Working for the European Commission – traineeships

Applying for an internship at the European Commission

The European Commission is one of the biggest multi-national civil service organisations in the world. With EU nationals representing all 27 Member States (ok, so still 28 but with Brexit this number will change). For anyone who studied EU politics, economy, or languages then you could well find yourself backing into a Brussels corner. And where else to exercise all of that knowledge?! Here are a few practical pointers on applying for an internship at the EU Commission and what to expect.

  • There are x2 intakes of interns per year. One in March and the other in October,
  • Applications for the internships close 6 months in advance and most traineeships last for 5 months – unless you can wangle your way to an extension or a temporary contract,
  • The application process is long (and with the aim of filtering out as many people in the early stages as possible)
  • Paid positions averaging about €1200 per month (which should be just about enough to live off in the Brussels bubble).

There are 2 kinds of traineeship, administrative and translation. If you are applying for an admin post (and by admin I don’t mean purely photocopying letters – although I’ll get to that bit later on) then you’ll need a good command of at least one of the administrative languages English, French or German plus another EU language. However, if you are a native English, French or German speaker then you’ll need to speak another of the 3 admin languages. For example:

Hungarian applicant: German + Hungarian to qualify

French applicant: French + English or German to qualify

For a translation traineeship you would need a good command of 2 administrative languages and another EU language for good measure. Essentially the more obscure the EU language the more likely you are to get to the final stages of the sift.

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Louise – Brussels by night

 

What to expect?

You will need to create an account on the online application portal and begin completing the application form. NB: if you start doing this on the last day of the applications you will never complete it in time or to the best of your ability. It’s your first taste of European bureaucracy at its finest and it really is like writing War and Peace. Each answer will require a considered response and you’ll be trawling back through all of the weekend and temporary jobs you’ve had since you were old enough to work – so make sure you have the dates and names of employers to hand.

Tip: One trick I used was to keep all of the business cards of my old employers/companies and write my dates of employment on the back so that filling out the form was less of a chore.

Once this has been issued and the deadline passed, the Commission will request proof of: ID, university degree (completed), any ongoing studies, language skills, work experience and IT skills if relevant.

Following a sift, the top 2000 candidates will be selected for the notorious Blue book. This number outweighs the need for interns across the Commission but provides the departments with the best pool of applicants to pick from. Not all will be selected but those who are will have been matched up as best as possible to the needs of the department.

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Parc du Cinquantenaire – Brussels isn’t all grey and bureaucratic

What are my options?

 

So, you’re in the Blue book, you’re the chosen few and the future of the bureaucratic machinery that drives Europe. Job done…right? Wrong! You should wait a couple of weeks after hearing that you are on the virtual list before playing your cards. As a Brit, I found this next step wholly unnatural and made me want to take a good hot shower after I completed the task. And that task is: Chasing Your Application with a Phone Call. This might be a big no-no where you come from, but in Brussels more is more, and if you can get hold of a potential Director or Deputy Director in a department which interests you then it’s time to start selling yourself shamelessly.

I have Italian friends who tried this and it didn’t work, they were told it was too pushy and that jobs had already been allocated. I had German friends try this and it was successful, they were told they had the right language combination that was needed. And then there’s me, I called and I was told that they hadn’t considered me for that particular role but they heard another position had been liberated so I should call “X” in another department and ask…and I got the job.

Tip: Don’t wait too late to call for the job you want. The pick of the crop often get allocated first and you might find yourself in a job which doesn’t bring you joy. Also to bear in mind is your phone manner. As someone on the receiving end of one of these calls, there is nothing more off putting than a desperate graduate who comes across as either a charity case or a self-obsessed talking ego. Instead, think about how you would benefit the team?  What would you bring to the department that they may not already have?

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Autumn sets in, and with it a new intake of interns

 

What jobs are on offer?

The translation jobs are quite self-explanatory. They are often not as sexy as they sound – try to get Nicole Kidman in ‘The Interpreter’ out of your head for this one. You are likely to find yourself sat in a small room with 3-4 others working on a long, heavy document containing very specific, sometimes legal, terminology. There will be times when you will attend seminars with live interpretation and get more than your share of free Brussels lunches but the mundane office work can often outweigh the benefits.

The administrative jobs are varied and very manager dependent. You might find yourself working for a vivacious person who wants to get you involved as much as they possibly can, or you could find yourself working as the personal assistant to an accountant for 5 months. Time to learn how to use that photocopier properly!

In either scenario try to make the most of the contacts you will build up and the opportunities that may follow. Think outside the box, your future may not be in the Commission but thanks to your experience and insight into the day to day work of the EU’s administrative power then this can only help you up the career ladder. Life in Brussels is really what you make of it and experiences can be varied. Reap what you sow.

You can apply to the European Commission for a traineeship here.

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Iconic symbol of Brussels, worth the picture, not worth the money
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PA OK

Surviving in a competitive working environment can often mean that you’ll face a certain degree of hierarchical snobbery. Particularly if you have landed the very underrated position of PA. Being personal assistant to the boss has connotations of dogsbody style working but in my experience it is anything but. Play your cards right and you can successfully put your stamp on a role that will allow you access to high level stakeholders and an address book of contacts that most heads of state would love to get their hands on.

Don’t let anyone look down on the important job you do. Often the people you are working to would be melting in a disorganised mess without your cool, prepared approach.

I have worked for a country leader for just over a year now and the role has brought with it a plethora of opportunities that wouldn’t be available to even the next-in-command. Attending meetings with the Head of the European Commission, Parliament key figureheads in the UN, Presidents and famous people with political messages to spread have all contacted me to get to my boss. I have sat in on those meetings and participated in the majority of those discussions, exchanging business cards with those who are keen to engage.

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Don’t let people push you out the frame. You may not be the President, but your contribution is valuable and people are always listening.

Stakeholders may not have come to see you expressly, it’s the ear of your boss they want, but don’t underestimate the power of being present and pro-active. They will remember your face, your name, your manners when you escorted them and advised them ahead of the meeting, your willingness to facilitate the discussion and your professionalism throughout. Of course, most stakeholders are wise to this, but they still know that you hold the key to the diary, to the relationship that continues outside of the meeting room and any future engagements.

Use the network that you build up as a platform for your career. You are your own brand. Supporting someone on a daily basis who is higher up the corporate chain from you is a testament to your capability, not a limit. As proof of this, many of my colleagues, who have a varied background of education and professional specialisation, have landed top jobs thanks to the contacts they made whilst working as PAs. When I was at school we were told that there are more paths to getting the job you really want. This is true, it’s not always a linear school-university-placement-job pattern that people work to. In fact, having experience in a coordinating and supporting role speaks for itself in competency based interviews and opens doors that the standard online applicants won’t have access to.

So next time you’re compiling that briefing or speaking note, or scavenging for fresh milk for the boss’s tea, just remember that it all counts towards the bigger picture and you’re honing your skills in multi-tasking, working under pressure and (more often than not!) patience.

 

Have you worked as a personal assistant? Or, have you been able to use your role as a trampoline for the next exciting opportunity? Feel free to leave a comment…