Thousands of staff members working at the EU institutions are expected to go on strike in Brussels today (8 November) to protest against potential budget cuts. If unsuccessful, unions plan another strike during the EU summit later this month.
At roughly €130 billion a year, the EU's annual budget is equivalent to around 1% of EU national wealth, or €244 per EU citizen.
The European Commission proposes raising it to €146 billion over the next seven-year period (2014-2020), or €1.025 trillion in total.
The EU budget covers all of the Union’s activities, and only complements national budgets. As much as 80% is spent by national or regional governments in EU member countries, who are responsible for selecting beneficiaries. They are the first port of call for ensuring that money is spent correctly.
While critics claim that most of the budget is spent on administration - including EU staff wages - in reality, these costs amount to less than 6% of the total.
With the enlargement of the Union, the budget has grown as well, a trend which is set to continue as Croatia prepares for EU entry in 2013.
Unions have called today's strike to protest a push from several member states to cut staff and administrative costs at the EU institutions in the bloc’s 2014-2020 budget.
"The objective of the strike is to protest against the clear intentions of cutting the budget of the European Union in such a way that major projects will probably fall through," said Sylvie Jacobs, president of the Union Syndicale Fédérale.
"We won't be able to work for Europe anymore because we won't have enough staff to do the work and not enough in the budget to make things work," she told EurActiv.
The EU’s 27 member states are currently fighting over the 2014-2020 budget. The struggle will come to a head at the next summit in Brussels 22-23 November.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to veto any deal that doesn’t freeze spending at 2011 levels. Germany and the Netherlands are also calling for slimmer EU spending.
In 2011, the Commission announced plans to cut the EU's 55,000 civil servants by 5% through 2020. At the time, monthly pay for EU employees ranged from a base of €2,600 to €20,000 for a commissioner and most employees enjoy special tax breaks.
Jacobs said she was aware that EU staff are being criticised for their stable positions at a time when economic times are difficult. "But that is not the point," she replied.
"Of course we are not happy and we protest against the cuts that are in the pipeline, but the main point is that the staff is going to be stretched so much that they won't be able to fulfil their mission anymore. We consider it a critical situation not just for us, but for all of Europe," Jacobs said.
The union president complained that European civil servants are often portrayed as high-paid fat cats but said it wasn't the case. EU staff may have been privileged in the past but a significant reform was passed in 2004 that introduced dramatic cuts in salaries for newcomers, Jacobs said.
A strike during the summit?
The trade union said it would consider the strike a success if at least 4,000 staff take part.
Another strike has been announced for 16 November, but union leaders have threatened to move the walkout to coincide with the 22-23 November summit, which will be dedicated to budget negotiations.
The Union Syndicale Fédérale will await the reaction of the Council of the EU and member states before setting the date for another strike.
"If we have a positive response in the way of accepting social dialogue with the trade union representatives and in the negotiations then maybe it won't be necessary to strike again. But it is quite possible that we go on strike again during the summit," Jacobs said.
The union president emphasised that she thinks some member states have forgotten the European value of solidarity. After many decades without conflicts in Europe, people seem to have forgotten what Europe is about, she said.
The strike should be seen as a support for the Commission and Parliament's budget proposal.
"There is a difference between accepting that we are all in the same boat and have a difficult economic situation, and then to go to the extreme to a point where there is no point in going to work because you won't be able to face the task," Jacobs said.
- 9-23 Nov.: Potential new strike among EU institution staff members.