Crocodile tears at the Court of the Queen of Hearts

When Cersei Lannister, the evil queen of plotting and scheming in the popular Games of Thrones franchise, was slapped in the face by her husband Robert Baratheon, King of the Iron Throne, she uttered the defiant words “I shall wear this as a badge of honour.” She later exacted her revenge on him through a cunning plan, leading to his premature death.

We were reminded of such kind of plot twists during the (hopefully) final episode of the epic DG HR saga, ‘Crocodile tears at the Court of the Queen of Hearts’ that aired a couple of weeks ago. In that episode Irene Souka sent what Politico called a “stinky parting gift” (more here) to the President’s Chief of Cabinet, later circulated by herself to her entire DG – and effectively the whole Commission and beyond – claiming the moral high ground in an incredible saga of hurt vanity, pride and privilege. Her email is living proof of the gap that separates some members of the senior management from the vast majority of staff.

In her 11 year reign at the helm of DG HR Ms. Souka has among other things overseen the implementation of the 2004 reform and did nothing to ease its heavy consequences. We will also not forget that she was also responsible for the making of the next staff reform of 2014. While the first reform truly and royally crushed the post-2004 staff, the second reform delivered more of the same reckless cutting at the lower end of the staff scale, while fully protecting the pre-2004 privileges.

But most outrageous, and a slap in the face of the post 2004 staff, was the creation hundreds of ‘senior expert’ and ‘senior assistant’ positions to circumvent the grade cap on pre-2004 AD careers, effectively wasting our administrative budget to pay directors’ salaries to simple administrators, or head of unit salaries to assistants without the equivalent levels of responsibility. We do not even want to delve into the long-term cost of higher pension benefits. She then made up for the resulting budget gap by recruiting thousands of staff on precarious CA contracts or officials in the lowest possible grades.

Ms Souka has also stubbornly resisted any attempt to reform the promotion system to make it more rule-based and transparent, rejecting even proposals in that direction that came from some more enlightened corners of her Court. She has failed to come up with a talent-friendly solution to the growing army of underpaid and disenfranchised contract-agents that not only turns an increasing part of the EU Civil Service pay-wise into a budget airline but wastes talent and valuable experience by the thousands, by sending people into the desert after six years of loyal service. Moreover, she has even managed to water down and cast into oblivion the rather progressive initiative on middle management mobility generally promoted by the ex-VP and HR Commissioner Georgieva. A lawyer by education with a long experience at DG COMP, she has finally completely failed to create a level playing field in terms of career opportunities for all staff.

Most notably, Ms Souka did not bother to show the “common civility” and “decency”, which she claims to deserve herself in that ill-advised email, to Contract Agents, who were left similarly in the dark until the very last day of their contracts to know if they would or not be prolonged.

Neither did she show it to the hundreds of AST officials who suddenly found themselves after the 2014-reform as “Assistants in transition” on modified posts in the AST/SC category. The majority of them remained in a situation of insecurity and career dismay until today. Moreover, we should not forget the AST/SC category of staff introduced in 2014, which brought further divisions into an already divided work environment. That she now gets to taste the bitter medicine of “a working method that lacks empathy and is disrespectful to the staff”, as she complained in her e-mail, is rather ironic. “You don’t like it? Go to court!” was her favourite mantra in dealing with staff demands, often dealt with under the “worst option principle” in case of doubt. That about sums up the working method with which she did the bidding of her political masters.

That she has been able to cling on to her position for so long underlines once again how important mobility is, both within the EC and between the EC and the rest of the world, to prevent the development of a hermetically closed environment, where upper management is, at times, completely out of sync with reality.

Thus, we cannot help but wish Ms Souka good riddance. Her enormously high pre-2004 pension will hopefully cushion her grief about not being prolonged and the warm wind at the unknown destination she is now heading to enjoy her retirement will soon dry off her crocodile tears.  She will also not have to contribute with the solidarity levy that all active staff must pay to the EU budget, and this will surely also make her days a bit more comfortable.

We have long advocated for the fact that a real reform of the disastrous HR policy of the Commission has to start at the very top and we can only hope that some of her loyal managers will now be asked to move positions (preferably across DGs) to make way for real change.

Indeed, 16 years after the disastrous 2004 reform the vast majority of the management of DG HR is still composed of officials benefitting from an upward career gap and still benefit from some generous pre-2004 conditions and, as such, are biased towards preserving these conditions to the cost of colleagues who arrived later. Therefore, we cannot agree with Ms Souka’s depiction of the Commission’s HR policy as being “recognised as a reference point for professionalism in human resources matters within the European Institutions”.

It is time that a new generation of managers who have known the bitter taste of budget cuts, the increased pressure in the office, or simply have better understanding of modern HR standards and closer connection to the reality of today’s EU, take over with the management of human resources in the Commission.

The Queen is gone; long live the Queen or King! We sincerely hope this change will usher in a new reign marked by more respect and empathy towards all staff categories.

PS. Although the original text of this article didn’t touch Ms. Souka’s rather poor handling of harassment in the Commission during her 11 year long stint as Director General of DG HR, we would like to share this well written and to the point post by a colleague on MyIntracomm.

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