Central and eastern Europeans missing from top leadership in EU research bodies

01 Feb 2022 | News

Under-representation could fuel distrust of Brussels, a report warns. But EU agencies say the region is well represented at lower management levels

The vast majority of research-focused EU bodies have never had a top leader from central or eastern Europe finds a new report that is demanding “affirmative action” to broaden the distribution of jobs across the bloc.

This is a problem across the whole EU apparatus and risks bolstering political parties in central and eastern Europe that are hostile to Brussels, the report warns.

According to data from the Geographical Representation in EU Leadership Observatory 2022, the European Research Council and its executive agency; the European Innovation Council; the European Institute for Innovation and Technology; the Research Executive Agency; and the joint undertaking that oversees the ITER fusion project, have never had a leader from central or eastern Europe,  

There is a “clear and continued under-representation of central and eastern Europe since their accession to the EU”, according to the study by the consultants European Democracy Consulting.

Since it was set up in 2007, the ERC has had nine presidents and secretary generals. Two-thirds of these have been from western Europe, and the rest from the south.

The report only uses data on the very top level of leadership, and research-linked bodies point out that there is often better representation at other positions.

A spokeswoman for the ERC said that seven past and three present members of its scientific council – its governing body that sets the council’s strategy - hail from central and eastern Europe, as well as three past and one current vice-president.

At the Research Executive Agency, which helps manage Horizon Europe projects, all three of its past and present directors have come from western Europe. But its director, Marc Tachelet, stressed that just over a quarter of the organisation’s current managers come from central and eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology has had four directors since it was set up in 2008, with three coming from western Europe and one from the south.

But the institute itself is based in Budapest, and central and eastern Europeans make up half of its governing board, and 60% of its management team, said a spokesman.

The European Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy has had six directors in its history, none of whom came from central or eastern Europe. But it does have a Czech vice chair, a spokesman pointed out.

The five directors of the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency have all come from western or southern Europe. A spokeswoman countered that 8 out of 42 leadership positions were filled by people from central or eastern Europe, and that an upcoming Commission HR strategy, expected in March, would "further reinforce geographical balance" among managers and staff. 

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is a rare exception: its first director, in post from 2005-10, was from Hungary.

The report doesn’t have the data to investigate the detailed makeup of the European Commission. But the current research commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, is Bulgarian.

Drawing on a dataset of nearly 500 appointments stretching back to 1952, the study paints a picture of under-representation which has only recently shown signs of improving.  

Of course, central and eastern European countries did not join the EU until after the bloc expanded eastwards in May 2004. However, the EU’s research-focused bodies referenced above only started appointing leaders after this date.

Since then, these regions have consistently punched below their weight compared to population.

Last year, EU bodies appointed 13 new leaders – but only one came from eastern Europe, and none from central Europe.

The record since 2019 is “slightly more encouraging”, the report says. Central Europe actually outperformed western and southern Europe on a population basis, snagging five appointments, and eastern Europe came close.

The big winners are northern states – Denmark, Sweden and Finland – which have consistently bagged a disproportionate number of leadership positions compared to their population.

There are other ways to measure a fair distribution of posts. The report also compares the number of leadership positions to the number of member states in each region. On this measure, central and eastern Europe performs particularly poorly, although this is partly because the regions contain numerous countries with low populations.

The risk from this under-representation is alienation from Brussels. Pointing to the rise of what it calls “Eurosceptic feelings and illiberal policies” in central and eastern Europe, the report warns that a lack of representation at the highest level could weaken these countries’ trust in EU institutions. It points out that turnout for the 2019 European election was lowest in these two regions.

The report demands a range of actions, including “affirmative action”, better data collection, and better advertising of posts.

And analysis of the problem shouldn’t be left to anti-EU forces, it warns. A previous version of the study was taken up by Hungarian and Polish pro-government media, “while pro-European officials remained quiet”.

The report defines central Europe as Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Eastern Europe includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. 

This story has been updated to include a response from the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency.

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