“I REMEMBER THE day after the vote so clearly,” says one Englishman, who had landed his dream job at the European Commission, the EU’s civil service, in June 2016, only weeks before the referendum. “I pretty much burst into tears in a management meeting.” Surrounded by senior colleagues in whose footsteps he had hoped to follow, the young Eurocrat saw his ambitions thwarted. “I realised that couldn’t happen for me,” he sighs.
The British have always been a rare species in Brussels. When the country joined what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973, a wave of young civil servants saw a career on the continent as a brighter prospect than a desk in Whitehall. But subsequent generations proved harder to recruit. Just 2.8% of the commission’s staff and 2.4% of those at the European Council (where heads of government meet) are British, despite the fact that Britain makes up 12.9% of the EU’s population. Alongside Britain’s elected and appointed representatives, this small group are the last of their kind. When they depart, none of their countrymen will replace them.
On Brexit day, March 29th, Sir Julian King, Britain’s representative on the commission, will hand his responsibilities to one of his European colleagues. Britain’s 73 MEPs will pack up their offices and send their assistants home. Many are planning to pursue charitable concerns. Some, such as Seb Dance, a Labour MEP from London, want to work at rebuilding international relationships they believe Brexit has broken. Others are tempted to enter the Westminster fray. But Richard Ashworth, a Conservative-turned-independent MEP, who co-wrote the EU’s “Bible” of financial regulation, has had enough of politics. “When I walk away, I’ll close the door and do something completely different,” he says.
A few MEPs will celebrate their redundancy. “They make me sick,” says Gerard Batten, leader of the UK Independence Party, of his parliamentary colleagues. “These men—they were great Europeans,” he says, gesturing to the pictures of Napoleon, Mozart and Michelangelo’s David on his office wall. Today’s passengers on the Brussels “gravy train” do not compare, he says. After Brexit, Mr Batten hopes to retire—though “it depends what needs to be done” regarding Britain’s escape from Europe. His assistant makes English breakfast tea in a china cup, which will soon be packed in a box alongside his Union Jack cushions and sent back to little England.
The situation is different for civil servants. Although EU rules say that staff must be citizens of a member state, they allow for some exceptions. The EU has said that British citizens should not be punished for Brexit and, in recent weeks, has appointed a couple of British Eurocrats, Michael Shotter and Nicole Smith, to senior roles at the commission’s home-affairs and budget directorates. Sir Julian himself arrived in his post after the referendum, and was given a serious portfolio. “Juncker [Jean-Claude, the president of the commission] could have given him a stationery cupboard,” jokes a colleague.
In January the commission reiterated promises to its 917 British staff that fonctionnaires, civil servants with permanent jobs, would be able to stay on after Brexit. Those on temporary contracts may be able to finish the agreements they currently have, and the official word is that they can expect to be treated generously in future. EU insiders expect that the 73 Britons at the council and 299 officials, temporary agents and contract agents at the parliament can expect the same treatment.
But the reality may prove less rosy. Everyone accepts that Britons will have fewer opportunities for promotion after their country leaves. They will be kept away from sensitive areas where there could be conflicts of interest, such as competition, trade, agriculture and the budget. And although jobs are supposedly granted on merit, member states want their nationals in influential positions. British candidates will have no one to lobby for them.
The process has already started. One British commission official has twice been told he needed a second passport to secure promotions, even before Britain’s formal departure. He, like many others, has since acquired another EU nationality through a family connection. “But even if you come along waving an Irish passport, people will remember you were British first,” worries another dual national.
Those who leave and those who stay
Mid-career civil servants will be the worst affected. Most British officials are senior and close to retirement, so can ride out the remaining years with little change. But staff in their 40s, one or two steps below the top jobs, will probably have to stop where they are: too young to retire, too old to start again and too British to bag a leading post. Those in their 20s are plotting second careers in other international institutions, the private sector or domestic politics. “A few have already jumped ship, to the Foreign Office, for example,” says one. “But I want to stay in the system…I’m proud of being a European citizen and I am proud of the work that we do here.”
European colleagues shake British hands in sympathy and their own heads in disbelief. But after nearly three years of uncertainty, most Britons are tired of being unofficial emissaries for their nation’s psyche. “We were here because we felt we had a stake in the EU. Now we have slightly less of a stake,” says one senior council official, matter-of-factly. “But we have a job to do, and we will get on with it.”