Back home in Britain, they are known only as footsoldiers in a faceless army of Eurocrats. In Brussels, EU officials like Jonathan Faull, Stephen Quest and Lowri Evans are senior members of an influential community that faces an uncertain or even unemployed future if the U.K. decides to leave the EU.
They and hundreds of other British civil servants in the European institutions must now endure a four-month waiting game ahead of the U.K.’s decisive In or Out referendum on its EU membership. Only after that vote will many of these bureaucrats, political aides, administrators and other officials get an idea of whether they have a professional future in Brussels, or if their jobs will even exist at all.
Swirling around the whole issue are several key questions that would arise after the one on Britain’s EU membership is answered on June 23: If there is going to be a U.K.-EU divorce, when will it be final? Who gets to keep their jobs and who doesn’t? And even for people who do get to stay, just how valuable is a job-for-life in what will suddenly be a “foreign” civil service?
“We wonder what will happen if Britain says ‘No,'” said one Briton working in the European Parliament, who like others declined to speak on the record about what might happen to staff after the referendum. “Will we need a work permit to work in the EU? Won’t they need native speakers at the Commission, where English is the main language? It is a very unusual situation for all of us.”
Figuring out the answers would be part of a Brexit process scenario that could take as long as 10 years, according to a U.K. government report released this week.
Making the situation even more uncertain is the fact that the main EU institutions — the Commission, the Council and the Parliament — are making no public effort to plan for a Brexit, leaving many British employees to wonder about their fate.
The European Commission, which employs 1,000 U.K. nationals across its various departments, according to official figures, has said publicly it has no “Plan B” if an Out vote wins on June 23. “We are staying away from this discussion,” a Commission official said.
That has left British EU staffers scrambling to figure out what contingency plans they might have to make if and when their country is no longer part of the European Union.
Staff union representatives said many top EU officials in the institutions would be almost certain to lose their high-profile positions once the U.K. left the Union — as there would be little support for having Brits running key departments. And, clearly, Britain would lose its 73 members of the European Parliament and its seat on the European Commission, currently held by Jonathan Hill.
The future is less clear for hundreds of mid-level civil servants who have passed EU exams and signed permanent contracts for jobs in the Eurocracy. While they might be able to keep their jobs, their prospects for future advancement would be dimmed, likely leading to a Brexodus of experienced U.K. professionals from the EU scene.
“Those who would certainly pay the price of a Brexit are the director-generals and other top management positions,” said Pierre Bacri, president of the European Civil Service Federation, a union that represents staff in the EU institutions. “For people who expect to hold positions with responsibilities, career prospects will be more limited.”
Bacri said he believed that, in the case of Brexit, the U.K. and the EU would find an agreement with “reasonable solutions” to deal with British permanent staff in the institutions, including arrangements for their pensions.
What few answers there are about the Brexit process can be found in Article 50 of the EU treaty, which spells out actions leaders need to take but doesn’t say much about their impact on the institutions.
According to the article, if the U.K. decides to leave the Union it would need to notify other EU member countries in the European Council and then negotiate an agreement with them on the terms of its withdrawal.
During the negotiation phase, British officials would in principle continue to fully exercise their rights within the EU institutions. But they would lose their political champions in the EU, as neither the British prime minister nor British officials in the Council would be allowed to participate in deliberations and decisions affecting their country.
EU staff unions are mobilizing to try to provide answers to concerned staffers. One of them, the Association of Independent Officials, held a closed-door conference on February 26 for its members entitled “Brexit: potential implications for British colleagues at EU institutions,” including their “status” within the institutions, their salaries, pensions rights, and their residence rights or “free movement.”
An email sent by organizers said the conference was held to explore the “worrying situation” facing hundreds of British officials and contract agents in the EU institutions. A representative of the union declined to provide any further details about the discussion.
Where the Brits are
Even though it is the third most populous EU nation, Britain does not have a commensurate number of employees working in the Commission. The 1,000 British nationals who hold permanent Commission positions put it slightly ahead of Greece, with 921 officials, and behind Poland, with 1,161, in the rankings.
The sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story. While many of those Britons are working in the Commission’s in-house translation service, and in its scientific research department — not considered the most important sections — U.K. nationals hold several of the highest-profile jobs.
Of the 34 directors-general plus their deputies in the Commission, six are British citizens. Those posts include the department in charge of financial stability, financial services and Capital Markets Union, which sets policies important to Britain’s banking sector and the City of London.
They also include longtime official Faull, who has held top posts in the Commission’s justice, financial stability and competition departments and who now runs its special task force on the U.K. referendum; Quest, the current director general of Taxation and Customs Union; and Evans, who heads the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW) department. Another senior British Commission official, Robert Madelin, holds a senior special adviser post. All have worked for the Commission for more than 20 years.
“The EU will lose a good caliber of people in the institutions,” said James Stevens, a British lobbyist at FleishmanHillard and the chair of the EU committee at the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels. “There is a strong British imprint on energy, digital single market, trade policy. People in the U.K. don’t recognize that their country is very influential in Brussels.”
Political muscle in Brussels
British influence at EU level may be most strongly represented in the diplomatic corps. In addition to officials recruited from the U.K. civil service and the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in jobs directly related to the EU, more than 130 U.K. nationals work for the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm. That includes 26 who hold management positions.
“With its vast diplomatic network and its status as permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the United Kingdom is one of the influential intermediaries of the European positions in the world,” one French official said. “That said, we can anticipate that a British exit from the EU would penalize London more than its European partners.”
Job losses would be felt more quickly at the European Parliament. The 73 British MEPs — the third largest delegation in the assembly — would presumably be out of a job, along with their British assistants, at the end of their current terms if not before.
“If a British MEP leaves, it means his assistants and other British officials from the group will certainly have to leave,” said a European Parliament official. “But I don’t see why a British MEP would leave before the end of his mandate.”
Less clear is what would happen to an additional 289 British people working for the Parliament’s administration. Like Commission employees, many are on permanent contracts that would be protected even though they would no longer be EU citizens.
The Parliament official said the impact of a British exit on the assembly’s staff had not been explored, but that it was clear some U.K. citizens working for it would get to keep their jobs.
“Once you are a civil servant in the EU, you remain a civil servant of the EU,” the official said. “You have passed an exam, and signed a long-term contract. There aren’t any rules which tell you that if you lose the nationality required by an institution, you should go home.”
The situation affects not only the status of Brits as employees of EU institutions, but also potentially their employability in general on the Brussels job market. One British assistant in the European Parliament said she was looking into how to obtain Belgian citizenship — as have many Britons working in Brussels since the Brexit debate began.
An Out vote would also affect those who gravitate around the EU institutions, including the 9,200 organizations that engage in lobbying activity in Brussels. According to the EU Transparency Register, more than 1,0oo of them, including NGOs, consulting firms, business federations, companies and unions, are registered in the United Kingdom, and more than 100 organizations based in the U.K. have an office in Brussels.
There is a feeling among many British lobbyists that even if they won’t lose their jobs, the absence of Britain in Brussels will have an impact on their business.
“We fear that not being at the table will be bad for Britain and bad for the EU,” said Stevens. “But for British nationals in Brussels, whether we leave or not, there will be an increasing demand for our skills, our ability to understand and translate between the U.K. and the EU.”
While the Commission insists it is “staying away” from the Brexit discussion and even Faull himself says he won’t address it — “We don’t speculate on the outcome of the referendum,” he told POLITICO — the British government says it will protect the interests of British officials who fear for their jobs in the institutions.
“The government is committed to producing clear information on the outcome of renegotiation, the rights and obligations in EU law, an assessment of alternatives to membership and publishing the process for leaving,” a U.K government spokesperson said.
It’s clear that if the U.K. votes to leave the EU, the decoupling process will take years — giving Brits in Brussels a long transition time in which to deal with the professional fallout. But the uncertainty surrounding the whole question doesn’t make that any easier for EU staffers waiting to know what their future holds.
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“For me, it would be very serious,” said a British parliamentary assistant. “My husband is British. I settled here after school, and my life is here.”
This article was updated to reflect the fact that Lowri Evans no longer heads the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries department and now heads the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW) department.