Musical chairs for EU top jobs leaves countries in the lurch

[EPA-EFE/Oliver Hoslet]

The geographical imbalance of EU Commission jobs is on everyone’s radar. Most EU member states are frustrated with the current situation, and the EU executive’s current plans are unlikely to satisfy them, EURACTIV has learnt.

EURACTIV involved 13 EU countries in researching this article representing a diverse set of the continent’s corners. Only two were satisfied with the current HR status quo.

Member states can be subdivided into three categories: those lacking representation in top jobs, those missing fresh blood in younger positions and those snubbed at both ends of the seniority spectrum.

Relatively new countries are dissatisfied with the low representation of their nationals in higher positions. Meanwhile, older member states face a generational renewal problem, as many senior officials will reach retirement age soon. Those dying out altogether are calling for short-term solutions, such as recruitment based on nationality.

The New-ish kids on the bloc are unhappy

According to the Geographical Representation in EU Leadership Observatory, the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries have been underrepresented within European institutions since their accession.

“Western and Southern Europe gathered 85% of new appointments in 2021 and 70% over the 2019-2021 triennium. Meanwhile, no citizen from Central Europe was appointed to a leadership position in 2021,” the analysis warns.

“For years, we have been observing a tendency to marginalise our region in the process of nomination to senior positions in the EU”, one CEE diplomat told EURACTIV.

In their view, the lack of equal representation results in the alienation of citizens and undermines the democratic legitimacy of the EU, increasing anti-EU and nationalist sentiments.

However, this issue may partially be these countries’ own doing, as many lack proper strategies to get their nationals into EU institutions.

The problem of generational renewal

However, the problem does not affect only CEE countries. 

“Our current situation is satisfactory, but we can already see a downward trend which can over this decade lead to under-representation of Finns in many bigger institutions, including the Commission where we are already under-represented in younger officials,” Mikael Kekkonen, Counsellor from the Permanent Representation of Finland to the EU, told EURACTIV.

According to Kekkonen, the main reason for the problem is that many officials recruited when Finland joined the EU have reached or will soon reach the retirement age. Moreover, there have been few newcomers recruited in past years.

As EURACTIV learnt, Ireland and Germany share similar concerns. 

“It is clear to us that the EU institutions together with the Member States need to address this problem,” Kekkonen said.

The European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), responsible for selecting staff to work for the institutions, has already listed 17 Member State countries, including the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which deserve particular attention due to their under-representation.

“The situation demonstrates a longstanding systemic problem in the EU institutions’ personnel policy, where language requirements favour mainly southern European countries (e.g. Italy and Spain) at the expense of representation from the other Member States,” Tereza Kůnová from the Czech Government’s office told

However, the allegedly inappropriate system of selecting EU officials may not be the only cause of the insufficient representation.  

“In the Czech Republic, it is certainly due to a more lukewarm attitude towards EU membership, and therefore more lukewarm support from ministries and the government’s office for Czechs who want to enter the institutions. Especially for senior positions, lobbying and support from the state authorities are an important factor because competition is high,” said Jan Kovář, Deputy Research Director of the Prague’s Institute of International Relations.

Spanish miracle

In 2018, the European Commission published a guiding rate, i.e. the share that the nationals of that Member State should ideally represent based on its population.

“Currently in the Commission, there are indeed nationalities which are below 80% of their guiding rate,” the EU executive’s spokesperson admitted.

Several EU countries have already adopted a special strategy to boost the numbers of nationals within the EU institutions. For example, the Czech Republic approved the plan in 2015. Similar documents were also adopted in Sweden, Ireland, Denmark and others.

Spain increased the activity of their dedicated unit at their Brussels outpost known as the unit of support to nationals in the institutions (UDA), which issues semestral reports comprising the overall presence of Spaniards in the different EU institutions.

From the February 2021 report, seen by EURACTIV, two facts stand out: Spain has 8.4% of the total civil servants of the EU institutions (including temporary agents), only behind Italy, France and Belgium, and close to its guiding rate of 8.9%.

In the upcoming years, this dominance could even increase as Spanish nationals succeed in entrance competitions, which stands at over 14 % of the total.

What’s your passport?

Meanwhile, 10 extremely concerned EU Member States are calling for a change and sent a letter to budget and administration Commissioner Johannes Hahn at the end of 2021.

One of the solutions pushed by some countries is the introduction of nationality-based competitions to rebalance representation within the Commission as a short-term fix before remedial measures with longer horizons can kick in. 

However, the Commission has retorted that while such passport-based job postings are within its arsenal, they shall remain a solution of “last resort.”

Though the European Commission confirmed to EURACTIV that it is already working on a new Human Resources Strategy, it omitted to answer whether it is willing to consider job postings based on nationality.

Instead, it said geographical balance is “a desirable objective” but recalled all its “officials work for the interest of the EU” while appointments are “made on the basis of merit and competences independent of considerations about nationality.”

“It is important to understand how and why imbalances happen. The reasons vary from country to country. This is why in the new HR Strategy, we are proposing an action plan for the underrepresented Member States, which will include country-specific analyses and tailor-made measures,” the Commission’s spokesperson said.

The Juniors

Still, without systematic long term vision beyond promotional activities in member states, the EU executive’s HR stance is bound to irk European capitals.

However, data on the Commission’s new move to attract younger blood into its corridors shows there might be alternative solutions to rebalance the scales.

The Juniors Professionals Program (JPP), partially inspired by the World Bank’s similar longstanding scheme, is already showing imbalances only three years after its launch in 2018.

Yet, such asymmetries could, in the long term, help tip the scale in the right direction for the whole of the Commission if adequately managed.

For instance, Denmark and Ireland, currently overrepresented in the program, are looking to inject young blood into the EU civil service, according to their national plans.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

[Data visualisation by: Esther Snippe |]

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