THE LETTER sent by the Permanent Secretary of Foreign Ministry, Alexandros Zenon, suggesting irregularities in the secondment of civil servants to the European Commission, although confusing, was interpreted, understandably, as another case of large-scale rusfeti. The overall impression was that scores of Cypriot civil servants were arranging, through their government or party connections, the securing secondments in Brussels for many more years than was permitted.
Zenon, in his letter, also suggested that many of these ‘national experts’ employed by the Commission would be of greater use back home as they could bring the expertise they acquired in Brussels to the department or ministry they worked for. This was not an entirely correct conclusion, because the civil servants were not seconded the Commission to acquire expertise but were recruited by Commission as ‘national experts’ of their own country to sit on committees and participate in policy discussions in their field of expertise.
For example, a civil servant working for the Cyprus Inland Revenue Department who applied for a post as ‘national expert’ of the Commission would take part in policy-making regarding income tax and other tax related matters. He would be taking his local expertise to Brussels – hence the title ‘national expert’ – and contribute to policy-making. The big member states try to second many ‘national experts’ to the Commission because this gives them a say in policy-making and the opportunity to defend or promote the interests their country on specific issues. At present, Cyprus has about a dozen ‘national experts’.
Even the charges of irregularities seem far-fetched, because it is the Commission which interviews and hires the ‘national experts’ and there are scores of candidates for each position advertised. All that the national government does in these cases is give permission for a civil servant to apply. And while the civil servant carries on drawing his or her salary, all expenses and allowances are paid by the Commission. Finally, the secondment lasts for two years, but the Commission could extend it by another two years if it is happy with the work of the ‘national expert’.
There has been one case of a Cypriot civil servants who had spent a much longer time in Brussels as ‘national expert’, but to suggest that there was extensive abuse of the system and report the matter the attorney-general, auditor-general, the legislature, while warning other ministries was way over the top. After all, shouldn’t our government’s objective be to have as many ‘national experts’ as possible seconded to the Commission, as this would allow greater Cyprus participation in EU policy formulation? We suspect Zenon’s letter, combined with the involvement of the auditor-general would discourage ministries from allowing civil servants applying.