|Vol.7, No.27, 5.7.01, p12-13
Seven o'clock Monday morning at Gare du Luxembourg is not the best time to ask an MEP's assistant what they think of their job. It's the beginning of Strasbourg week, the low point in every assistant's calendar.
Ahead of them lies a ten-hour round trip on SNCB's slowest express train, a bed in a discount hotel over the German border and the 'service without a smile' typical of Alsatian restaurants. Certainly not the best way to relax after a hectic Strasbourg day.
And Strasbourg is hectic. While MEPs rush from plenary to meetings and cocktail parties, the assistants are often left flicking TV channels in the office. But they're on permanent emergency alert, waiting for their MEP to come along with the next urgent task.
It's often nothing more than a dash down to the document centre or a hunt round the corridors for an itinerant visitor, but sometimes it does get a little more exciting. Assistants can find themselves acting as go-betweens in the latest political intrigues, or giving last-minute advice on a speech.
But the assistants who enjoy Strasbourg week most are the ones who stay in Brussels. With the MEPs away, the assistants have time to get on with their work without interruption - except, of course, for extended inter-assistant discussions in the coffee bar.
So what do the hundreds of assistants working in the Parliament actually do? Are they anything more than glorified secretaries? Victoria Crawford, assistant to British MEP Bill Newton Dunn, thinks not. "There are some people here who are highly qualified and have spent years at university, but they just end up organising visitors' groups."
Employed solely by the MEP, the nature of an assistant's work is wholly at the member's discretion, so there is no common job description for a parliamentary assistant. The more seasoned MEPs tend to require no more than secretarial support.
Assistants should beware of the clause in their contract asking them to perform "any other task the MEP may require". In some cases this means more time fetching their boss' suits from the dry cleaners than tackling any serious political work.
The other occupational hazard of being an assistant is the visitors' group. When MEPs host a visit of constituents from the region it's up to the assistant to act as tour guide, agony aunt and inexhaustible source of EU information.
But the ultimate challenge has to be the tour itself. Could you take a group of good-natured holidaymakers around Parliament without running out of interesting things to say about roll-call votes and second readings?
Replying to letters from constituents is another eternal joy of the assistant's job. What do you say to Mrs Smith from Solihull who expects the EU to do something about her sewers, or to Signor Rodriguez from Valencia who thinks there's lots of European money around to help him build an extension to his three-bedroom house?
Some assistants (myself included) are lucky enough to work for an MEP who gives them a real taste of the action. Employed more as political advisers or researchers, we can be asked to do anything from drafting press releases to writing speeches.
In many cases the assistant does the work of the party secretariat, briefing the MEPs on reports going through their committee, and preparing amendments. When a member holds other positions outside the Parliament the assistant can end up as more of an MEP than the MEP himself, making decisions and formulating strategy on his behalf.
Sandro Mameli, assistant to Italian MEP Giorgio Lisi, says: "It's a myth that an MEP writes his own legislative texts. The assistants and the secretariat help him." Although many assistants do the work of a fonctionnaire they do not have the same status or generous rates of pay. This disparity has created a certain amount of tension between the more senior aides and the Parliament secretariat, but the hottest issue is the lack of common standards among the assistants themselves. The variation in salary among assistants to British MEPs is one example.
While Conservative assistants receive good salaries, their Liberal-Democrat counterparts earn on average one-third less - an ironic role reversal from the party which has campaigned so enthusiastically for improvements in workers' rights.
Parliamentary assistants also remain the only group of employees paid directly out of the Union budget who still have no set provisions for salary, taxation and social security. But with their work spread between Brussels, Strasbourg and the region, it is unclear which nation's employment law applies. Assistants cannot be governed by the same rules as employees of the EU institutions because they are not employed by the European Parliament.
The status for aides coming from outside the Union is even more of a grey area. Eric Campbell, assistant to German MEP Helmut Kuhne, is an American citizen. Covered by German medical insurance, he has to travel to Munster from Brussels every time he needs to see a doctor.
So is the much-discussed plan for an assistants' statute a good idea in his opinion? "I'm in favour of a statute, but there has to be some kind of pragmatic approach. The European Commission's original idea of giving us the status of temporary EU employees was the ideal solution," says Campbell.
But when the Council of Ministers discussed the issue in 1998 it found the idea of giving assistants agent auxiliaires status too expensive to contemplate. Since then, a parliamentary working group has been looking for alternatives to the assistant anomaly.
One option is to allow assistants to choose between the social security systems of their own country and Belgium. Final proposals are expected from the Commission before the summer recess and should be put to the vote in Parliament by the end of the year.
Assistants may have no clearly-defined rights, but that doesn't stop thousands of job applications pouring into MEPs' offices each year. Competition is intense, and with no standard application procedure, everyone has a different story about how they got their job. Some MEPs recruit from their political contacts back in their member state, while others take on stagiaires working in the Parliament or the Commission.
So what exactly is it that makes the idea of sitting in an office in Brussels' biggest greenhouse so appealing?
Mameli explains: "Day after day you gradually accept the conditions. You know it's not for long and it can be a good first step in a political career."
However, unlike the secretariat there is no career ladder for assistants. Only a chosen few are 'promoted' to be an MEP. Germany's centre-right Bernd Posselt is a rare example of one former assistant who made a successful transition. Others use the job as a stepping stone to work in the many NGOs lobbying in Brussels.
Working in the Parliament is also good preparation for the concours, the exam which officials must pass to get a job within the institutions, while back in their own countries their EU experience often makes them a valuable asset.
So, maybe early Monday mornings at Gare du Luxembourg aren't so bad after all.
Major feature on the assistants of Members of the European Parliament.
|Politics and International Relations