The number of EU civil servants – often derogatorily labelled “Eurocrats” – based in Brussels has become an important aspect of the EU referendum debate.
Identifying the number of people who work for the EU is more complex than it might initially seem. The EU is not a single organisation: it is comprised of a web of institutions, bodies and agencies, each of which has its own staff.
While Brussels has a popular reputation as the unofficial capital of the EU, not all EU staff are actually based in Brussels. The Court of Justice is based in Luxembourg, as is the European Parliament’s secretariat and some commission staff. The commission also has offices in each of the member states and a number of delegations outside of the EU. Many of the EU’s agencies are scattered throughout the EU – for example, the European Medicines Agency is based in London.
The graph below highlights the numbers employed during 2015, broken down by the EU’s “main” institutions. Overall, there were 46,356 people employed across all EU institutions, agencies and bodies.
At first glance, these figures might seem quite high, particularly if we look at the commission. But for an administrative staff covering institutions serving over 500m people it’s a shoestring operation, especially when we compare it to civil services operating at the national, or even local levels. Compare this, for example, to the 33,477 people employed by Birmingham City Council, covering a population of 1.1m in 2015-16.
Wider EU roles
There are some caveats to these numbers: identifying the numbers working directly for the EU institutions is only part of the story. Consider each of the 28 national permanent representations, for example. These play an important role in the day-to-day business of EU politics, representing member state governments in EU negotiations. While they are based in Brussels, their staff are usually drawn from government departments and civil services at the national levels. They are employed by national administrations and not the EU.
We might also consider the role of organised interests who lobby the development of EU policy and are sometimes actively consulted and brought into the policy process. The EU’s transparency register currently lists 9,228 individuals and organisations representing private businesses, non-governmental organisations and local and regional governments. Again these people are not directly employed by the EU, but play an important part in its daily operation.
We need to be aware that focusing only on the number of staff employed by the EU doesn’t necessarily tell us about how many work with the EU and its institutions – particularly as the relatively low level of staffing has some implications for how the EU operates. For example, in the absence of its own in-house staff to develop technical legislative proposals, the commission is pushed towards accessing policy expertise from organised interests. While this provides opportunities for a range of non-governmental and civil society bodies to get involved in the development of EU policy, it has led some, such as the Corporate European Observatory, to raise questions about the influence of these interests and their legitimacy.
Low numbers of British staff
It’s clear that EU staffing levels matter for national governments. In a speech soon after his appointment as foreign secretary in 2010, William Hague lamented that while the UK accounts for 12% of the total EU population, only 1.2% of the European Commission’s staff are British.
A 2013 report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee noted that UK nationals working for the EU institutions is one source of British influence in the EU. Worryingly for the UK government, the number of British EU staff appears to be on a downward trend. The latest figures from the European Commission show only 3.8% of its staff are British, compared to 17.8% from Belgium, 12.5% from Italy, 10.2% from France and even 4.3% from Romania.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee report sheds some light on reasons for the low representation of British EU staff. Prospective EU staff have to undertake a competitive exam, known as the concours. Although the government has worked to prepare prospective candidates, UK entrants to the concours remain relatively low.
It goes without saying that foreign language skills are a necessity for any EU employee. Yet the report showed that only 27% of UK secondary school students were studying French and German, compared to 93% of students in the rest of the EU learning English. Only 6% of British upper secondary students were learning two or more languages, compared to 60% across the EU. Awareness of EU job opportunities among university graduates is also low.
Those UK citizens who are employed at EU institutions, such as those at the European Central Bank, are faced with uncertainty over what will happen to their jobs in the event of a vote for Brexit.