EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The European Commission has rejected the idea of an 'English-only' exam to help increase the number of British citizens working in the EU institution, despite calls from London to allow a one-off monolingual EU exam to boost flagging numbers.
British citizens make up 12 percent of the EU's total population but only five percent of the commission's roughly 26,000-person workforce, making it one of the least-represented EU member states relative to its size.
Weak foreign language skills are thought to be a key deterrent for British citizens hoping to join the EU's institutional machinery, with applicants required to sit entry exams in a second language in order to promote a more polyglot workforce.
A British foreign office proposal for a one-off English-only exam is unacceptable however, an official for the European Commission said on Monday (21 February), despite media suggestions that Brussels had been considering the idea.
Such an exam would be "illegal, and the principle can not be changed in any way", commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told a regular press briefing in the EU capital. "Officials must be multilingual ... the competition is to test linguistic abilities."
Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso encouraged students at Cambridge University to consider a career in the EU institutions during a visit to the renowned third-level college last Friday.
Britain's under-representation in the commission was also discussed in a meeting between Mr Barroso and British Prime Minister David Cameron a day earlier.
"President Barroso and Prime Minister Cameron agreed on that fact that there is a problem ... they agreed to work on different options to try to find a solution to this problem, but we said on behalf of the commission, and that was also said during the meeting, that a competition in one-language was not an option," Mr Bailly told journalists.
A report by the Financial Times on Monday quoted an unnamed aid to Mr Barroso as saying the commission was willing to consider the 'English-only' exam however.
The low success rate of British citizens taking the European so-called 'concours' is also compounding the problems, said officials. "The situation has been exacerbated by the previous Labour government's decision to abandon obligatory second language teaching at the age of 14," an EU source told this website.
The debate comes as the country's new Conservative-Liberal coalition government seeks to implement education spending cuts, driving students onto the streets in protest late last year.
At the same time, foreign secretary William Hague used a post-election speech last summer to call on Britain to increase its influence in Brussels by boosting its presence in the EU institutions and nurturing stronger ties with smaller member states.
Another EU heavyweight, Germany, is also heavily under-represented in the commission relative to its population size, say EU officials, with Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland also below average numbers.
Despite its low overall underperformance, commission data suggest Britain is punching above its weight in the upper echelons of the commission, with Britons holding the largest number of positions in the highest AD16 category, just below commissioners.