The make-up of the European Commission is changing fast – and it has implications for attitudes in Brussels

The make-up of the European Commission is changing fast – and it has implications for attitudes in Brussels

06. 09. 2023 – Lomond

Politico recently published an analysis of the nationalities working in the European Commission. It focused on the fact that the Nordic member states are increasingly under-represented at lower levels in the Commission, raising concerns that, in the coming years, there will therefore be a lack of Scandinavians among the higher ranks as well.

However, Politico’s numbers tell another story too – and it’s a very important one for the Central & Eastern European member states. It concerns how the member states which joined the EU from 2004 onwards are represented in the European Commission – and how much has changed over the last six years.

In 2018, the European Commission published a report (COM(2018)377 final) on “geographical balance” when it comes to the civil servants working for the EU’s institutions. It set a “guiding rate” for each member state – i.e. the percentage viewed as proportionate (for all job levels) given the size of the respective populations.

The report also, very helpfully, clarified the number of people from each country that were working in the Commission (other than in translation or interpretation roles) in the previous year: 2017. It split these officials into two main ‘bands’: AD5-AD8 (lower and mid-ranking staff) and AD9-AD12 (middle management). Back then, there was a common theme when it came to the representation of the CEE member states: every single CEE country was above the guiding rate when it came to lower and mid-ranking staff, but below it when it came to officials in middle management roles:

Romania and Bulgaria were at the most extreme end of the spectrum. In 2017, 10.7% of lower and mid-ranking Commission staff were Romanian, much higher than the guiding rate of 4.5%, yet only 0.6% of middle managers came from Romania.

The situation was similar for Bulgaria: 6.1% of lower and mid-ranking Commission staff were Bulgarian in 2017, well in excess of the guiding rate of 2.4%. Bulgarians only made up 0.2% of middle management, however.

So, clearly, significant numbers of people from CEE member states started working for the Commission at junior levels in the years after their accession to the EU, but even though all of these countries (with the exception of Croatia) had been member states for at least a decade by 2017, only a small number of Central / Eastern Europeans had been promoted up to middle management level by that point. However, the expectation back in 2017 would presumably have been that things would start to balance out as more time passed: that the blue and black bars in the chart above would both start to converge around the grey guiding rate lines.

Let’s roll forward to 2023 to see whether that’s what happened.

The 2023 numbers come from Politico’s analysis, and it’s not a perfect comparison because, while the guiding rates have not changed, Politico assessed slightly different bands: it was the same for lower and mid-ranking staff (i.e. AD5-AD8) but rather than AD9-AD12, the higher band includes AD15-16 (i.e. Directors General) as well – so it includes senior as well as middle management. That doesn’t distort the comparison very much because the number of Directors General is small, but it’s worth bearing that in mind when you evaluate these numbers.

Here’s how things look now:

So in terms of managerial roles within the Commission, things have progressed very positively for the CEE countries since 2017. At AD9 level and above, all of the CEE member states are much better represented than they were six years ago. Five of the six smallest countries in the region – the three Baltic States, Slovenia and Slovakia – are all above the guiding rate, as is Hungary. Croatia, which only joined the EU in 2013 and so is much further back in the transition process, is the only exception amongst the smaller member states – and Croatia is already well ahead of the guiding rate for lower and mid-ranking staff, so this will presumably change in the years to come.

As mentioned, as well as Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria started from the lowest base when it came to representation at the more senior levels within the Commission six years ago – no doubt because they were in the second wave of CEE countries to join the EU. And while neither have quite reached the guiding rate yet, they are very close to doing so and are well above the rate for more junior roles – so you would also expect them to make up this gap in the next few years.

All of this is good news for the countries in this region: member states are always keen to have as many of their own people as possible in the most influential roles in Brussels, and this suggests that the CEE region is much better placed to protect its interests – or at least have its views understood – now than it was even in the very recent past.

The two ‘disappointments’ are Poland and the Czech Republic, which, while being much better represented at senior levels in the Commission than they were in 2017, are still quite well short of the guiding rate for AD9-AD16 – and have also, in the meantime, dropped below the guiding rate for more junior roles.

Why might that be?

Politico’s analysis suggested that a lot of this is about salaries. It indicated that the problem for Nordic member states is that becoming a Eurocrat is not a very attractive option financially because average salaries are higher at home than they are in Brussels. That doesn’t explain Poland and the Czech Republic, though, because average salaries in both countries are lower than they are in Brussels, nor are they particularly high even in comparison with other CEE countries.

There are no doubt multiple factors, but one of the most important must surely be the job opportunities that exist in these two countries. Across Europe, if you are a bright, well-educated, ambitious person who wants to work in public policy, you broadly have five options to choose from – you can work in: a) government; b) a trade association; c) a think tank or NGO / charity; d) a consultancy; e) an in-house public policy / government affairs role.

These options tend to be narrower in CEE than in the larger Western European countries. Government salaries are low across CEE, for example, most trade associations are under-resourced and the NGO / charity sector is less well developed. That leaves consultancies and in-house roles, and the major differences we see within the CEE region concern the opportunities that exist in-house. In the smaller CEE countries, these roles are limited too, with a relatively small number of companies able to justify a specialist PA/GR headcount. Given that, working in Brussels will seem like a very good option for a lot of people.

In our experience, the two most developed countries in the region for in-house policy/PA/GR roles are Poland and the Czech Republic. There are certainly more opportunities now for talented public policy people in Prague than there were 10 years ago, but Warsaw has undoubtedly become the dominant Public Affairs hub in CEE, with more regional roles based there than anywhere else in the region.

So if you’re a Polish or Czech PA specialist, there will be more options for you at home than for comparable people in other countries in the region. That’s great news for smart, ambitious Poles and Czechs who have a passion for public policy. It’s not such good news for those two countries, though, because it is almost certainly having some impact on their levels of influence in Brussels.