European Commission plans to introduce a professional card for ski teachers valid across all participating EU countries is creating jitters among a profession that was until now largely protected by national rules.
Ski instruction is just one among hundreds of other professions that the European Commission wants to harmonise at the EU level by allowing mutual recognition of qualifications across borders.
The Commission has been conducting case studies on a possible 'European Professional Card' to ease movement across national borders of engineers, medical professionals and property agents.
By simplifying administrative requirements, the EU executive hopes to encourage job mobility and stimulate economic growth.
"All citizens seeking the recognition of their professional qualifications should be able to go to a one-stop shop rather than being passed around between different government bodies," the Commission said in December last year as it presented a review of the 2005 Professional Qualifications Directive.
A key element of the updated directive is the introduction of a European professional card that will offer easier and quicker recognition of qualifications across borders.
"The card will be made available according to the needs expressed by the professions," the Commission said, adding that nurses and mountain guides had voiced a strong interest in the idea.
France protecting its market
However, any significant opening of the job market is bound to generate resistance among the professions concerned. And ski instruction may well be emerging as a case in point at the European level.
At present, only ski instructors who pass the so-called 'Eurotest' – a tough downhill slalom – can apply for teaching in the countries that have signed up to it – currently Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
In practice though, few foreigners have been able to teach in a country like France, where the 'Eurotest' has to be complemented by a safety diploma showing that instructors are qualified to handle extreme circumstances such as avalanches.
Britain is so far the only country to have matched the demanding French requirement by putting in place its own equivalent – called BASI 4. For others, teaching in France has proved next to impossible.
"The British have made big efforts to train good instructors to work in France and they have reached the required standard," said Gilles Forte, a technical director at the French Ski Schools (ESF).
"But there is a problem with Belgian and German instructors who don't have the necessary skills," he told the BBC.
Ski instruction in France: A €400 million industry
The challenging French professional requirements have de facto shielded the country from foreign competition in the ski instruction sector, which generates around €400 million every year.
According to some in the profession, this turnover is attracting a great deal of interest among foreign ski instructors.
"The entire ski instruction sector in France is private," says Philippe Camus, a former ski instructor who is now president of the Syndicat International des Moniteurs de Ski (SIMS), an independent professional organisation.
"This is a competitive industry," Camus told EURACTIV. "What we're doing is a business. There are €350 or 400 million that are generated in four months. This is not trivial."
As many ski instructors are self-employed, the potential gains can be handsome. "A ski instructor today is paid on average between €35 and €40 per hour. If they do well, they can do 700 hours in the winter season and make €30,000 in four months."
France is not alone in erecting hurdles for foreign ski instructors. In Italy, the system is even more complex as rules vary from one region to another.
Ski teachers' Green Card may prove test case
At European level, several countries have expressed interest in broadening the 'Eurotest' to more countries in order to make it simpler for aspirant ski instructors to pass the exam.
The office of Michel Barnier, the EU's internal market Commissioner, has already hosted several meetings with representatives of European ski instructors to agree on a reform of the 'Eurotest'.
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Romania, Spain and the UK signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in February establishing a pilot project for a professional card to be issued for ski instructors in the European Union. A signature by Italy is expected in the near future, said Chantal Hughes, spokesperson for Barnier.
"The MoU provides that ski instructors who have passed the 'Eurotest' and have acquired in their member state of origin safety-related competencies in accordance with the requirements of the 'Euro-Security' test, as well as pedagogical competencies required for the diploma of highest qualification, will receive a pilot professional card from their country of origin," Hughes told EURACTIV.
The professional card will be recognised by all the signatories of the MoU and enable ski instructors to benefit from automatic recognition of their qualifications in the countries concerned, she said.
Reform carved up behind closed doors
But according to Camus, the big Alpine countries – Austria, France, Germany and Italy – are anxious to carve up an agreement that would prevent a wave of cheap labour coming in from newer EU countries.
"The risk at some point is to see Romanians or Czechs who will work for half the price," he told EURACTIV, something that could upset local employment.
"There are countries like Romania, the Czech Republic or Hungary which have degrees that are technically weaker than those of the Alpine Arc. So the big countries of the Alpine Arc, which represent the majority, are seeking to exclude them," Camus told EURACTIV.
And when meetings were held in Brussels with representatives of professional organisations to reform the 'Eurotest', not everyone was invited at the table. Camus's SIMS trade union, which represents independent ski schools in France, Switzerland and Italy, was surprisingly left outside – despite his repeated calls to be invited.
When he asked to receive the minutes of the meeting, Camus was told to enquire with the Syndicat National des Moniteurs de Ski Français (SNMSF), which was appointed by France to sit at the Brussels talks. The SNMSF represents the Ecole du Ski Français (ESF), which dominates snow sport teaching in France and is a direct competitor to Camus' Ecole de Ski Internationale (ESI).
To Camus, this was equivalent to asking Carrefour to enquire with rival Auchan on the future regulation of the retail distribution market in France.
"Let me remind you that ski teaching is completely privatised in France," Camus told Barnier in a letter. "The SNMSF is our direct competitor," he remarked, asking to be kept informed about the meeting's decisions.
Barnier's office took a defensive stance, saying it was up to the member states to appoint representatives to the EU talks. In the case of France, four delegates were sent to Brussels – all from the SNMSF, which is the dominant voice in the industry.
Asked by EURACTIV, the French sports ministry, which made the appointments, said it was processing our request for comment.
"The Swiss have the same problem as us – they have a majority union that crushes the profession," Camus said.