01 July 2010

Praiseworthy but probably doomed

Yes, he means well. And I agree with the underlying sentiment. But - as ever - it's not that simple. The Guardian reports:

William Hague vowed today to increase Britain's influence in the European Union by boosting the numbers of UK nationals in the corridors of power at Brussels.

The foreign secretary accused the previous Labour government of allowing a "generation gap" to develop over its 13 years in power, by neglecting to ensure that enough British officials won key posts in EU institutions.

Numbers of British officials at director level in the European commission have fallen by a third since 2007, and numbers of UK posts by 205 overall, he said. Although it represents 12% of the EU population, the UK has just 1.8% of staff in entry-level positions at the commission.

In the good old days, national governments could parachute in their officials to the EU, usually but not exclusively by way of a cabinet post in the control of a Commissioner. But that procedure is increasingly frowned upon. Nowadays, commission officials are appointed by way of competitve examination. Among other requirements is a facility with at least one other EU language (which rather limits the field of UK aspirants). Thereafter, promotion is ostensibly on merit, although in practice Buggins' turn seems to be the guiding principle.

Accordingly, the scope for Mr Hague and the FCO to place influential UK officials into the Commission hierarchy is extremely limited. Sure, they can encourage bright young things to apply at entry level, but it will be twenty years before they reach positions of influence.

Some day, I will tell you of the extent of the encouragement I received from the UK civil service to go to and remain in the Commission. It was somewhat less than whole-hearted. But if the attitude is changing, great. Just don't count on it making a significant impact in the short-term.

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