The probationary career of British civil servants

Brexit, Special Report
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In Brussels, the probationary career of British civil servants

In the uncertainty about their fate in the event of “Brexit”, many fear losing their jobs. Some have taken steps to acquire Belgian nationality.

In the event of a ‘Brexit‘, the question would probably not be the thorniest one that the EU would have to answer, but it would have a strong symbolic charge: what will be the fate of the few hundred British EU officials, most of whom live and work between Brussels and Luxembourg? Even more than their colleagues from the other 27 EU countries, they were apprehensive about the outcome of the referendum on Thursday 23 June. Most of them, as convinced Europeans, would experience the victory of a “Leave” as a real trauma. But they also fear losing their jobs.

“Of course I’m worried, we don’t know what will happen to us, there was an information meeting [organised by the unions] in the spring. It was said that there was no certainty, but that our cases would not be resolved immediately, that there would be time to notify,” said a British official who was anxious to remain anonymous. The young woman had her children in Belgium and, like many of her colleagues, she has spent most of her career there, in the Community institutions. She finds it hard to imagine having to leave her job, or even this country.

Fighting to “avoid massive firing”

There is nothing reassuring about the labour code for the senior European civil service. According to Article 28 of the EU’s “staff regulations”, a civil servant “shall be recruited on condition that he is a national of one of the Member States of the European Union, unless an exception is authorised by the authorities appointing him”. In Brussels, the case is often cited of a handful of Norwegians recruited into the Commission (seven today) or a few Croats hired before their country joined the EU, precisely to help Brussels prepare for it.

Union syndicale, the main union for European civil servants, is very cautious: “The texts do not prohibit British civil servants from being dismissed automatically, but if they are not all treated equally, they could certainly challenge the decision of the European institutions before the Court of Justice of the EU,” suggests Félix Géradon, deputy general secretary of Union syndicale. “We will fight to avoid these redundancies. In the event of compulsory resignations, we will fight to ensure that staff can leave with compensation,” adds the trade unionist.

The most likely thing, says Mr Geradon, like other sources close to the Commission and the European Council, is that the British will not all be thanked overnight, that negotiations will begin to settle the terms of the divorce between the UK and the EU. “If only to provide English translations, we will need staff! ” he stresses.

“Already quite a few binationals”

Younger people should probably give up their career plans. “Not sure they’re going to want to stay in an administration that will make them understand that they are no longer welcome,” admits a British source. As for those who hold the best positions in the top European administration, the heads and deputy heads of the main Brussels directorates, they will find it difficult to stay in these very political positions.

The British are relatively few in number within the European institutions: 1,164 out of 33,000 in the Commission, according to a 2016 census, less than the Romanians (1,306), much less than the French (3,193) and the Belgians (5,400). This weakness is one of the symptoms of the old love affair between London and Brussels, as the European career does not make the British elite fantasize.

Union Syndicale has got the message across to staff: there is no need to rush to apply for dual nationality from a member country of the Union in order to save their jobs. The British do not seem to have taken the Belgian authorities by storm, who are not giving any figures. “There are already quite a few dual nationals with Belgian or Irish passports,” said a British woman from Brussels.

However, some have taken the lead. Peter Guilford, founder of the public relations agency GPlus, is one of them: “I’m not a civil servant, but I don’t want to be left in limbo for the years that the UK-EU divorce could last. I’ve been living here for thirty years, I applied for Belgian nationality. “This company director, a former Commission official, explains that he took the necessary steps a month ago. He hopes to receive his papers in October: “The lady who answered the phone spoke to me as if I were the hundred and first person to ask her the question”, he says…

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