Europe Day takes ironic turn as EU staff strike

Council stike pay and pensions.jpg

A day before Europe Day (9 May), held yearly to celebrate the peace and unity in Europe, 3,500 staff of the European institutions held a strike against budgets cuts that may see their salaries cut by 60% over the next 15 years.

Europe Day marks the anniversary the speech given in Paris in 1950 by the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman. The speech was credited as giving rise to the creation of the European Union and its supranational institutions.

In it the minister said that pooling of economic resources would help raise standards of living, paving the way to a more united and peaceful Europe.

But as austerity tightens its grip on the continent, separatists and eurosceptics are gaining an ever louder voice. The staff of the EU institutions has become one of its fall guys, with British Prime Minister David Cameron and other ministers pushing in earnest for a “real terms” cut to their salary.

Trade unions held the strike to coincide with a meeting of member states’ ambassadors to the EU, who were expected to adopt a formal negotiating position on a proposed reform of the institutions’ staff regulations.

Officials from the EU Council of Ministers, the European Commission and Parliament will engage in three-way negotiations next week.

The Commission estimates that the proposed cuts would result in a 60% reduction in EU staff purchasing power.

“If all of these proposals were implemented it would mean roughly a 60% pay cut in real terms over the next 15 years. My understanding is that this is the reason why the Council unions called a strike,” said Antony Gravili, Commission spokesman on inter-institutional relations.

The proposals would also require EU staff to work longer hours for no more pay and increase the retirement age to 67. Staff contribution to pensions will also rise from 33 to 45%.

The average retirement age for national public servants is under 63.

“We have to stop saying ‘we have good salaries and we can accept a small sacrifice’. The time has come to refuse,” read a statement by the Council’s working party on staff regulations.

Freedom

But Europe Day further became tinged in irony as private security agents were instructed to prevent journalists from attending and taking photographs of the rally.

Preventing journalists from taking photographs or attending public meetings contravenes the EU institutions’ media freedom policy.

A Council source told EURACTIV that the guards, from private security firm G4S, may have been instructed to set up a perimeter due to the logistical difficulties posed by the estimated gathering of some 3,500 staff members within the lobby of the building, through which numerous government delegates and officials pass.

The source said that the building did “not have well-established rules” for such a gathering.

“Staff meetings do not normally happen in this room, in a place where everyone is going to and fro. They [security guards] made a perimeter,” he said. “Is it a room or a space? People are trying to grapple with that … Staff assemblies are usually in a closed room so the issue doesn’t really arise so I think they are doing the equivalent.”

"In the UK we are cutting admin budgets by as much as a third, civil service staff by 10% in two years. None of this has been easy," UK premier David Cameron said last year.

"Meanwhile Brussels continues to exist as if it is in a parallel universe. The EU institutions simply have got to adjust to the real world. The commission did not offer a single euro in savings, not one euro – insulting to European taxpayers. I do not think that is good enough,” he added.

"We have to understand - all of us - that the member states have to cut costs. The state administrations have to save money. It would be weird if only one body, the European Commission, shouldn't be included in that," Danish premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt was quoted as saying in the newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

In spite of the German tradition to mark Europe’s Day in a festive way, there is no pro-European party mood in the public opinion and in the media, EURACTIV Germany reports.

Officially, Germany does not only celebrate Europe's Day but Europe's week from 4 to 12 May, with official events, open days, information activities, press statements or school visits of German politicians.

"It is Europe Day - and nobody is celebrating", writes left-winger Dominic Heilig in the German socialist newspaper Neues Deutschland. "On EU's Europe's Day, so the 9 May 2013, most EU institutions are closed and its employees have a day off. In contrast, 12% of the people in eurozone countries are involuntarily 'released' from work every single day," he writes, adding that another holiday has received a new political dimension: "1 May 2013 has become a real 'day of action' in many European countries." Furthermore, trust in the EU has fallen and Euroscepticism is on the rise - in Germany and in most other EU countries [more].

Likewise, anti-German sentiments have spread, especially in southern Europe and recently in France. And the founding congress of Alternative for Germany (AfD) some weeks ago marks the emergence of a party that wants to exit the euro and challenges Germany’s pro-European political consensus [more] In short, Germany's pro-European fellows currently are not in a party mood - neighter on Europe's Day.  

The Commission's career system consists of a single pay scale with 16 grades. Within this pay scale, Assistants (AST) can occupy grades 1 - 11 while Administrators (AD) can occupy grades 5 - 16.

Basic monthly Commission salaries range from around €2,300 per month for a newly recruited AST 1 official to around €16,000 per month for a top level AD 16 official with over 4 years of seniority.

Each grade is broken up into five seniority steps with corresponding salary increases. Basic salaries are adjusted annually in line with inflation and purchasing power in the EU countries.

The complete salary table is available in the Staff regulations.

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