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Let’s Open The European Civil Service to Socio-Economic Diversity

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Agora #92

This article points out a blind spot in our approach to the subject of the social diversity of civil servants in the EU

At the heart of the European institutions, where crucial decisions are taken that affect the lives and future of millions of European citizens, one issue is often overlooked: the social diversity of civil servants and other agents working in the various EU institutions and agencies.

By social diversity, we mean the cohabitation of people from different social backgrounds. Social origin refers to the environment or social class into which a person is born, and which has shaped his or her formative years in life: his or her origins, education or starting point in life. This should not be confused with socio-economic status, which refers to an individual’s current social position. This latter concept will be less interesting to us here, insofar as to note that the homogeneity of the economic status of European civil servants would be trivial since they belong to the same professional body.

At a time when the European Union (EU) is facing unprecedented challenges, from the rise of populism to the crisis of public confidence in its institutions, it is more important than ever to ensure diverse socio-economic representation among its staff. However, this issue remains largely ignored in the European Commission’s human resources (HR) strategies, for example.

The social composition of European civil servants (I’m referring here in particular to AD category civil servants) poses major challenges in terms of democratic legitimacy and representativeness. Indeed, although the absence of data makes diagnosis difficult, it does not seem absurd to assert that the social origin of Commission employees is relatively homogeneous and unrepresentative of European society as a whole.

There are, of course, many individual exceptions (fortunately), but honesty compels us to acknowledge that the majority of colleagues we meet in the office grew up in environments with a relatively high level of economic and cultural capital. How many of our colleagues have been educated in European schools? Far too many, compared to their real weight in the European population (this is in no way to discredit the colleagues in question, but rather to note a statistical anomaly for which they are personally not responsible). At a time when the EU is striving to promote equal opportunities and ensure the participation of all citizens in democratic life, the lack of social diversity among its own staff compromises this fundamental mission.

Decisions taken by people from homogeneous socio-economic backgrounds are unfortunately often characterized by a lack of understanding of the concerns and needs of the most marginalized and disadvantaged populations. This disconnect can exacerbate tensions and divisions within society, weakening the very foundations of democracy.

Furthermore, the gap between the living standards of civil servants and the day-to-day realities of citizens can exacerbate social tensions and divisions, ultimately undermining the democratic foundations of the EU. Such a disconnect fuels discontent and skepticism towards these institutions.

The diversification of the administrative elite is an essential element at the crossroads of the ideals of republican meritocracy, democratization and social promotion. In the Member State I know best (France), this objective is even given constitutional value, by Article 6 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “All citizens (…) are equally eligible for all public dignities, places and jobs, according to their ability, and without any other distinction than that of their virtues and talents”.

Furthermore, given Europe’s economic and social crises, it is more important than ever to ensure that European institutions can draw on a wide range of perspectives and experiences. A more socio-economically diverse workforce would bring a wider range of skills and new ideas to the table, making the institutions better equipped to meet the complex challenges of our century.

Studies show that socio-economically diverse teams are more innovative and better able to understand and meet the needs of a diverse population.(1)

This argument must be handled with care, however, as it would be dangerous to make equal opportunity merely a matter of interest, rather than an imperative of social justice and promotion. The fact remains that efficient public service is an objective shared by all.

And yet, while the Commission has made appreciable efforts to increase gender equality and geographical balance, for example(2), little attention has been paid to the social background of its employees.

In this respect, it is quite significant that the European Commission’s 2023-2024 action plan for diversity and inclusion in the workplace does not even identify socio-economic inequalities as a focus. Only inequalities based on gender, ethnicity and “race” (sic), religion or belief, age, disability, and issues related to sexual orientation are mentioned.

[1] Voir notamment le rapport de l’OCDE de 2011 Public Servants as Partners for Growth, ou le working paper de l’OCDE de 2018 Next generation diversity and inclusion policies in the public service: Ensuring public services reflect the societies they serve

[2] On peut notamment se référer à l’engagement pris par la Commission de garantir l’égalité totale entre les hommes et les femmes à tous les niveaux d’encadrement d’ici 2024, que l’on retrouve notamment dans le document ‘’Une Nouvelle Stratégie de ressources humaines pour la Commission’’, C(2022) 2229 final: https://commission.europa.eu/document/download/3d1dc4df-7995-44b8-bf08- 396930fb8c9d_fr?filename=C-2022-2229-FR.pdf

It’s also very difficult to find any statistics on the social diversity of the Commission’s staff, if they exist at all. Yet social origin remains one of the most powerful factors in explaining inequality. A July 2018 study by the government body France Stratégie showed that, in France, a child of a senior executive is 4.5 times more likely than a child of a blue-collar worker to belong to the wealthiest 20%, and that factors such as gender, age or migratory background “have a weak or even negligible effect compared with the weight of social origin”. (1)

This is in no way to deny or minimize the reality (or even the violence) of other types of discrimination, but simply to point out a blind spot in our approach to the subject of inclusion. These factors of discrimination can sometimes be superimposed on disadvantaged social origins, and thus accumulate.

In the same vein, in its 2021 staff survey on diversity and inclusion at work, the European Commission’s DG HR did not see fit to ask its staff about their perception of socio-economic diversity, limiting itself to the 6 categories mentioned above.

However, employees themselves seem to be partly aware of the problem, since when asked which categories of discrimination they would like to see measured in the future, 9% answered “socio-economic-cultural diversity”, placing it in fourth position.

[1] Clément Dherbécourt, “Nés sous la même étoile ? Origine sociale et niveau de vie”, France Stratégie, Juillet 2018:</sub

https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/sites/strategie.gouv.fr/files/atoms/files/fs-na68-nessouslamemeetoile-05-07-2018.pdf

As is often the case on these issues, the retort is that the Commission and other European institutions are dependent on the social inequalities perpetuated by existing socio-economic structures, and in particular by member states’ education systems. This is absolutely true: an HR strategy alone cannot remedy the breakdown of the European social elevator. But it can do its part, by implementing an ambitious policy of inclusion and openness. To solve this problem, the European institutions should take a number of measures.

Firstly, they should collect data on the socio-economic origins and backgrounds of their civil servants and other staff, in order to better understand the current state of diversity among the personnel they employ. Indeed, a proper diagnosis should be established, to best determine the remedy and dosage to be administered. This data should then be used to set targets for increasing socio-economic diversity and to monitor progress over time.

Secondly, the Commission should work to remove barriers to entry for people from less privileged backgrounds. This could involve initiatives such as scholarships on social criteria for university programs in institutional affairs, notably European. For example, the scholarships currently awarded by the EU for Erasmus Mundus joint masters programs (study programs associating at least three higher education institutions from three different countries, at least two of which must be EU member states and third countries associated with the program) without any social criteria could be used for this purpose. Quotas for places on Blue Book internships and EPSO competitions reserved for candidates from disadvantaged social backgrounds and/or undergoing professional retraining, mentoring programs and awareness-raising campaigns aimed at schools and universities in disadvantaged areas, along the lines of the Back to School program.

Finally, the Institutions, including the Commission, should strive to create a more inclusive and supportive working environment for workers from all backgrounds. This could involve initiatives such as raising awareness of these issues through training courses and workshops. The question of adapting the working environment also needs to be addressed, in particular through a reflection on the geographical location of the Institutions’ premises (especially the European Institutions), to bring their employees closer to the social and territorial realities that can sometimes be lost sight of from Brussels’ European quarter. There is also a visibility issue, insofar as this would enable a certain number of European citizens to create a concrete image on the European Union.

Let’s be honest: this issue is unlikely to make the headlines, let alone solve the problem of public confidence in European institutions. And that’s only to be expected, given how far removed it is from the concerns of most citizens. The fact remains, however, that bringing disadvantaged socio-economic groups into the corridors of power is undeniably a question of democracy and social justice. It’s time we got our act together, and finally made the Commission representative of those it is supposed to serve.

In conclusion, the social diversity of European civil servants is an important but all too often neglected issue. Yet it is not just a question of statistical representation, but also a democratic imperative and a guarantee of efficiency and legitimacy. By increasing the socio-economic diversity within them, European and international institutions can demonstrate their commitment to understanding and responding to the needs of all citizens, while ensuring that they are better able to meet the complex challenges facing the continent. It’s time for the European Commission in particular to take steps to ensure that it at last truly reflects the diversity of Europe’s population, thereby ensuring a more inclusive, fairer and more democratic Europe for all its citizens.

Paolino Zottarel

About The Author

This is a “‘pen name”. The author, who has been working for the European Commission since 2022 (and has been a member of Union Syndicale Bruxelles the same year), wishes to keep his real name out of print. We respect his choice.