A slightly late 2019 New Year roundup

I had meant to post this back in January, oops. Still, it’s never too late to say Happy New Year, right?

Until yesterday it had been over 12 months since my last New Year’s roundup, and about 7 months since my last post on this blog. Not that nothing Brexit-related had been happening. Rather, most of it had been too tedious and frustrating to bother writing about. Yes, I may have been suffering from that new syndrome called ‘Brexit fatigue’.

In previous episodes of The UK…

My last post of 2018 marked David Davis’s resignation. Ah, happy times… Since then, Boris Johnson has also resigned (good riddance, though I’d have preferred to see him fired!) and Dominic Raab has both entered and exited the role of Brexit Secretary, to be replaced by Stephen Barclay (who?). In December, Theresa May dithered over putting her Withdrawal Agreement to a vote, and then postponed it to January, only to suffer a crushing defeat in the Commons. She then won a motion of no confidence, in which the same people who had sunk her Deal decided she was still the best person for the job. In normal times, all of this would be a national crisis. In Brexitland, this is par for the course.

The Dutch news reporting on Theresa May’s ‘slag’ or ‘blow’ in parliament.

Heroes or Traitors?

At the time of writing, the first pebbles of what may turn out to be a defection-rockfall have started to tumble. Eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs have left their parties, among them my own personal political heart-throb Anna Soubry (Anna for PM!) to sit as an Independent Group in parliament. Whether this comes to anything, I don’t know. If enough Tory MPs quit (i.e. 7) then the government will fall. However, I doubt any Tory MP wants to be known as the defector who collapsed a Tory government, so who knows if that will ever happen. I am intrigued, but not hopeful.

Meanwhile in Brussels

So where does this leave things in Brussels? Up in the air, is the best answer. Last month, the Commissioner for personnel held a meeting with all UK employees of the European Commission. The message was largely reassuring: the majority of them will be allowed to stay. This is because most of them have been here for years and years, and have permanent contracts. Their chances of promotion will be negligible, but they will not be asked to leave.

The situation is less clear for newer members of staff like me, who do not hold a permanent contract. For UK employees on a contract like mine, a decision will be taken in each case on whether the individual staff member will be allowed to stay, based on the individual merits of the staff member. While the Commission encouraged its Directors to ‘show generosity’ when making such decisions, there is no obligation to keep UK staff members and no indication whether ‘generosity’ will be shown in all cases.

Deal or No Deal?

The point at which decisions on UK staff will be taken depends on whether or not the UK leaves the EU with a deal. If there is a deal, the future of affected UK staff will be decided at the end of the transition period (31 December 2020). If there is no deal, decisions will start being made on Brexit Day, i.e. 30 March 2019, i.e. in a month’s time. This means that if there is a no-deal Brexit, I could be out of a job before the end of the year.

And then what? I have not been in Belgium long enough to receive permanent residency. Will I be allowed to work at a normal company as a non-EU national? And if I don’t find a new job fast, will I be allowed to stay in Belgium at all? Yesterday’s Q&A with the British Ambassador was not exactly reassuring on any of these matters.

Three ex-Tories. It’s never too late to be a hero!

But, in the end, what can one do. Like most people involved with Brexit, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’ll hunker down and hope for the best. Happy New Year!

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Q&A with the British Ambassador

Hello again. On Wednesday 20 February, I attended a Brexit Q&A with the British ambassador for UK citizens living in Belgium. As Theresa May was also in town at the time, it was kind of Her Excellency Ms Alison Rose to take the time to come and see us. Or perhaps she was desperate for an excuse not to be at the embassy when Theresa arrived.

‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’

I’m not sure what the purpose of the meeting was. It certainly wasn’t to reassure us that everything would be fine. If anything I left the Q&A feeling rather less reassured than I had been when I walked in. Perhaps the main purpose was simply to show that the embassy was doing something.

Also present was a delegation of suited plonkers from DExEU sitting down the front of the auditorium, who stood up to smile at us at the beginning and then said nothing further for the rest of the evening.

Alison Rose took questions on citizens’ rights, employment, driving licences, residency and travelling with pets. She made it clear that UK citizens would not be able to move to another EU country as easily after Brexit as we could now. All of which we already knew, but it still hurt to hear it.

Waiting for the Ambassador to arrive. The meeting was in the ING Marnix building.

I got the chance to ask a question about being made redundant. What would happen if, say, I were to lose my job because of Brexit? Would I be entitled to unemployment benefits? Would it be harder to find another job? Would a period of unemployment affect any future application for permanent residency or citizenship? Alison brushed off the question. Most of this was in Belgium’s hands. She only had anecdotal evidence that yes, finding a job would be harder post-Brexit. Cheers, Alison.

It is easy when watching the British political news to see Brexit only as an abstract concept. The cut-and-thrust of the House of Commons, the dashes to Brussels to thrash out deals… But sitting in the auditorium that evening, it brought it home again just how many tiny, soul-destroying and bureaucratic ways Brexit is screwing things up for so many people. From work permits to travelling with pets to agonising over whether to take out another nationality (if eligible)… My overall reaction was a mix of outrage and sadness that anyone, any of us, should have to be thinking about any of this at all. It is all so utterly, frustratingly pointless.

Anyway, there were free sandwiches and cava at the end, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad.

Sandwiches and cava. At least the evening wasn’t a complete waste.

R.

Will Brits at the Commission get free Belgian citizenship?

Last week, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was giving a speech to the European Parliament. He was the latest EU leader to address the EP in recent years (Theresa May declined her invitation).

Also speaking was Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. He praised Michel for his generosity, and urged him to be generous in granting Belgian citizenship to ‘UK officials here in Brussels’.

Belgian PM Charlie Michaels (L) and Commission President JCJ (R)

Those who follow my blog will know how feverishly, how rabidly I long for an EU passport. Free Belgian citizenship for UK officials? Yes please!!!

I’ll believe it when I see it

A common rule of thumb, though, is that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Despite the flurry of excitement that surrounded Juncker’s intervention (the Express was frothing at the mouth with rage) the situation is not so simple.

Firstly, Belgian citizenship is granted by the Belgian courts. And, as in most good democracies, the justice system is independent of the government. Therefore it is unlikely that Charles Michel would have much influence in the matter.

Furthermore, the term ‘UK officials’ is rather vague. For instance, I myself do not know what a ‘UK official’ is, or even if I am one. British employees of the EU Institutions have so far met obstacles when applying for Belgian citizenship, mostly because they don’t pay Belgian tax. They pay so-called ‘community tax’ that goes towards their European private health insurance and social security. Belgian authorities have sometimes taken the view that, if applicants haven’t contributed to Belgium’s tax coffers, why should they be granted Belgian citizenship?

Therefore it isn’t clear if Juncker was referring to a blanket issuing of Belgian citizenship to all UK staff, or simply urging generosity in granting citizenship to those UK applicants who were already eligible due to residency and language skills, but who had been blocked for tax reasons.

Lastly, Belgium probably doesn’t even want to hand out its citizenship like this. The EU Institutions aim to employ a balanced number of different EU nationalities. If all the EU’s British employees were to become Belgians, there would be little room for any new ‘real’ Belgian staff, and Belgians would face much more competition with each other when applying for promotions etc.

Theo Francken, the Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration (and member of the right-wing Flemish-nationalist party N-VA), has more or less ruled out any special arrangement for Brits. Think what you like about Theo Francken (a quick glance down the ‘Controversies’ section of his Wikipedia page is proof enough for why he should never have been given anything to do with Asylum and Migration), he is probably right. It is highly doubtful that Belgium will freely issue up to 2000 passports to the EU’s distressed UK officials.

Theo Francken, Minister for Asylum and Migration, and owner of a fine set of gums.

A much more equitable solution, in my view, would be to divvy up all remaining 27 EU nationalities between the EU’s British staff, rather than give them all Belgium’s. I’d quite happily settle for a German, Austrian or Dutch passport if it came my way. But I am straying into the realm of fevered dreams again. Most likely Brits at the EU will be stuck with their UK passports for good.

R.

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.

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.

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.