It’s one of Tony Blair’s best known phrases, a promise to put Britain at the heart of Europe. Leaving the big issues (Euro, Iraq) to one side, any relationship with the European Union needs people to make the relationship work, and that’s the focus of this blog entry – where are those people, and how can you (should you?) support them?
The decision to look at this was prompted by an open letter to all UK alumni of the College of Europe (I have a MA from Bruges, 2004), informing us of the decision of the UK government to stop funding the 28 annual scholarships for Brits. I’m not sure exactly how the cash allocation is worked out, but the total cost of this will be something in the region of £300000/€350000 a year.
David Lammy, the BIS minister responsible, gives some flimsy legal reason for why the funding cannot be maintained (more in the letter), but essentially it must be that they are looking for ways to cut the Higher Education budget, so why keep funding scholarships to small colleges in Belgium and Poland that train people who mostly end up working as eurocrats…
But hold on a moment. Haven’t I heard that recently? That Brits are underrepresented in the institutions? Hence the European Fast Stream scheme has been re-introduced within the UK civil service, promising a posting to Brussels and enhanced training to allow participants on the scheme… to become eurocrats.
Indeed it’s obligatory to participate in any concours for which you’re eligible when on the scheme (see the bottom of the page here). It’s hard to estimate the cost of the new EFS, but the cost of recruiting one Fast Stream civil servant is around £10000, plus there will be training costs on top – £200000 a year for the reintroduction at a rough guess? (Just to underline my EU-übergeek credentials I should say I was on the original European Fast Stream in the civil service between 2004 (after Bruges) and 2007).
So what does the EFS do, what do Bruges and Natolin do, that might be worth the UK government financing?
Essentially the answer is the creation of networks of expertise that overlap between London and Brussels, and cross between government and the private sector, and hence greatly smooth UK-EU relations. Friends of mine from Bruges work in Brussels and London, for government and the private sector, but almost all of them in EU matters. Friends from EFS work in EU jobs across UK government and the EU institutions, and a few have even made the leap to the private sector or academia, but almost all are still engaged in EU affairs. And most of us are still in contact, part professionally and part on a personal basis, with people we met through either route. Getting things done in Brussels is not as easy as learning the rules and going and getting on a Eurostar – it’s just not that simple, and EFSers or College of Europe graduates understand how to play the game.
It’s also worth underlining that neither the College of Europe nor the EFS are bastions of federalism or integrationalist thinking – in fact I had rather hoped to meet some more ideologically minded people when I studied at Bruges! Also remember it was Thatcher who established the EFS in the first place back in the 1980s.
In short, whatever you think about European integration, any EU Member State needs well trained and knowledgeable people to help oil the wheels of the machinery, and half a million pounds a year to manage to make that happen (i.e. keeping College of Europe funding going too) should not be an exorbitant price to pay for that.
(Note: there are serious shortcomings of both the EFS and the College of Europe – those will be the subject of some later posts if I find time!)