Lately, dark clouds have been looming over EPSO’s tiny headquarters in Brussels. The European Personnel Selection Office, responsible for the recruitment of eurocrats, has recently fallen foul of a couple of court rulings which brought into question both its competence and its working methods. Flagrant inaccuracies and negligence in managing public competitions have tarnished the reputation of the Office among the tens of thousands of applicants vying for a munificent position in the EU bodies, to such an extent that, according to a recent survey, “for a significant number of candidates the image of the EU institutions deteriorated as a result of their experience with the selection procedure.”
And yet with a third of current Brussels staff expected to retire by 2020, EPSO is critical to ensuring a smooth turnover of personnel. The task looks titanic. Since its establishment in 2003, the Office has assessed no less than 116, 000 candidates (according to last year figures) in their test centres scattered all over the world. This number is set to increase dramatically as a result of two factors : First, new selection procedures means that the number of competitions held each year has been multiplied. Second, with unemployment biting in most Member States, more and more young professionals from all over Europe are turning to the European institutions in the hope of securing a more stable job.
It is no wonder that the first General Competition in 7 years for Administrators drew some 60,000 applications. Nonetheless EPSO staff numbers are modest, amounting to only 150 civil servants. “In fact we are increasingly overloaded with work,” laments one employee. “So far our demands to enlarge the team have been turned down on the grounds that there is no money available.”
In (legal) trouble
On 7 February EPSO rushed to dispel speculation over the possible shattering repercussions of a EU Court ruling contesting the validity of Cast 27, an official selection dating back to 2007. The Tribunal had upheld a complaint filed by the Italian government against the fact that the competition’s call for interest had been made available online in the three EU working languages only : English, French and German. According to the plaintiff, that “procedural mistake” was not consistent with the principles of non-discrimination, proportionality and multilingualism embodied in European law.
In truth, the litigation may conceal a desperate and PR-driven attempt by Italian authorities to maintain their notoriously waning clout in Brussels circles. Even so, the Court sided with Italy, annulling the call for interest. In EPSO’s view, that does not invalidate the legality of the thousands of jobs given, albeit on temporary basis, to CAST 27 successful contestants. Provided that this interpretation is correct, the verdict might all the same lead to a barrage of legal claims from excluded candidates. According to a representative of the European Commission Comité du Personnel, “the current EPSO system tried to do away with previous injustices but was established too hastily, without taking into account possible consequences.”
In fact, fresh controversies could soon surface. On 21 February the Financial Times ran an article on the Commission’s plans to set up ad hoc competitions for Britons, allowing them to take the tests in English only (even though the knowledge of a second language is supposed to be mandatory). If this turns into reality, expect France to fight back by any available judicial means.
Of course, criticism is par for the course for any public administration body, any time that it opens its ranks for a new round of recruitment. For instance, the Civil Service Tribunal, established by the Treaty of Nice in order to arbitrate EU staff complaints, has reversed EPSO decisions on several occasions regarding single cases. And suspicion over a lack of transparency in the selections has been keeping the European Ombudsman busy for several years.
In June 2010, however, the Civil Service Tribunal itself went so far as to condemn EPSO’s assessment criteria, the very backbone of its work. In the Pachitis case, the EU Lower Court determined that EPSO was not “legally competent” to establish which questions should feature in the infamous preliminary part of the selection race : a computer-based exam combining verbal reasoning, numerical, abstract and judgemental tests feared and scorned by would-be eurocrats to the degree they dared to portray EPSO as Hitler in a viral Internet clip. “The tests do not take into account certain skills or experience. A person might have the highest score but this is not a guarantee that this person might have the necessary skills to become a manager, for example” confirms a European Commission trade unionist.
In addition, the EU judges established that the recruitment office was not entitled to bar candidates from the second stage of the contest on the basis of pre-selection results. However, this did not exactly trigger major reform. EPSO director David Bearfield reacted to the verdict by affirming that there were no plans to revise the rules. “You see ? They do not care about rulings,” admits another EPSO employee. “We have plenty of lawyers dealing with the cases.” To put it bluntly, nothing has changed.
EPSO commenced operation in January 2003. But plans to set up an “inter-institutional recruitment office” had been outlined long before through the white paper on the “Reform of the Commission” : a document intended to reorganize the Brussels Executive administration after suspicions of mismanagement and fraud led to the collapse of the Santer Commission in 1999. Among the allegations which occasioned the first-ever resignation of a Commission was that of nepotism, epitomised by Commissioner Edith Cresson’s hiring of her dentist as a top official. Hence the urge to create a fresh and centralised mechanism to scrutinize and hire candidates and to delegate it to a dedicated body.
In other words, EPSO was meant to increase transparency. Did it succeed ? Not entirely if one considers that the European Ombudsman opened more than 10 inquiries into murky recruitment practices between 2005 and 2009. In the first investigation against EPSO, “the Ombudsman took the view that the above practices appeared to be inconsistent with the European Union’s commitment to a public administration guided by the principles of transparency, accountability and good administration”.
There is plenty of reasons for this endless string of legal complaints. Take the preliminary exams. Prior to being scrapped under new recruitment procedures, the EU knowledge quiz was a huge headache for the vast majority of candidates. The principle of assessing the familiarity of contestants with European Union history and policies is irrefutably an important one. Much less professional is torturing them with complex questions about minor points of Treaties. Does it matter if a person running for a financial assistant post knows which EU Member State does not apply Schengen rules for its ports ?
At first glance, the remaining verbal reasoning and numerical questions seem to be more conventional. But EPSO was under pressure from Member States to ensure those tests be held in each of the 21 official languages, and this has made things more complicated. For instance, “the verbal test in Greek was Aramaic to me” stresses Leonidas, a Greek IT consultant who took part in a recent competition. “It looked like it has been translated from English to Greek using Google translate”. Several candidates from Eastern countries expressed similar frustration. However, that is not all.
With the 2010 general competition for Assistants EPSO introduced two new tests, which are supposed to assess candidates’ “professional skills”, as stated in the competition notice. General wisdom might consider that questions should concern the specific fields for which candidates applied. In fact, contestants have been quizzed on their “accuracy and precision” at work and on how they “prioritise and organise” their tasks. No practice books for these tests were available in the run-up to the competition and nor did EPSO bother to publish sample questions on its website. “The least I can say is that the tests do not take into account certain skills or experience,” concludes our Comité du Personnel source.