Following the yellow brick road to Brussels

Attracted by the siren call of permanent employment in a high profile institution, young graduates from all over Europe flock to Brussels with their sights set on jobs in the European Commission. But making the move to the Belgian capital is not always an easy transition. Café Babel reports on the trials and tribulations of those who seek entry to the corridors of power.

Published on 27 November 2009 at 15:11
Bronze statues by René Julien outside Charlemagne building in Brussels. Photo : Quarsan/Flickr

They have different nationalities and come from different backgrounds, but scan through the CVs that flood into in-trays at the European Commission and you will find that certain qualifications come up time and again: primary degrees in Communications, masters in International Relations, additional masters in European Business Studies--and these diplomas are almost always supplemented by stays abroad in Erasmus type student exchange programmes. For young Estonian lawyer Ana Vork, completing a second masters in European Law in Brussels was crucially important: "It was extremely useful for my internship in the European Commission, and it will give me a much needed edge in the exams for the European civil service."

For Paolo Sergio, an Italian-Czech graduate of the Free University of Brussels' Institute of European Studies, students should be wary of investing in private courses that do not always result in a much coveted first job: "the College of Europe in Bruges is a lot like the Ivy League universities in the US: you pay for future contacts, and the opportunity to build a personal network. But it is important to bear in mind that networks are virtually useless when you are a young graduate with no experience. They only become useful when you are accepted by the civil service, but you still have to get through the entrance exam."

Stuck in internship-land

An array qualifications is of limited value without an open door to a respected organization where graduates can gain essential work experience. Most future eurocrats have no illusions about the essential importance of training and internships. Obviously, European institutions provide the best opportunity for long-term career advancement, but lobbying organzations and think tanks also offer possibilities. However, students are never really sure what to expect. Dream internships can often turn into nightmares, and dull training programmes can sometimes yield miraculous results.

"They can be amazing or truly painful. It all depends on your boss," says Ana. "If you make a point of being pro-active, you may get some very interesting experience," adds Paolo. Internships are supposed to mark a transition to paid work, but in many cases they simply provide an atmosphere of employment, in which the expected job never appears. The many who are disappointed are faced with a choice between returning home to their native countries, or taking on yet another trainee position. "One of my flatmates is doing another masters and the other one is now on his third internship," explains Cédric, a disgruntled French graduate of the Institute of European Studies in Brussels. Others, like Paolo and Ana, are busy preparing for long awaited entrance examinations.

Better say you're not Belgian

The progressive arrival of new member states in the EU has reinforced competition between young civil service aspirants in Brussels. In a city where the law of quotas is hardly ever questioned, nationality remains an important criteria for recruitment, but it should not be allowed to take precedence over the nature of the job itself. "I did in fact turn down one offer for a post in the Czech commissioner's cabinet," says Paolo, "because they only really wanted me for my language skills. But you have to bear in mind, that the commissioners invariably choose interns from their home countries." Ana, who is Estonian and Belgian, keeps quiet about her Belgian identity: "I never say that I'm also Belgian. As an Estonian, I'm a hundred times morel likely to be recruited in most of the institutions."

Does this result in enmity between graduates from Old and New Europe? Apparently not, but "French, German and Belgian citizenship is a lot less marketable," complains Cédric. At the same time, candidates from Eastern Europe may be more motivated by pay and working conditions in Brussels, which they cannot expect to equal in their home countries.


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