A lot has been said about the background to the decision to relocate Cedefop, the dominant view being that with Germany getting the European Central Bank (which was to be based in Frankfurt), the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training had to move to a Member State where there was no EU decentralised agency.
The move provoked mixed reaction among Cedefop’s 74 employees, recalls expert Tina Bertzeletou from Greece, one of five people who served in Berlin and are still working in Thessaloniki (the other four are Deputy Director Mara Brugia, and Athanasia Kalpakidi, Peter Seiffert and Adriano Graziosi): ‘The feelings were very mixed even among Greek colleagues because everyone had settled down in Berlin for years. This would be the first transfer of any European organisation to a place different to the one it was founded, so there was a lot of anxiety, I remember. Also, for many people Greece was always linked to holidays. To go for work purposes did not seem a good idea to many colleagues. There was an effort from the Commission; I think even the then Commissioner came to visit. The then Mayor of Thessaloniki, Konstantinos Kosmopoulos, paid some visits with his Cabinet to present the city to us, to take notes of questions, requests etc. And there was a special social plan set up for all staff to acquire permanent employment in the European institutions, and for those who would prefer not to move to Greece, everything was done for them to be transferred to the Commission in Brussels or Luxembourg.’
The American Farm School was chosen as a stop-gap while the Centre’s new premises nearby were being built. Reception from the Greek authorities was enthusiastic. Ms Bertzeletou remembers: ‘A great effort was made and the then mayor was keen to establish a good relationship with Cedefop. There was though some uncertainty as to where it should be based. There were different proposals as I remember, to use for instance the Makedonia Palace hotel on the seafront, or another building in the centre of the city, but the American Farm School was rather more effective by offering some of its buildings.’
Ms Bertzeletou says the change was significant for the staff: ‘The difference between what we had left behind in Berlin and what we were experiencing in Thessaloniki was enormous. It was a completely different cultural and urban setting, not easy to compare or have the impression of a continuation. It was clear right from the start, I think, for all colleagues that here they had to start again.’
It took some getting used to at the American Farm School in the first few weeks: ‘We were on the ground floor with a strange smell sometimes coming from outside because of the agricultural nature of the farm school’s activities. There were a lot of birds, a lot of greenery around us – not at all Berlin’s urban environment where we were at the crossroads of main streets. It was kind of a trial-and-error period.’
As for the nature of the work, ‘it changed over time, but this didn’t have to do so much with being in Greece. It had to do with leaving Berlin. Greece didn’t get involved substantially in the work programme or anything else. There were voices expressing a wish for Cedefop to work more for the southern part of the European Union and its needs in vocational training, but this was not done. The change from Berlin was the most important influencing factor because it happened at the same time we were changing director, and moving, organisationally, from a three-part directorate with one director and two deputies to one director and one deputy director. A German director left and a Dutch, Johan van Rens, came around the time we were moving.’
The transitional period lasted ‘some years’ according to Ms Bertzeletou: ‘The prospect of moving again to our permanent building, not far away, in the same area, had added to the uncertainty. The problem I think was that we lost quite a few colleagues who decided not to move to Thessaloniki or some who came for a few years and then left. I’m only saying that there was major change, many changes at the same time.’
Now fully settled in Thessaloniki and in its own premises on Europe Street, named in honour of the agency, Cedefop’s 120 staff ‘ensure that it continues to develop and serve end-users as the reference point par excellence for European vocational education and training’ as current Director James Calleja points out.
As well as 20 years in Greece, Cedefop marks 40 years since its foundation in 2015. A special exhibition currently in its premises charts the organisation's history and work, including the move to Thessaloniki.