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EU shift to online recruitment sparks outrage

The EU’s hiring process is going all-digital.

And critics say that’s putting Europe’s meritocracy on the line.

When the EU’s hiring agency recently announced plans to scrap in-person testing for recruiting, resistance among candidates came fast and furious, with Facebook groups becoming a hotbed of criticism.

The personnel agency argues that the change is more eco-friendly and inclusive.

But applicants for EU jobs say that being forced to take entrance exams at home involves pricey hardware and infuriating technical glitches, made all the worse by an unresponsive American test provider.

This violates equal opportunity, fueling inequality and driving talent from the EU bubble, candidates say.

They have sought to lobby the European Commission, which oversees hiring agency EPSO, to push back against online testing. The Commission is holding the line that the new remote testing process is easier for candidates (not to mention the EU budget).

“Remote proctoring might favor those who are fortunate enough to own the right technical devices,” said Andrea Hajas, an EU contractor who recently took the test online. She points out how a candidate’s socioeconomic status could thus influence their performance. “These conditions run the risk of breaching the EU’s equal opportunities criteria,” said Hajas, who has filed an official complaint with the agency.

Disgruntled candidates are banding together under TAO/AFI, a body representing EU employees, to launch a complaint against the personnel agency which, if rejected, could snowball into an appeal at the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Gates slamming shut

Before the pandemic, EU institutions had little concept of remote testing — in 2019, EPSO conducted not a single virtual test to winnow out civil servants. But COVID-19 forced a shift, which in this case is set to become permanent. 

On January 31, the EU’s hiring body announced plans to move exclusively to remote testing for the concours — the notoriously rigorous exam that serves as gatekeeper to the EU bureaucracy.

The Commission claims most candidates support the move and argues that the change will open its doors to more people — a key priority as it tries to combat accusations it has historically favored candidates from Western Europe. 

A Commission spokesperson told POLITICO that “our objective is to be faster and more modern, while contributing to the EU’s green policy,” as candidates will reduce their carbon footprint by not having to travel to take the exam.

The EU also claims that virtual testing will make its selection process more inclusive as applicants won’t have to spend money on travel since they can take the exam from home.

But for numerous candidates trying to penetrate the EU bubble, the test is now less accessible. One aspiring EU official wrote on Facebook that “arbitrary” requirements penalize lower-income individuals. 

Another candidate claimed she was disqualified because the door of her room was made of tinted glass, while another said that he was ejected because the online test supervisor could not see his shoulders.

Several applicants told POLITICO that they were eliminated from the procedure because their laptops did not fulfill specific criteria — prompting accusations that remote testing breaches the agency’s equal opportunity requirement. 

Others complain that remote exams violate privacy rules, are riddled with technical glitches and are subject to arbitrary delays by test supervisors, which ends up giving candidates varying amounts of time to complete the exam.

Regardless of individual complaints, the new testing format is bound to favor tech-savvy candidates fortunate enough to own the right technological equipment — and in the process, redefine the type of person allowed to enter EU halls of power, say critics.

Vasiliki Andreou of the Catholic University of Leuven, who carried out research on remote testing, told POLITICO that this type of examination “leads to higher levels of student anxiety, although it does not have a major impact on test outcomes.”

She also points out that differing internet connection speeds across the EU could end up putting candidates from less-developed countries at a disadvantage.

Outsourcing gone wrong?

Dozens of applicants are pointing angry fingers at the U.S.-based testing contractor Prometric, the agency’s online testing outsourcer.

“Why is EPSO sourcing the testing for all competitions to a U.S.-based company that cannot even have a decent customer service department in Europe’s time zone[s]?” asked one Facebook user, echoing complaints from peers who were left waiting on the phone for hours, unable to speak to anyone at Prometric.

According to two contracts, the Commission paid nearly €29 million to secure Prometric’s services. The company — based near Baltimore, Maryland — told POLITICO that it cannot comment on EPSO exams. 

A Commission spokesperson says complaints “represent a small share of the thousands of candidates” and that it is working closely with Prometric to “minimize IT-related difficulties.”

Most of the EU’s current top brass entered the institutions in their 20s after passing the concours, which remains the most popular pathway to becoming an EU official.

Although the application process is notoriously sluggish, successful candidates are guaranteed a well-paid and secure job basically for life.

In 2022, nine such competitions were held and more than 24,000 candidates applied, while 14 competitions are expected in 2023. Each EPSO exam has a different pass rate, depending on the field.

“The requirements of remote proctoring might hinder the participation of lower-income candidates, potentially resulting in a more elitist and an unequal recruitment process,” says Andreou.

The fear is that, taken together, hurdles posed by remote tests could skew the EU’s recruitment process toward Brussels insiders well-steeped in the testing procedure — ultimately stifling diversity and fueling geographic inequalities within the EU’s ranks. 

“EPSO must take actions to ensure equality for all candidates,” says Andreou.

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