"WHEN I arrived, there were six or seven diplomats working at the Slovak mission [in Brussels]. Today there are over 40. There are also around 90 Slovaks in the European institutions," said Robert Sermek, who was sent by the Slovak news agency TASR to Brussels four years ago and has seen many people come and go.
This indicates just the tip of the job iceberg for Slovaks in Brussels. Economic studies estimate that the European Union provides around 60,000 jobs for the Brussels economy. Add to that several thousand other jobs elsewhere and private sector work and one sees how big this European beehive is. Who is here, what do they do, and what are they living on? The Slovak Spectator found out:
"People come here for the money," said Sermek. "You can get a good job in the EU if you get in. The money is very good - starting at €4,500 in the high-paid jobs."
Sermek noted that Slovakia has not yet built up lobbying organisations here in Brussels, "unlike other countries, the Czech Republic, for instance. So there are perhaps not so many [Slovak] opportunities for work as [there are for citizens of] other countries."
Pavol Nejedlik, 47, came to work for the European Commission two years ago and started this January with the European Science Foundation.
"There was competition for the job," said the meteorologist. As the former head of the Regional Centre of the Hydro-meteorological Institute in Košice, Nejedlik was faced with new tasks in Brussels.
"It is very different here as we concentrate on networking scientists throughout Europe. That is very good for your career, as you make a lot of contacts."
What about pay? Nejedlik continues to receive his Slovak salary: "I'm a detached national expert so I also get a daily allowance. That's enough, but my boss here could not give me more even if he wanted to. And life is much more expensive here in Brussels."
Andrea Čierna, 26, from Bratislava joined the European Commission as a temporary auxiliary agent in July 2003, just one week after graduating with a master's degree in European studies from the prestigious College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw.
"I'm very happy here working as a lawyer on competition law issues, but don't speak much Slovak at work," she said.
How much does Čierna earn, and is the commission's starting salary not 10 times the average Slovak wage packet?
"The salary is appropriate for Brussels, as living expenses are so much higher here. With what I pay for my apartment, I could rent a large house in Slovakia - although flats in Bratislava are now very expensive. If I'm paid too much then that would not be because I'm Slovak but because this is my first job after graduating."
Jozef Balog, 26, from Košice comes and goes in Brussels. He's studying banking and finance at the Belgian Banking Academy. Why Brussels?
"It's the centre of Europe," said Balog, who already has a master's degree in banking but wants further training. Balog is unsure whether working for the European institutions would be his cup of tea. "It is not the only job in the world," he said. "Sometimes you get the impression that this is all people want to do in Brussels. I don't want to be mainstream."
Ingrid Stanová, 30, studied philosophy and journalism at Bratislava's Comenius University. Now she's first secretary at the Slovak Mission to NATO, sent to Brussels by the national security authority.
"I came in October 2002. The salary is reasonable for living in Belgium, just for personal things. But with respect to being a diplomat and all the accompanying duties like organising dinners, lunches, and receptions, then salaries are low." How low exactly? "Service salaries are classified."
Like other Slovak officials posted to Brussels, Stanová is not paid as much as colleagues doing the same job from other EU countries, or even the Czech Republic. "It's not a problem," she said.
Tomáš Rybár, 26, from Rimavská Sobota studied law in Bratislava. He has been in Brussels since September 2003 working for Čechová Rakovský Advocates: "We are the only Slovak firm here, and opened offices together with a Czech and a Polish firm. I'm in charge of daily operations." Rybár mainly deals with European Commission law and is awaiting full admission to the bar later this year.
Rybár said Brussels is very multicultural: "But you never meet Belgians. Also, you end up speaking a lot of English. With my Czech colleagues, though, I speak Slovak. They talk back in Czech. With the Poles in my office, we use English."
Does Rybár feel Slovaks should earn as much as German, British, or French colleagues for doing the same work in Brussels? "In the EU institutions, it should be the same, although it is hard not to think that the recent decrease in EU officials' salaries is not aimed at the newcomers. In the private sector, I believe the market will be able to secure fair wages." Rybár does not want to join the commission or other EU institutions: "Once you get used to private firms it is difficult to switch to the public sector. There's a big difference in mentality."
Rybár was initially a little bit negative about coming to Brussels: "I'm still not overly excited. But it is always enriching to work abroad and it's excellent for my career," he said.
Press reports that Czechs had a higher success rate, at 30 percent in European Commission entrance tests, set off a round of brooding in Slovakia. But Robert Sermek, from the Slovak news agency TASR does not think Slovaks performed any worse in the recent entrance exam. "These exams are extremely difficult, so the Slovak success rate of 17 percent is good, even if the average rate for all acceding countries was 22 percent. The tests are meant to select only the best people." Proportionally, many more Slovaks applied for each post.
Andrea Čierna: "It was not that difficult, but it is still an entrance competition so the outcome is very relative. I still don't know whether I passed the first round."
Gabriela Kečkéšová: "It was difficult, especially the numerical and verbal reasoning tests. You had 40 questions to answer in only one hour."
Kateřina Deniesova: "I succeeded in the pre-selection tests - so the entrance competition for secretaries was not so difficult."
Preparing for enlargement
"The European Commission will be able to deal with an enlargement that is bringing a 20 percent increase in the population of the union, a 66 percent increase in member states, and a 82 percent increase in official languages," said Neil Kinnock, the European Union's commissioner responsible for administrative reform, "and that with an increase of just over 15 percent in total staff numbers by 2010." Although the commission is playing down the number of new officials needed from Slovakia and other acceding countries, the European Personnel Selection Office had to launch 32 separate recruitment competitions just for enlargement.
For the Slovak selection procedure, 1,329 hopefuls presented themselves. Only 230 got through to the written selection procedure. Of these, some 130 officials should be chosen as A-grade officials. Surprisingly, only 284 Slovaks took the exams to become a secretary and only 145 passed the written test, even though 160 were needed. As for Slovak translators, 435 took the tests, 301 passed on to the next stage, and only 135 will be hired.