Doing an internship, or stage, in Brussels is a natural next step for many students of European studies, but the experiences they have while working at the European Commission or the European Parliament can vary immensely. Placements may be close to the student’s academic or career interests, or bafflingly distant. Policy in their area may be moving quickly in the months they are in Brussels, or be stuck in limbo. They may be exposed to the full range of institutional life, or it may pass them by.
Ask stagiaires in the current intake why they came to Brussels after European studies, and it quickly becomes clear that it is a well-trodden path. “In some ways, it’s perceived as a rite of passage,” says Paul Quinn, who is at the Commission. “So many jobs want experience with the EU institutions.”
It helps that the institutional stages are relatively well paid, and for those who studied abroad on the Erasmus programme, a stage has a similar appeal. “It’s a really nice balance between actual working life and still being a student, in the sense that you are still learning and applying the knowledge you learned in your degree,” says Hannah Percival, who is at the Parliament.
Above all, there is the desire to experience at first hand what it is like to work in the EU institutions.
Parliamentary stages include placements with the administration, with individual MEPs and with the political groups.
Percival falls into the first category, with a placement in the unit dealing with the Parliament’s election observation missions.
This has proved to be a good match with her degree, a master’s in European studies and international relations from King’s College, London, concluding with a dissertation on the EU’s promotion of democracy and human rights in the African, Pacific and Caribbean states. “It is a really good bridge between foreign policy and development policy,” she says. “I couldn’t have picked it better myself.”
The work involves tracking developments in countries that are candidates for election observation missions, and following parliamentary committees and delegations with similar interests. With so many elections taking place there is little danger of hitting a calm period, and Percival feels closely involved with the work of the Parliament. “Because we are involved in organising actual missions, it really is hands-on experience of democracy promotion and how the EU does it,” she says.
The experience has also added insights to those she gained on her master’s course. “When you are learning about the Parliament, you don’t necessarily think about the civil servants working behind the scenes; you just think of the more political, high- profile things.”
While Percival’s unit is multinational and multi-disciplinary, others in the Parliament are different by definition. As a lawyer-linguist, Konstantinos Koukas works mainly with other Greeks in the directorate of legislative acts, providing drafting assistance and legal verification of parliamentary texts. But again, there is a feeling of being involved. “I often work on a text and the same night see it published on the Parliament’s website,” he says.
Koukas studied law at the Democritus University of Thrace, followed by a master’s in European and international studies from the University of Athens, focusing on European and human-rights law. He chose a parliamentary stage for the variety it offered. “The Parliament is a mixture of politics and European affairs, which is closer to my personality and my interests,” he says. “If I were focused only on career matters, I would have applied to the Commission.”
As a lawyer, the timing of his stage was impeccable. “I’ve experienced from inside the Parliament the whole procedure of adoption of the Lisbon treaty, and that has great value,” he says. “It has changed everything in EU law and procedures, so I have had a great opportunity to upgrade my knowledge.”
Being an MEP’s stagiaire is significantly different from being part of the administration. Your status is lower when it comes to matters such as security clearance, and your wages and working hours are at the MEP’s discretion. But shadowing an MEP means much closer contact with the political work of the Parliament.
“In ordinary life, it’s rare that you meet a politician and spend so much time with them,” says Paulina Kosc, who has a nine-month stage with Polish MEP Róza Thun. “You get to know their contacts, how the Parliament functions and how to cope with constantly having to be in touch with the electorate in Poland while still being in Brussels.”
Kosc has a master’s degree in European interdisciplinary studies from the College of Europe in Natolin. Her major was in the EU as a global actor, which involved field trips to Turkey and Ukraine rather than Brussels, Bruges and Luxembourg, so a stage was an opportunity to see the EU institutions at first hand.
Her work involves some secretarial duties, such as helping reply to the vast number of e-mails that arrive for Thun every day, sorting invitations and organising her diary. She is also expected to attend meetings that are of interest to her MEP and report back. In particular, Kosc monitors the parliamentary delegations for Israel and Palestine, which often clash with Thun’s work on the culture committee, and related conferences.
Having not majored in governance, Kosc has found first-hand experience of the Parliament to be a valuable supplementary learning experience. “In our first semester at Natolin we had to write an essay about the democratic deficit of the EU, and I wrote down everything I had been taught. Then I came here, and I discovered some more.”
While the Parliament has all of its stagiaires in one place, the Commission spreads them across its directorates-general, which can be some way from the Commission’s hub, the Berlaymont building. Adam Lucey ended up in a Commission department – responsible for the information society and media – out in the suburbs. In other respects, though, it was a good choice.
After a bachelor’s degree in German with European studies at the University of Manchester, he took a postgraduate diploma in international business and worked for the computer company Apple for 16 months. “Working for DG Information Society and Media perfectly complements working at Apple, so everything fits together,” he says.
His unit deals with information technology and social inclusion and, as well as shadowing his supervisor, he attends meetings and workshops on technological issues, and reads reports. “I read large documents so that other people don’t have to, and then report on them.”
As well as providing an insight into the technologies in question, the stage has given him real-life insights into what was text-book material at university, and brought his knowledge up to date. “Europe has changed so much, even since I was taught at university,” he says. “My text-books are completely out of date.”
Paul Quinn followed a bachelor’s degree in politics and French at the University of Limerick, then a master’s in international and European politics at the University of Edinburgh, concluding with a dissertation on the effectiveness of EU military missions in Africa. The Commission stage is his third in Brussels, after internships at the European Music Office and the British Council.
As both these organisations are active in cultural policy he thought DG Education and Culture would be a natural choice for a stage. However, he was offered a place in one of its education policy units, for the mundane reason that they needed a native English speaker.
In retrospect, this has been a good thing, since education carries far more weight than culture and he is in a unit with a co-ordinating role. “I think I’ve got to see more than a lot of the other stagiaires there,” he says, citing the range of education programmes and the contacts he has had with national agencies promoting education. However, the emphasis on communication and data collection has been a disappointment. “I would have liked a bit more policy formulation.”
Compared to his studies, the stage has been illuminating, though not necessarily encouraging. “European studies focus on the big picture, and then when you go into a stage you are put in one small unit of a massive bureaucracy. You’d never hear of most of the policy areas in your studies.”
How useful the stage is in each individual career naturally depends on what people want to do next. The most obvious question it answers is whether or not they do want a career in the EU institutions.
This is a slightly easier question in the Parliament, since a stage can be a way in. This is the route Koukas plans to take. “I’m looking for a job in the Parliament, and that could be working for an MEP as an assistant, or working for a party. You can also be offered a contract to stay in the office where you have your stage, if they consider you are valuable.”
Percival sees the stage as an essential step for her career, and is looking to stay on in Brussels, whether with another internship or a full-time job. But she has also applied for the European fast-track of the UK’s civil service.
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Kosc wants to return to academia, but, with her very specific interests in migration, she is pessimistic about landing a PhD with one of the three or four European academics in the field. “There are not so many choices, and not all of them take PhD students, so that may be difficult,” she says. It remains to be seen whether the stage will help her get there. Even so, Kosc says: “I think [the stage] can help me uncover other layers that are not in the books, and you never know what will turn out to be useful in the future.”
Quinn is looking at communications jobs, for which his stage experience will be an asset, but ideally he would like to be more involved with international relations. “The desired job would be policy research, maybe for one of the missions, preferably a non-EU mission,” he says. “I like the idea of being able to represent a country and carry out research for them, and still be close to the Commission and the Parliament.”
For Lucey, the stage is an asset on his CV and a valuable learning experience, but it has also taught him that he does not want to work in Brussels. Even so, he is positive about his time here. “Even if I don’t want to work for the European Union, I am still a promoter of Europe.”