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Managing European talent in EU external action: Hasn’t Brexit already served as a wake-up call?

21-10-2016

Helly, D. 2016. Managing European talent in EU external action: Hasn’t Brexit already served as a wake-up call?. ECDPM Talking Points blog, 21 October 2016.

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In the third of a series of three blog posts (see the first blog and the second blog) ahead of the publication of the implementation plan of the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, ECDPM’s Damien Helly explains how the EU could better manage European talent in international affairs by pooling resources.

In my second blog in this 3-blog series, I called for a European External Human Resources management system for external action in order to deliver on the EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy. Such a system could put the talent of European professionals in foreign affairs and international cooperation at the service of national and European interests in the world. How can this be done?


European talent in international affairs: optimal management sought


The current legal framework used to manage European human resources in external action is fragmented, and could be harmonised. At the moment, several legal references are applied to manage different categories of staff. This creates discrepancies, feelings of injustice and at times demotivates personnel.

The EU staff regulation is a complex and heterogeneous legal architecture. It applies to career officials, temporary agents, seconded national experts, and contract and local staff – in accordance with the rules of the country where they are employed. Staff in crisis management operations (where member states have been notoriously inefficient at sending seconded personnel, particularly in the case of civilian missions) are employed under different rules.

Budget and staff cuts adopted for the 2014-2020 period (in addition to other human resources reforms that spurred dissatisfaction among trade unions) have led to the EU institutions contracting more staff (instead of recruiting career officials) and to the regionalisation of certain functions (for instance, finance and contracts). A number of court cases have been launched by unions or individuals to challenge some reforms applying to staff working in EU Delegations.

While acknowledging efforts made by the management to improve working conditions and engage in social dialogue, the U4U union group in DEVCO diagnosed the situation as suboptimal, especially in EU Delegations (where internal surveys were held in 2014 and 2015). Highly qualified contract staff tend to fill positions previously occupied by career officials or the contract staff do the same jobs as better paid career civil servants.

In the European External Action Service (EEAS), the access of contract agents to internal competitions to become career officials has been a matter of debate between unions and EU administrations. Regular talks with staff working in external action and material produced by trade-unions confirm the existence of real concerns about the impact of institutional constraints on the efficiency of human resources management.

Member states’ staff in the EEAS have had privileged access to top managerial positions (approximately half of the 33 positions of director and higher including those in the EU military staff). This has caused frustration among the staff from the European Commission and the European Council, who find the EEAS a less attractive workplace.

The EEAS has made progress, however, in managing competing demands in its recruitment policy. It has allocated positions to staff:

(i) coming from member states, which are entitled to one-third of administrators positions (seconded national experts are not counted in this case) and;
(ii) coming from EU institutions, as they are entitled to 60% of the administrator posts.

Yet, there is still a myriad of candidates for positions in the EEAS who do not manage to obtain a job in the service and are simply added to an already long, untapped reserve list. For those who wish to know more, the service regularly publishes the constantly evolving data on its human resources in a regular report.

In EU Delegations, the coexistence of different working cultures, the diversity of statuses and some confusion on roles distribution between EEAS and Commission staff in the chain of command requires measures to ensure more efficiency and an atmosphere of trust among staff.


Inter-institutional convergence on talent management and smart mobility: is it possible today?


Talks have been held on staff rotation and staff mobility across institutions, but there is still no joined approach as far as external action is concerned.

In DEVCO, a mobility and redeployment scheme was put in place in 2014, managed by the so-called Optimus system. New measures were taken in 2016 by the DG Human Resources of the Commission to re-centralise human resources management, and launch compulsory rotation for mid-level managers (heads of unit in particular) across the Commission.

The way external action (across the board) is handled in this policy move will probably require more inter-institutional dialogue, “a cultural shift”, to quote Robert Cooper, and more coordination at the level of the Commissioners’ group on external action chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini.

Staff mobility management is also about: (i) allowing EU staff to serve in national member states administrations and vice versa, with shared visions and objectives and; (ii) encouraging several year-long staff exchanges and hosting programmes between member states. Some – such as the Bellevue programme funded by the Robert Bosch foundation – already exist, but they are more the exception than the rule.

A growing challenge concerns the availability and the circulation of thematic expertise and human capital. A former EU Head of Delegation to a multilateral organisation has recently told me that he unsuccessfully struggled to have thematic experts from line DGs of the Commission join his team. Many in DEVCO regret the loss of in-house thematic expertise in certain areas and the tendency to outsource it.

The EU Global Strategy recognises that global challenges are increasingly multidimensional and interconnected. Member states, “thematic” (although “thematic” means many things) DGs of the Commission and EU Delegations will have to make more efforts to put available expertise at the disposal of joined-up external action.

One option being explored is the creation of “mixed” positions in EU Delegations. According to internal administrative arrangements, this arrangement implies that staff with a specific expertise in a thematic DG are sent to EU Delegations to serve both authorities. So far, 19 such positions have been created, but this is far too limited. In some cases, thematic DGs have decided to repatriate their staff based abroad, arguing that domestic priorities come first. The fact that in 2016 11 national experts on migrations were seconded to EU Delegations shows that when national governments are motivated they certainly can contribute efficiently.


Delivering together on the EU Global Strategy: long-term measures


In EU Delegations, human resources optimisation relates to the pooling of efforts and capacities with EU member states. The possibilities of joined up measures include:

(i) a smarter division of tasks among member states and the EU Delegations;
(ii) more systematic co-location of member states’ and EU staff abroad (already happening to some extent). The EEAS, could provide public updates and track progress;
(iii) and the creation of EU compounds (diplomatic sites hosting EU Delegations, member states embassies and other EU staff) – a topic deserving a study in itself, not least on the architectural dimensions of European external representation.

Experiences of EU compounds have been ongoing for many years in Tanzania, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. Pooling and sharing options are usually managed in an ad hoc manner, driven by motivated EU and member states staff. An overarching, long-term scheme would bring more predictability to human resources management. That said, the EEAS now has a coordinating role in issues of co-location and holds bi-yearly meetings with member states to discuss human resources management in relation to the usage of diplomatic buildings.

Since it all starts with education and shared cultures, studies for the feasibility of a networked European External Action academy could be launched. The existing knowledge about diplomatic training can serve as a good basis to assess how modern training and skills enhancement can be shared jointly among EU member states.

At a time of existential crisis, high-level national and EU civil servants should engage more resolutely (and convince their undecided political elites) in managing EU talent to deliver on the Global Strategy and move beyond long-lasting political and institutional deadlocks. Hasn’t Brexit already served as a wake-up call?


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Photo courtesy of DG EMPL via Flickr

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European external affairs