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A foot in the door: What's it really like working as an EU intern?
As far as political centres of powers go, Brussels is second only to Washington. The campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory estimates that the city has 25,000 lobbyists, all orbiting around the EU institutions that issue laws and regulations that affect the lives of more than 500 million Europeans.
Th at means that the city draws – and churns through – a lot of young strivers hoping to make a career in EU affairs. Th e Brussels Intern NGO (Bingo) estimates that 8,000 interns every year complete an internship or traineeship in the EU institutions or the organisations that lobby those institutions. They come from across the continent and sometimes even further aﬁeld, but what unites them is that they are the crème de la crème of young professionals. They usually have one or two master’s degrees under their belt, speak several languages and are highly ambitious, says Bryn Watkins from Bingo.
And the sheer number of them means they navigate their own little bubble inside the larger Euro bubble. “I wouldn’t call it a professional group but there is a kind of world of interns in Brussels. Obviously, they have a kind of a social life, a bit of a social community that runs alongside their work,” says Watkins. “That is also quite useful to them sometimes, both to be able to offer each other some mutual support and for their future professional development. They leave knowing a lot of young people who are going to go on to do interesting stuff.”
Because there are many more young people wanting to work in EU affairs than there are spots for them, most Brussels interns return to their native countries or start working in another country after their internship experience.
People like Watkins but also former interns say that in many ways, internships have become the unofficial first rung on the EU affairs career ladder. “I looked at it as a ritual that has to be undergone by pretty much anyone trying to make an international career, especially here,” says Pawel, 32, a Polish national who currently works for the Commission and completed two internships in Brussels (he declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the press under Commission rules).
Although he enjoyed no real responsibilities and received little supervision, Pawel says his two intern experiences – one for a think-tank and one for a member of the European Parliament – allowed him to network with many people and to stack up his career interests against the realities of the job market.
“The differences in education curricula at universities in Europe can be so vast and people just need to confront their reality with the job market. The advantage of traineeships is this is done in a relatively soft way, provided employers don’t exploit their trainees like you hear about so often – long working hours, very low pay, basically doing a standard regular job, but as an intern.”
Exploitation is precisely the word Méline Gadji, 26, uses to describe her experience of interning as a translator for a Brussels media company that reports on EU affairs, as part of her study programme at the French-language Free University of Brussels (ULB). “I found it really traumatising because I gave everything I had to obtain a good grade and I wasn’t paid a dime,” she says, describing it as a depressing three-month experience that entirely sucked the energy out of her.
Gadji worked full-time for that period and says there was no distinction between the work she did and that of the salaried translators. But, as with Pawel, the internship experience made her wiser about her next steps. “I don’t want to work for a company. Or rather, a trial period and if it doesn’t feel right, I’m out of there.”
Still, Gadji was positive about the learning aspect of the internship, pointing out that she became a much faster translator thanks to the person who trained her and describing it as a fantastic training experience. “I just wished they’d paid me, and then I wouldn’t be complaining.”
The experiences of Pawel and Gadji roughly capture the continuum of internships in Brussels: on the one hand are the internships that pay enough to live on, that provide meaningful leaning experiences and that advance interns’ careers. At the other end of the spectrum are the internships that don’t or barely pay, where interns are given meaningless tasks or inordinate amounts of work. The first are typically found in the internship programmes that have been around for years like the Schuman or Blue Book traineeship, the latter are often but not always employed by tiny organisations or charities.
A spokesperson for the European Commission told Th e Bulletin that it favours paid internships. In an effort to retain talented young individuals who join the Commission under a traineeship programme or a short-term contract, the Commission recently launched the Junior Professional Programme. “More specifically, the programme aims at making it more attractive for talented junior professionals to join the Commission, attracting a good mix of people, in terms of age, gender, geographical origin to join the EU public service, helping the Commission to retain talented individuals from across the EU that work in its DGs and services as trainees, contract agents, temporary agents,” she said by email.
Organisations that advocate for interns or on behalf of young people like Bingo and the European Youth Forum have been fighting for years for more quality, paid internships. They recently scored a big victory as from July, MEPs will no longer be allowed to hire unpaid interns. Rules like this are important because in a competitive sector like policymaking, someone will always be willing to do the internship for free that someone else refused, Watkins says. And in his view, that’s a problem.
“If the Euro bubble is the political elite of the EU, and internships are the route into that, it’s a problem if that route, that recruitment process is not diverse, not transparent, not paid. And if it’s not paid it’s excluding anyone that can’t afford to work unpaid,” he says. “You end up with a bunch of well-meaning, middle-class, white people running the show instead of really broadening that all out. And to me, that’s a problem of legitimacy with what we’re trying to do in Brussels here.”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin summer 2019. Photos: Nuno Loureiro