Šef?ovi?: EU staff will keep high wages, but work more

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To increase budget efficiency while maintaining salaries at the same level, the Commission is asking officials to work longer hours without giving additional compensation or other sweeteners. EURACTIV has spoken with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?, as intensive negotiations with the staff unions are underway.

Maroš Šef?ovi?, a former Ambassador of Slovakia to the EU, is European Commission Vice-President, responsible for Inter-institutional relations and administration.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti and Founder Christophe Leclercq

To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here.

The EU and the eurozone are in a very serious crisis. The Commission has come up with its austerity package and is trying to save €1 billion by 2020 in administration costs. When you presented the proposal in June you used the slogan 'more value for money'. Does that mean that before budgeting was not value-driven?

Of course not. We are very much aware of the tough austerity measures implemented by member states. It is part of the Commission's efforts to offer the best possible service for the citizens, and have the best possible relations with the member states.

To say that we have started our efficiency efforts only last year that wouldn't be appropriate because, as you probably know, that the Commission administration went through rather important reforms aimed at increasing efficiency and reducing costs already in 2004.

Since then, we've already saved €3 billion and these [newly proposed] reforms would bring an additional €5 billion. On top of this we are putting €1 billion worth of additional measures. So if you put it all together we're saving more than one year's budget of administrative expenditure, which I think is pretty impressive.

What we wanted to do is really to respect the approach which goes through the whole MFF [multi-annual financial framework] to show that we can bring more value for the same money.

I can tell you that we had to look very, very hard to find the potential measures for savings. Now, we have started discussing these measures with the unions and as you can imagine this is a rather intense debate as some of the measures are pretty demanding for the staff.

Which measures would you reckon are most demanding?

I think it will not only be for the staff but for the administration. The first is we're proposing a 5% cut of personnel across the board for all EU institutions.

And here I state frequently that if we want to achieve success we will need a very comprehensive approach also from other institutions because you know that the Commission represents only 52% of all EU staff.

There must be efforts from all sides, from the Council, from the Parliament, from other EU institutions and bodies. And of course if you want to be efficient and produce more value for money it's clear that the staff will have to work more.

And therefore we're introducing the extension of working hours. We're introducing the postponement of the pension age, which applies to the regular pension age but also to early retirement.

And also we are introducing the measures which would also make managers to work harder, longer and without flexibility compensation.

These are measures which I think are quite demanding and if you look at national administrations and whether they apply the same plethora of measures, I think you would need to look very hard to find a place where such a complex reform was introduced.

Of course there is pressure from outside, and between 2004 and now there was some tension with the Council. This went to court. The Council didn't win. Are you taking the initiative again because if you don't then you would be imposed something worse from the Council?

Yes. I've heard the idea that we're just reacting on the letter coming from the Council a couple of days before the proposal for the staff regulation was introduced.

But as you can see our proposal is rather complex and detailed. And to think that we can do these things in a couple of days I think this would be a really very big complement to our administrative efficiency!

So the Parliament will also reduce posts by 5%?

We proposed that there should be an across-the-board cut of 5%. However, you know that we have the power of legislative initiative, but we are not legislators.

In the end there must be agreement of the Parliament and the Council to achieve this goal but if we are serious about the budget level, and about the savings, I think this is one measure which will have to be respected by all institutions.

The Parliament’s staff may have one interest but the MEPs may have a different view. What messages are you getting from MEPs?

We are at a very early stage because the official legislative work will start when the proposal is officially on the table and for that we need to complete the social dialogue round of talks with the staff unions, which started on 7 September.

On 15 September, we had the first in-depth talks on the proposal and of course I hope that we can conclude the social dialogue talks well in time to present officially this proposal before the end of the year, as it is planned for all other legislative proposals for the MFF.

Official talks with the European Parliament and the Council will then start, so I think that’s when we will really hear the official opinions.

On the unofficial contacts and exploratory views, I feel that this 5% is the figure which has been worrying for the Parliament. That is clear.

Meaning they would like less…

Yes, they would like less. With the Council we are having a very intense ongoing dialogue and this is also a partial answer to why we presented the proposal at this stage. In fact the salary 'method' [the indexation of wages based upon salaries in members states] is going to expire next year and we needed a new salary method.

The Council has also requested us to study how efficient we are in several areas.

We had a discussion and then a legal dispute with the Council on the salary increase. So I believe that it was a better decision to respond to all these requests and to all the challenges brought by the crisis at the same time.

So there will be 'Šef?ovi?' packages' like there were 'Delors packages' in the past?

I am not sure it would have that name!

In 1998, there was a big strike by EU officials when staff reforms were announced. Then there was not very much substance, but this time you are talking about substantial measures. How are you handling criticism from the trade unions differently from your predecessors?

It's always a big effort to have the appropriate balance. I know that on the day we presented this proposal to the college there was a lot of excitement among the staff and also among the trade unions.

I told the unions that the proposal would go through the official legislative process, respecting the procedures of social dialogue – I explained that it would be difficult to have a debate on a non-existent proposed proposal.

I explained I had to have a discussion on a proposal with the college, with my colleagues, because they might have different views and the debate on the MFF proposal was rather intense in the college.

I really appreciated that together with the President [of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, we met the staff union representatives at the earliest possible moment, right after the president met the political group leaders in the European Parliament.

And we presented the proposal in great detail. We promised it would go through all the stages of the social dialogue and that we are fully aware of the need to achieve a balanced solution.

It was not an easy meeting, as you can imagine. But I appreciated that in the end the call for a strike was called off and we are now holding proper meetings. I am sure in the end I will be involved in the conciliation procedure [assuming the unions and the Director General for personnel do not agree right away].

I hope that now once we go through the technicalities and the details of this proposal that also staff union representatives will see the merits in the proposals. 

I have to say that even though the last two years have been difficult, the proposal was positively perceived by the citizens, by the member states, by the MEPs and I would say even by the Council.

How does the staff feel, people taken on an individual basis as opposed to the trade unions?

It's of course very difficult to judge. My only indicator is the intense dialogue we started within the Commission as we really want to inform the staff. We created a specifically-dedicated website on our intranet where all the proposals were described in great detail.

The staff is very much aware of the reform of 2004. There is the strong feeling that they have already contributed a lot. But they see this proposal as a balanced one and I hope that they will support it because I think they realise that similar efforts are being performed at the national level in most member states

We cannot operate in a political and economic vacuum. We are civil servants of the European Union and we are at the service European citizens in the same way as the national civil servants.

This move comes at a time when the Union is taking on new responsibilities through the Lisbon Treaty. The External Action Service for example will need additional resources. How are you going to reallocate resources and who departments of the Commission are going to suffer more?

This 5% cut will more strongly motivate the managers to look at how we work and what we do. We would need to have a closer look at how we distribute our human resources.

We would need to look at ways to simplify our work—putting in place the procedures to make our more efficient. In some area there is clearly the need.

For example, when I assumed my mandate I realised very early on that we needed to have a close look at what the IT architecture of the Commission looked like. It became clear that there was an enormous space for increased efficiency gains, for savings and also for saving the staff.

There are more possibilities in different areas as well. We are under constant pressure from the European Parliament to decrease so-called 'overheads'.

By overheads you seem to mean internal administrative tasks. But what is often meant by 'overheads' in other organisations is the number of directors and directors-general. Will there be a move there?

I think we have one of the widest understandings of ‘overheads’. I even had a talk with our experts concerning the methodology of how we calculate the overheads.

Because in the overheads of the Commission we calculate IT support, HR support, all the translators, even some financial control and a big part of the DG budget.

Show me one member state where you would consider the minister of finance 'overhead'. So all this is calculated in the overheads of the Commission and even with this composition our figure currently is around 24%. [If you add up] the duties of the Commission with the duties we perform for other institutions like the salaries, medical insurance and publications and translation services or EPSO, then it's 27%.

There will be an equal reduction at all levels, including management?

I think it's difficult to predict because we would have to have a very close look on how certain policies have transformed. How much of the human resources are required for performing the duties.

So, I don't want to say it would be a very linear approach across everything. For example if you look at the current situation and you start by this question at DG ECFIN, I mean these are the people on the frontline.

We have to really be very, very realistic and I would say very wise in how we allocate the resources and really align them very well on priorities.

I am quite regularly in the European Parliament to report on this issue — the number of managers —  and I can assure you that if my colleagues come to me with a new organisational structure and they're suggesting more managers, then we are extremely reluctant and the success rate is very, very low.

I think that we keep it under control and the measures we suggest would create even more pressure much more rational when it comes to how we use the human resources.

But this is the Commission, if you look at other institutions in terms of management vs. staff…

You mean the ratio of management to staff is higher in the Council and the Parliament?

You can look it up!

Why don't you give the answer … if it's a fact?

I think of course it is higher because these institutions are smaller, they have different tasks, but if you compare our ratios of managers vs. officials we can be very proud of our numbers.

It seems that part of the plan is to push secretarial staff to move to temporary contracts. Unions might argue against such precarious contracts. Secretaries are mostly women and that would worsen conditions of a workers’ category which is already under strain. How do you view that?

I think we need the social dialogue so we can also present our view on this issue. Because if it comes to the contract agents, this is the category which was introduced years ago, I think it has full merit. We have different kinds of categories of employees which work as contract agents already.

We have, I would say, quite a substantial proportion of the secretaries who are already working as contract agents. When I was talking to the contract agents, or when we have the staff meeting together with the president, very often  the question we've been getting was "Why are we contract agents treated in such a way that we can only have three-year contracts?"

What we are actually proposing to introduce is unlimited duration of contracts for them. So I do not see any precariousness in the situation when they've actually got the unlimited contract for their job.

If it comes to the AST categories [assistants], we have a lot of ASTs who would still perform very important work in financial management, in accounting, in IT for example and in many other areas. These are the categories which have already been part-staffed by the contract agents.

These are the secretaries and archivists. So these are the only two categories. I have to say I have gotten positive reactions from those contract agents who performed these duties before and their contracts have been limited.

But now we have responded to their calls and have prolonged their contracts, giving them much more solid job security than before.

So that category will be more like in the private sector, not better or worse?

I don't think so because in the private sector you can rarely be a secretary and have a life-long contract.

More generally, how about staff regulations guaranteeing the independence of the European civil service?

We are absolutely underlining this aspect and of course by the introduction of the staff regulation changes we are not touching the independence of the Commission officials in any respect.

They will have all the rights as before. What we are aiming at is, as I have said, to increase the efficiency of their work. So I don't see any problems in the context of the European civil service.

You want to increase the working-time from 37.5 to 40 hours. The EU is pushing for the reconciliation of work-family life. Isn't that preaching one thing and practicing another?

You see the same tendency in most European countries. I just visited Germany and they have a 41-hour working week. In many member states you have a working week of 40 hours.

So again I think to work 30 minutes longer per day, if it brings the result we expect, the increased efficiency and more value for the same money, I think it's definitely something we have to follow. In times like this we have to work more.

I think the Commission is a very good and fair employer. I remember when I was at the conference which is traditionally held on international women's day. They invited a professor who is an expert in this field and he was asked: What kind of employer is the Commission, in relation to female workers, to maintaining work-life balance?

I expected a very negative response from the professor but it was instead positive. I think we are using a solid number of modern instruments or tools: telework, job-sharing, part-time work.

We have very solid measures when it comes to maternal or paternal leave. Parents can count pm European schools, crèches and garderies.

All of this is at a very high standard.  I know we ask a lot of our officials but we're also trying to use all possibilities of modern management so they can also spend the needed time with their families.

So we're trying to improve on both: On the efficiency and on the output of our workforce, but at the same time creating better conditions for them which would allow them to work harder but also spend the necessary time with their families.

In past reform efforts there have been some sweeteners. For example in 2004, there was a reduction in salaries but at the same time management got a special 'management allowance'. This time there is a rumour that the increase in working time and management responsibilities could be compensated by giving some extra holidays…

That's news for us!

This time what will be the sweeteners?

I am not ready to speculate at this stage because we have to go through the social dialogue. We would use the options we just mentioned: modern management and modern organisation of labour to the fullest.

For example last year we had a conference on telework. It requires improvement of many of the IT technologies. It requires improvement, especially in today's security environment, a secure connection for telework and we had to do some additional work there.

I would look for some possible, if I can call them 'sweeteners', in the improvement tools we already have at our disposal, so that our officials can work more having access to modern tools.

Thinking of a 'hardener' in a way, there is some resentment in the informed circles of public opinion on the famous prime d'expatriation, the 16% on top of the salary that non-Belgians typically get when they work at the Commission. The Commission is in charge of implementing the internal market and in this internal market most corporations are suppressing expat packages nowadays. So isn't this out of date?

I really don't think so because the 16% expatriation allowance is keeping us attractive on the labour market. When we compare how much the international civil servants are paid, and you can take any category be it at  the UN, or at the OECD, be it different kinds of international banks or be it our colleagues from the member states working for the Council …

But why not compare with member state officials in the capitals? This is the capital of Europe, this is not New York or Geneva…

But I think it's very difficult to compare it that way because still your home is in your home country. Officials still have their family there. You still have your roots there. You still have to take care of your elderly parents.

If there are any problems you still have to do things in your home country and I think what is very important for all of us is really to preserve the link with the home country because we want to have institutions which are really representative of 27 member states and not create something which would be totally detached.

Therefore I think that the 16% expatriation allowance is very important for recruiting the best officials we need. If you compare the size of the Commission, you know that it's half of the administration of the city of Birmingham, or it's very comparable with other city administrations in cities like Paris or others.

And we still have to perform the duties for 500 million citizens.

Did you compare with the salaries of those people? If you take the comparison in terms of numbers of staff maybe you should also compare with the average salary?

And you can also compare with the level of responsibilities and the level of outreach of what we do here. I know that the argument is a little bit misleading, but at the same time we also have to compare the number of civil servants in the central ministries of big member states.

We are speaking in some cases of hundreds of thousands of employees in just one member state. And we have 33,000 officials working for the Commission. How can we do our job? Only by hiring the best people for the job.

We have to take on the best lawyers—and there we are competing with the private sector, where salaries are totally incomparable with the Commission. We have to take the best IT specialists in the world.

If you have infringement cases, our Commission officials have to partner with the best civil servants in the national civil services. They have to know their job, they have to be experts and on top of this they have to do this job in three languages. Where can you find such people in the national civil service?

I was working for the civil service of my country and these people are very, very hard to find. On top of it you have to have a commitment from the expert and his family to move to another country, which is not easy, and to stay there probably for most if not their whole career.

I am by origin a diplomat so I know how difficult it is to move from one country to another.

I can tell you that we have a big problem recruiting highly-qualified staff in a high-wage economy.

Not to name countries, but we have had over the recent months quite a few turn-downs from potential European officials coming from high-wage economies who have turned down director posts because they get more in their national civil service.

This is the situation in which we are right now: In the morning I am criticised by the ministers of these countries because the salaries are too high and in bilateral meetings in the afternoon they are critical for not having enough officials working from their countries in the Commission.

This doesn't match!

There are 30.000 people applying to EPSO concours and we only take 300. The argument is that we have to create the conditions where we can actually get such a quality. Because it would be very easy to staff the Commission with a lower quality, lower price, but what would then be the price that Europe would pay?

Coming back to the beginning of our conversation, our budget is less than 6% of 1% the European GDP and for that I think we offer very solid value for money.

Vice-President Maros Šef?ovi? also answered a few questions on the European Citizens' Initiative (please click here)

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