A mental marathon to win a well-paid EU job

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A less than three percent chance of getting the job. Months of studying, learning hundreds of acronyms and obscure politicians’ names to be able to answer tricky quiz questions in seconds. Would you go for it?

A woman walks past the European Commission headquarters in Brussels April 3, 2008. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Every year, tens of thousands of Europeans do, entering the European Union’s public service job marathon. The prize is a 21st-century rarity: a highly paid, low-tax, job for life.

“Preparing for the competition is a big adventure, it invades all your time, your life,” said one Hungarian EU parliamentary assistant who took part in several of these competitions.

“It’s like a sport ... you need to train every day,” said the Brussels-based woman, who requested anonymity to keep her job bids private from her employer and colleagues.

She failed to get in.

In the past five years, more than 290,000 hopefuls have applied for EU jobs. A mere 7,049 were eventually recruited by the 27-nation bloc’s institutions, mostly based in Brussels, but also in Luxembourg and a few other EU states.

They got in at the end of a grueling process which takes at least a year, sometimes three to four, starting with a multiple choice quiz on the EU’s history, financing and politics, as well as verbal and numerical reasoning tests.

“You have to be the type for exams, you can’t just be good for the job,” said Jasmine Seiffert, a 39-year-old German who tried to get a job as an EU proof-reader.


The quiz stage is most candidates’ nightmare and the reason why the most determined spend weekend after weekend learning about EU programmes. This is also where most candidates fail.

Some of the quiz questions would-be EU officials train to answer:

- In the latest EU opinion poll, how many people thought their country had benefited from EU membership?

- What is the “Intelligent energy for Europe” programme?

- What are PRINCE, CAFE, the “Petersberg missions?”

Verbal reasoning tests can be on virtually everything, from nature conservation and the Bible to Brad Pitt's pro-Tibet policies, sample tests on the EU's recruitment Web site show (

“It’s hard not to panic when you see the table on the screen, and you need to solve it in 120 seconds,” said the Hungarian applicant.


For the lucky ones, the benefits are significant.

Child, house and expatriate allowances add up to a low-taxed wage so that at the lowest range of the pay scale, an EU official with two children earns 3,681 euros ($5,802) net per month, after paying a mere 39.40 euros of taxes.

Guy van Biesen, a senior official at the European Personnel Selection Office, the body in charge of recruiting for EU institutions, said it was at this lower end of the spectrum that the EU was most attractive, compared with the private sector.

At the very top of the EU public service -- secretary-general of one of the bloc’s institutions for example -- the net revenue per month after taxes can exceed 15,000 euros.

Jobs in the various EU institutions range from adviser on air transport issues to translator, communications officer, Latin America trade expert or working for the EU’s top courts.

Asked why she had entered the competition, German-Polish Evelina Schulz, said: “It’s for a guaranteed job in a European environment.”

“Of course, it’s also for the money,” she added.

But she said she had not applied for jobs for which she was over-qualified, unlike many Polish friends who were attracted by better wages than they would get for more senior jobs at home.

“I did not go for that, I do not want to be a secretary for three years,” said Schulz, who works as assistant to an EU lawmaker, which does not make her an EU official.

A niche industry of training and sample-test books has developed around the EU tests.

Schulz paid 150 euros for a one-day course organized by the German foreign ministry to boost the chances of its nationals, and trained every weekend for three months on sample-test books.

“If you live outside of Brussels you don’t even know (these books) exist, your chances of succeeding are very low,” the Brussels-based 28-year-old said.


Those who succeed in the quiz take a written exam testing their competence in the area they run for, followed by an interview. Successful applicants’ names are then put on a list, from which the EU institutions can pick and choose. Even then getting a job is not guaranteed and can take a couple of years.

Are such tests the best way to decide who can join the over 30,000-strong EU staff and take part in shaping the bloc’s competition, transport or migration policies?

Many candidates say people who would be good for the job get stuck on the quiz.

Schulz, still waiting for the results of a competition launched a year and a half ago, said the lengthy process damages the bloc’s ability to attract the best candidates.

But van Biesen said the system provided EU institutions with high-value recruits, even if some potentially good ones were lost on the way.

“With a system that handles thousands of applications you always lose good candidates ... it is a pity for the individual person, but not for the institution,” van Biesen told Reuters.

Nevertheless, the EU recruitment office was working on making changes to the tests, to focus more on checking competence rather than learning about the EU by heart, he said.

Seiffert said the EU did not have any other option.

“It’s easy to say it’s long and complicated, but how are you going to do it otherwise ... they can’t take 13,000 people for an interview.”

Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile