We’re becoming extinct in Brussels.
That’s the existential exhortation from countries like Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which say the European Union has to change its hiring habits or risk virtually eliminating Nordic officials from the European Commission, the powerful EU executive that writes the legislation governing an entire Continent.
While these countries are currently relatively well represented among the higher ranks of Brussels bureaucrats, their fear is that the younger generation isn’t coming to Brussels — a concern reflected in the Commission’s own statistics, according to a POLITICO analysis.
The reason, they say: The Commission has a drawn-out recruitment process, an entrance exam poorly designed for certain countries, and jobs that are, well, not that attractive to young Scandinavians.
“The Nordics are almost wiped out. They call us the pandas because there are so few of us in the Commission,” said a diplomat from a Nordic country who works to get fellow countrymen into EU jobs.
In the coming weeks, these countries will team up with a dozen other EU members to hash out an agreement with the Commission on changes that can be made to head off a growing geographical imbalance.
While the group (for now) won’t get its No. 1 goal — country-specific entrance tests — the Commission is expected to ramp up its outreach to these countries. It’s a push that will set the group on a collision course with other EU members, like Italy, Romania and Greece, which are more successfully packing the rank and file of the Brussels rules-making machine and don’t want serious changes to the system.
The debate is not simply an HR issue. EU capitals are keen to propel more of their people to Brussels to protect their interests in the room where things happen.
The bloc’s 14,000-odd highest-ranking caste of officials — known as administrators in Brussels parlance — are the lifeblood of the institutions. They implement high-stakes political decisions, and quietly hash out rules that govern everything from car pollution to reimbursement for arms donations to Ukraine.
“This is really becoming a political problem,” warned Matilda Rotkirch, a diplomat at the Swedish mission to the EU. “If you don’t fix this problem, it could spread anti-EU sentiments in the member states.”
A Continent divided
Becoming a Eurocrat is, financially speaking, more attractive in some EU countries than in others.
With starting salaries north of €5,000 per month for full-time staffers, a career in the Commission might look better to those in countries with lower average annual wages — such as Greece (€15,897) or Romania (€13,000) — than it does in Denmark (€63,261) or Sweden (€46,934).
This is reflected in the Commission’s personnel data, which show Greece and Romania are overrepresented among the lower and middle ranks of the Commission’s administrators when measured against guidelines the EU has set for itself to ensure geographic balance.
Meanwhile, at the same level, Swedes, Danes and Finns are all underrepresented.
“For Sweden, the main problem in the Commission is recruiting … junior officials without a management role,” said Rotkirch, from the Swedish mission to the EU.
Indeed, Swedes comprise just 0.85 percent of these ranks, nearly 2 percentage points below the EU’s goal. Meanwhile, Romanians represent 7.2 percent of the same group, well above the 4.5 percent guideline.
“If you’re from Romania, [working for the EU] is a terrific job. Maybe not so much if you’re from Sweden, where there are a lot of attractive jobs,” said Carolyn Ban, a retired professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S. who has written extensively on this subject.
Interestingly, the geographic discrepancies are not nearly as severe at the higher levels of the Commission. Among the EU executive’s more senior staff, for instance, Denmark and Sweden are represented mostly in line with the EU’s targets, while Finland appears even slightly above it.
“Member states that say they are underrepresented are not qualitatively so, since they are very well at the level of decision-making positions,” said an EU diplomat who, like several others, spoke anonymously to discuss internal matters.
So it’s the next-generation figures that have the Nordic countries and their allies quaking. These EU members fear the combination of dwindling applications and a looming surge in retirements will cut their presence in Brussels to the bone in the years to come.
“We’re well represented among high-ranking officials. But once those people retire, what is left? That’s the problem,” said Jenni Hakala, who promotes EU careers for the Finnish Embassy to the EU.
Cristiano Sebastiani, president of Renouveau et Démocratie, a trade union representing EU employees, argued that Northern European countries are actually the authors of their own misfortune. He noted that they pushed for a staffing overhaul in 2004 that cut down on Eurocrats’ privileges and, in his view, made the jobs less attractive.
Predictably, the Nordic countries don’t see it that way. They argue the system is actually skewed against them. They point the finger at the EU bureaucracy’s notoriously lengthy selection process — known as the concours in the Brussels bubble — arguing that it will inevitably favor those with fewer job opportunities back home.
“Finnish young people … are not used to end up in a list of applicants where you may have to wait for about a year or year-and-a-half before you are invited to a job,” said Henrik Pekkala, who works with the KPMG consultancy and conducted a study on the topic for the Finnish government.
Those who study the EU’s entrance exams also say the tests are more aligned with the education systems in Italy, Spain and Belgium. Those countries, they note, have a similar civil service exam to enter national government work.
“People who go to certain universities get better coaching on how to prepare for the competition and how to succeed in the competition,” said Ban, the U.S. academic.
The nuclear option
The Commission is taking the concerns seriously.
Already, the EU’s executive has tweaked its recruitment process in a bid to boost applications from across the bloc. It also cut down on waiting times for the concours and amped up outreach to graduates in underrepresented countries.
For the Nordic crew, that’s not enough.
“Our expectations are quite low,” quipped Hakala, the Finnish official. “People are not interested [in participating in the concours]. How do you market something that people are not willing to buy?”
The Finns and their Scandinavian neighbors also want country-specific competitions to work for the Commission. That, they argue, is the best way to save them from extermination in the EU quarter.
The idea is sending shock waves through Brussels, with countries that are outpacing the EU’s targets at the lower levels grumbling that prioritizing individual countries to such a degree is simply unfair — and contravenes the EU’s principle of non-discrimination. There are even concerns about legal challenges to such a step from the countries that have more to lose from nation-specific competitions.
“The possibility of setting up national competitions is not in line with the treaties and does not respect the basic recruitment principle of the EU civil service, which is the individual merit of candidates,” said an official from a country that is overrepresented in the Commission’s lower ranks.
The Commission itself has ruled out any option that would create quotas for countries.
“The concept of [a] quota of nationals is not applicable in the EU institutions,” said a spokesperson from the EU executive who was not authorized to go on the record. “Our recruitment is based on merit and no posts are reserved for nationals of a specific member state.”
Nevertheless, some Brussels institutions are toying with the idea of establishing guiding quotas for each EU country.
For this year’s applicants, the Commission itself tweaked its flagship Blue Book traineeship — which brings hundreds of people to Brussels each year for a five-month internship — to boost new hires from traditionally underrepresented countries and reduce overall geographic imbalances. The changes brought the 2023 class more in line with some of the Commission’s geographic targets, according to POLITICO’s analysis of the data.
The European Parliament will also launch country-specific competitions to help hire its civil servants, despite mounting concerns that the plan will be snarled by a flurry of legal appeals.
The outcome will ripple through the Brussels bubble.
The Commission, said Matilda Rotkirch, a Swedish diplomat, “will be eating popcorn and watching what will happen.”