in another building, take a different lift down to the ground floor, walk through the lobby, up some stairs, and there is the cafeteria.

The success of the next step depends on who is on shift. There is a woman who works in the cafeteria who does not smile. Last week I asked for a coffee to take away.

‘Non,’ she said. ‘C’est impossible.’

There were paper takeaway cups in plain view. I asked for a coffee ‘pour ici’ instead, which she made for me. Then I took it out of the cafeteria and back to my office in the other building, making sure she didn’t see. By the time I got there, it had gone cold. So far, though, I have not been caught.

Exhibit A: purloined coffee cup

Toilets

I am still very happy that I get to work for the European Commission here in Brussels. Not every trainee gets the chance to stay on. Even in this post-Brexit, post-truth world, many people are still impressed when you tell them you work for the Commission. Despite the bad rap that the EU sometimes gets, working for the Commission still retains a hint of glamour.

The glamour starts to fade, however, when you find that someone has blocked the u-bend.

Opening a door onto uncertainty.

I don’t know who it was, but in my previous building such infractions were rampant. I left at the end of my traineeship without knowing who the culprit was. But I had my suspicions.

Now, in my new building across the street, it has happened again today, forcing me to go to a different floor.

So whenever someone’s eyes widen when I tell them that I work for the European Commission, inside I carry the secret and unspoken shame that some people in the office still don’t know how to flush.

I suppose we are all just human in the end.

R.

End of the Traineeship and the Next Steps: Becoming an Interimaire

It hardly seems like any time has passed since I first tinkled my cuticles across the keyboard to write the inaugural entry on this blog. But now, after 5 months in Brussels, my Traineeship at the European Commission is coming to its natural end. On 01 March the new intake of stagiaires will arrive to take our places, and Place du Luxembourg will once more be throbbing with the fresh faces of Trainees who have been duped into thinking that drinking pints of Carlsberg while cowering under a heat lamp in the rain will get them a job.

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

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

What Next?

This is not to say that my time in Brussels has come to an end. Far from it! I learned this week that I have been lucky enough to be kept on as an “Interimaire” at another Unit in the European Commission, starting from 01 March, for a duration of 6 months. This, I think, is probably the best that could have been hoped for in the short term. It will save me from furiously prowling the streets in search of gainful employment for a while yet, at least. (Though there is a very nice old pub in St-Josse which I had been planning to frequent by day in the event that I found myself jobless in March.) So the European Dream continues!

Hooray! Cheers to being an Interimaire

Hooray! Cheers to being an Interimaire

What is an Interimaire?

As I understand it, an Interimaire is someone who works for the Commission on a short-term basis, usually to fill in for permanent employees who are temporarily elsewhere. You receive a Belgian contract rather than an EU contract, and it is renewed (or terminated) week-by-week. If this sounds exhilaratingly unstable, then yes: it is. But the Commission department offering you the Interimaire position will tend to enter into a “gentleman’s agreement” with you to employ you on this basis for a set period, e.g. 3 or 6 months. It may sound slightly dodgy, but I know current Interimaires who have been working as such for several years.

The Holy Grail of working at the European Institutions is of course becoming a permanent employee. However, this involves sitting a number of difficult tests (the notorious EPSO tests) and then, if successful, being put on a waiting list, possibly for a year. Being an Interimaire is the maximum-risk-for-immediate-gratification alternative. While Interimaires are at the very bottom of the food chain here at the Commission, becoming one is regarded as a glittering prize by Trainees, and is often seen as the best chance of staying on after the end of the Stage. (Or at least that was my impression.)

The elephant in the room. The turd in the punch bowl.

The elephant in the room. The turd in the punch bowl.

What Next for Europe?

You’ll note that I’ve held off from making political comments so far in this post. Following months of outrage, anger and self-flagellation over Brexit, I’ve now entered a state of numbness. I am keeping Brexit at arm’s length, and have been avoiding reading about it too much in the news. I found that reading the news just makes me angrier.

In December I found a new outlet for my Remoaning on the Huffington Post. However, that too has fallen quiet of late. I wrote a couple of articles there, and received “Likes” from like-minded friends, and unpleasant comments from Leave voters. I realised that these articles were being read either by people who already agreed with me, or by people who hated everything I stood for and would never be made to see otherwise. I don’t think anybody was persuaded by my articles. As such, I was merely adding unhelpfully to the noise.

A few weeks ago I met up with my old European Studies professor from my MA. He too was taking Brexit rather hard. We complained about how it was impossible to have constructive arguments with many of the people who voted Leave. As a European Studies professor and a Commission employee, anything we say or write is branded as “propaganda”, and the substance of any argument we put forth is therefore nullified. We generally failed to comfort each other.

The joy of British politics.

The joy of British politics.

The European Dream

And so my precarious European career here in Brussels goes on, while I try to ignore the Brexit vultures circling overhead. The current plan is to stick it out here for as long as possible, until the big meaty Brexit turd hits the fan and I’m shipped off back to Fortress Britain. I know of some fellow British Trainees who applied for jobs at the UK Representation here in Brussels. But to be quite honest, I don’t think I could bring myself to work there as a representative of the British Government. Not in the current climate.

I did briefly think about joining the Scottish Representation in Brussels, and even had an (unsuccessful) interview there. However, I think that probably my true alignment is with the EU itself. These days I am feeling more European than British or Scottish, and indeed I haven’t lived in the UK for over 5 years now. With Theresa May’s hand hovering over the self-destruct button, urged on by the now all-powerful Brexiteer fringe of her party, the UK feels like a very foreign place nowadays.

That is not to say there is not hope! Only today I read that Tony Blair has popped back onto the scene, emerging like grizzled prairie-dog from its burrow, and wanting nothing less than to block Brexit. His rallying cry to Remainers is to “rise up in defence of what we believe”. (Though I seem to remember him ignoring all the people who rose up in defence of their belief that the Iraq War was a bad idea.) He accepts, apparently, that the British people did vote to leave the EU. But then again, who is more adept than Blair at flouting public opinion?

Can Big Tony stop Brexit and save Christmas?

Can Big Tony stop Brexit and save Christmas?

I will keep my excitement in check over Big Tony’s intervention. At the moment it seems like little more than another step in the big, mad Todestanz of Brexit. I’ll try to cheer myself up by ordering another subsidised portion of steak and chips in the Commission canteen. And then I’ll pour myself a couple of stiff Mussolinis.

R.