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Editor’s blog – The EU ‘gravy train’ in Brussels – fact or fiction?

Reports of holiday entitlement of up to 80 days a year. Stories of salaries at €15,000 per month for non-management positions. Early retirement at 63. Disproportionately generous pensions. Bonuses equivalent to 16 per cent of wages. School fees for children paid by the employer. No prospect of compulsory redundancy. Welcome to life as a senior European Union official – or at least the perception of the ‘EU gravy train’ among some MEPs, journalists and citizens.

The topic has often provoked fierce debate over the value-for-money provided by civil servants in Brussels. Staff unions claim supranational officials are seven times more efficient than national mandarins given that the entire EU, representing 500 million citizens, is run with a staff equivalent to a large local authority – some 55,000 workers.

This might or might not be true but why on earth do the unions think it is a good idea to continually talk of strikes over pay and conditions when member states are suffering crushing austerity? It really does not help to fight against the negative public view of ‘Eurocrats’.

And an example of the reason for industrial action given in the past – plans to raise the retirement age to 67 over the next 15 years at the same time as reducing pay and pensions. It might be a painful haircut but senior EU officials are starting from a higher base than their national counterparts and the measures were to be spread over a decade and a half.

This compares favourably with countries like the United Kingdom where administration budgets are being cut by a third and the headcount of civil service staff reduced by 10 per cent in just two years. Meanwhile, in the likes of Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal the overnight austerity is at another level altogether.

German newspaper Die Welt infamously claimed that more than 4,300 EU civil servants earned more than the country’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even if this is wild exaggeration, as was claimed in retrospect, it cannot be right for even a small number of EU officials to be paid a salary in excess of the most powerful politician in Europe. Once again, the union appears out of touch with reality.

Wake up Brussels. Despite the complacency among political leaders talking of the green shoots of recovery, we are living through the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The very idea of a welfare state itself is close to collapse in a number of European countries. Unemployment has spiked off the charts. And there is a risk that true economic growth becomes something that a generation of young people never gets to experience.

Of course, it is true that the entrance exams for EU officials are tougher than those for most national civil servants. The language skills required also deserve a premium wage. And the level of complexity in crafting policies palatable to all 28 member states is quite unique. But let us get real here. At a time of deepening Euroscepticism when anti-EU politicians are making significant electoral gains, the party has to stop.

Staff expectations in the quixotic upper echelons must be managed downwards, if only to show the people of Europe that the EU is not the remote and technocratic ‘gravy train’ its critics portray it to be. To argue otherwise is disingenuous.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review

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