Recipe for the gravy train
The answers to your speculation on the salaries commanded by EU officials. Renée Cordes reports.
On the whole, EU civil servants can probably identify well with that famous phrase immortalised by American comedian Rodney Dangerfield: "I don't get no respect".
Many of us in Brussels who don't work for the European Commission or other EU institutions gripe about the fringe benefits the 20,000-plus people working there seem to enjoy: a comfortable salary, a 10-to-5 work day and frequent long weekends.
A report published by Belgian tabloid La Dernière Heure also reveals another huge plus for those on the EU payroll: tax rates that would make Ebenezer Scrooge's mouth water.
'Incredible Salary of the European Civil Servant,' announced a front-page teaser showing a pair of hands with a wad full of euro notes.
While the Commission admits that its employees earn a good living, officials are quick to point out that staff members don't get a completely free ride.
The story, entitled Advantages in a Mess, asserts that the real tax rates on civil servants' income is "perfectly ridiculous" and makes its case with a table of the net monthly salaries for three different grade of staffer.
For those not in the know, the lower the letter the higher the grade. Policy and management staff are A grade, assistants are B grade, secretaries C and support staff are D. Each category is then further subdivided into numbers. For example the director-general of a department is A1, while a junior secretary starts at C5.
According to Le Dernière Heure, a D4/1 grade factory worker with two children earns a net monthly salary of about EUR 2,730. The newspaper calculates that this person would pay only EUR 51 in taxes, which amounts to a real tax rate of 1.7 percent
As the salaries, increase, so do the tax rates: an A1/4 director-general nets about EUR 11,120 a month and EUR 2,640 in taxes, which the newspaper says amounts to a real tax rate of 16 percent. Still, that is still half the rate at least of what many in the private sector face. Belgium indeed has the highest taxes in the EU, and studies show that the first tax-free day for most of us is 2 September. While it's hard to do a direct comparison with civil servants, there's no denying that working for the EU has its benefits.
"We don't contest the fact that EU civil servants earn their living well," said Commission spokesman Eric Mamer. But the institution resents being the scapegoats of articles that report numbers out of context, he added.
In a letter to the newspaper, Mamer argues that the calculations in the article are either partially wrong or incomplete. The letter refers to an independent study carried out by the Commission and the EU member states showing that EU civil servants earn about the same as those working for other international institutions. Commission staffers do earn more than civil servants in their home country, but Mamer said that's fair compensation for moving to Belgium, which in some cases means a spouse giving up a good salary.
Mamer also pointed out that civil servants pay taxes on purchases in Belgium just like everyone else, including for big-ticket items like a car or house.
Long before Le Dernière Heure's article - the Commission published a document seeking to clarify the policy behind the current career, pay and pension systems and how they work. The document explains that the basic salary depends on the official's category, grade and position in the career grid. Within each category, automatic salary increases are granted every two years, until the employee advances to the highest step in the grade (there are also promotions to other grades of course).
Employees also receive allowances for dependent children, the costs and difficulties of moving to Belgium, for households (in case they are married) and even to help recruit secretarial staff. The paper further points out that there are 14 tax rates, ranging between eight percent and 45 percent, contrary to the eight percent flat rate used by the Belgian newspaper.
In his ongoing reform of the institutions, Commission Vice-president Neil Kinnock hopes to is seeking to put greater emphasis on merit-based promotions and salaries. As he presses on with this effort the press will undoubtedly continue to criticise the Brussels gravy train.
But you don't have to be a mathematician to know that numbers can be manipulated.
Renee Cordes is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. She covers the EU and business for The Daily Deal, www.legalnewseurope.com, among other publications.