What is it like to work for the EU? by Simon Fraser

Britain is under-represented in the European Commission and applicants are high in demand. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Permanent Under-Secretary, Simon Fraser, explains what a career in the EU involves and what skills you need.


The European Union has a huge impact on all of our lives here in the UK. It is entering an important new phase as a new parliament and new commissioners take their seats. Yet fewer and fewer British people are going for jobs in the European institutions. The start of a new round of recruitment for the Commission is a vital opportunity to reverse this trend.

British officials have played a crucial role in shaping the EU in the past. We have seen generations of talented British people driving the creation of the single market, EU enlargement, trade policy, competition policy, and much more.

But as the CBI reported last year the UK is now under-represented in the EU institutions, and the number of British staff is actually falling. The UK accounts for over 12% of the EU’s population, but only 4.4% of the European Commission staff.

There is no objective reason for this. This country produces exceptional graduates – intellectually sharp, innovative and unafraid to challenge the status quo. British officials can have a transformative effect in Brussels, suggesting ideas and implementing reforms which will benefit the whole of Europe. And they are in demand, because native command of English is highly prized in Brussels.

Some say British candidates are put off by the debate on the UK’s relationship with the EU. Others may have concerns about the way the EU currently operates. But the government has been clear that it is in Britain’s national interest to be a member of a reformed European Union, and we are committed to working with others to lead that reform effort for the benefit of the whole of the EU. British people in the EU institutions are European civil servants and they are not UK representatives. But they can have a great influence in achieving change for the better.

I, myself, spent six years working in the Commission. I enjoyed it and I learned a lot. It is a fast-paced international environment, where you can influence important decisions which affect more than 500 million people. You are working with the brightest and best from 27 other member states.

Now, more than ever, Europe is grappling with vitally important questions: how can we help Europe return to economic growth after five years of stagnation and make sure that Europe can hold its own in an ever more competitive world? How can we rebuild confidence in the accountability and transparency of Brussels, so that people across the continent have a real voice in decisions taken in their names? How can we deal with international policy challenges including Ukraine, negotiations with Iran and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria?

You might be writing environmental legislation, creating a strategy for international development, drafting a key speech by a commissioner on negotiating trade deals on behalf of a continent. In practice, speaking English puts you at a huge advantage, but daily exposure to other cultures and languages sets you up for an international career as well as giving you an impressive contacts list. It is experience which will set you up well for jobs outside the institutions. Companies are always looking for people who know how to get things done in Brussels.

Not only is the work fascinating, Brussels is a great place to live. It’s lively, quirky, relaxed and good for families. But you won’t necessarily be in Brussels: work for the European External Action Service, the diplomatic arm of the EU, and you could be anywhere in the world.

What do you need to be an EU civil servant? Thankfully, you don’t need to be an expert on all things Europe: these days every competition is aptitude-based rather than knowledge-based. You do need to be an EU citizen with a bachelors degree, and be able to speak two European languages, of which English counts as one. For more details and how to apply visit the EPSO website.

Simon Fraser is the Foreign and Commonwealth’s permanent under-secretary.