Is British influence in Brussels about to fall off a cliff?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Gergely Polner

Gergely Polner

The UK still holds a high number of senior civil servants in the EU, but their number is in decline. The foreign office should encourage young civil servants and graduates to work in Brussels, writes Gergely Polner.

Gergely Polner is head of EU affairs of the British Bankers’ Association (BBA). He previously worked as head of public affairs for the European Parliament in the UK.

For years media reports have warned us about the decreasing influence of the UK in Brussels. Given the concerns this raises inside the City, we decided to take a detailed look at the problem and design possible remedies.

In the report we published yesterday, we showed that Britain remains well-represented at the top echelons of the European Commission. Of the 128 senior management and top cabinet positions, Germany held 20, the UK 13 and France 11 at the end of 2013. This confirms the view that the UK has been and remains one of the most influential EU member states.

However there are two worrying tendencies that point to an impending cliff-edge for British influence. First of all, many of the highest-ranking British officials are near retirement age and there is no pipeline of junior colleagues ready to replace them.

Secondly, the proportion of British officials in the Commission is decreasing rapidly – from 9.6% in 2004 to 5.3% in 2014, compared to a UK population share of approximately 12%. And even these low numbers are concentrated in departments that are not policy focused (for example is the Directorate General (DG) for Communication. This leaves the percentage of British officials in departments that are crucial in drafting financial services legislation even lower, such as 3.5% in DG Internal Market and Services.

The silver lining here is the outstanding performance of UK universities in preparing mostly non-British people for EU careers. At AD7 level, 20% of successful applicants come from UK universities and the LSE alone produces a significant proportion of these. This provides a significant and untapped pool of officials who may not be British, but have intellectual and emotional ties to the UK.

To improve British staff level in the European Commission, the BBA is proposing a range of possible measures in its report ‘British Influence in the EU’.

We would like to see more entrants to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office European Fast Stream, providing for more and better preparation, in order to improve the number of UK nationals taking and passing the international competition which leads to staff jobs in the EU institutions.

We also think British civil servants should be encouraged to spend time in Brussels during their career. They could, for instance, be required to undertake a secondment to one of the EU institutions or to the United Kingdom Representation Office there as a necessary condition for promotion.

The application rate of British graduates for EU jobs could be improved by raising awareness in universities among students with adequate language skills and by increasing scholarship opportunities for British graduates at the College of Europe, which is the best preparation school for an EU job.

The Government has in the past few years taken taken steps to improve the situation, but we think more should be done. What is at stake is our ability as a country to carry on projecting our values, business culture, political mind-set – in short our influence – in Brussels.

You can read the full report, British Influence in the EU, on BBA's website.

Subscribe to our newsletters