Stage set for the next generation of the new Eurocracy

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Series Details Vol 7, No.7, 15.2.01, p12-13
Publication Date 15/02/2001
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Date: 15/02/01

The EU executive's in-house trainee scheme, the 'stage', has been maligned in the past as a finishing school for those with the right connections.

Now it claims its entry system is based on merit rather than string-pulling. Gareth Harding reports

EVERY year, March brings both bad and good news for hundreds of European Commission officials.

The downside is that on the last day of February, more than 600 of the institution's youngest, brightest and most enthusiastic staff will be forced to clear their desks. The upside is that the next day they will be replaced by another 600 young, bright and enthusiastic 20-somethings from around the world.

Ever since the Commission's in-house training scheme, known as a stage in French, was introduced almost 40 years ago, early spring has been a change-over time in the EU executive.

For the outgoing stagiaires it is a period of tearful farewells, frantic CV posting and all-night partying. But for the freshly-arrived batch of would-be Eurocrats it is the start of a five-month adventure that is likely to remain etched in the mind for years to come.

Kela O'Riordan, who started her stage seven years ago, certainly remembers the day she arrived in Brussels. "I was 23, I'd lived all my life in Dublin, I didn't know anything about foreigners and suddenly this whole world opened up before me - I had the time of my life," she says.

For some, it is a truly life-changing experience. Alexandra Angulo arrived in Brussels from Colombia and found herself sharing a desk with Scot John Edward in the EU's humanitarian aid office. They are now married and continue to work in and around the EU institutions.

They are typical of the many stagiaires who come to the Belgian capital for a brief stint and end up staying for years. "I came here for five months and I've been here ever since," says Harvey Rowse, now vice-president of the American Motion Pictures Association in Brussels. "It's an enriching experience - you can only really understand how the EU works by experiencing it from the inside - and of course the parties were great."

Some of those who have stayed on have made it to the top of the EU ladder. Competition Commissioner Mario Monti is a former stagiaire, as are ex-Commissioners Karel van Miert and Manuel Marín, MEPs James Elles and Simon Hughes and Director-General Alex Schaub.

Most of the former trainees finish up working for the EU institutions, NGOs, consultancies and law firms. Some have even been known to write for European Voice!

What stagiaires experience during their five months of toil in the vineyards of the EU executive can vary enormously though. While some find themselves writing speeches for Commissioners and sitting in on sensitive meetings, others complain that they are "used as pawns" with too much time spent photocopying and shuffling papers.

But many improvements to the structure of the stage have been quietly taking place, according to British official Joan Scott, who ran the traineeships' office until last month. There is more concentration on the intellectual content, as well as a broader base of extra-curricular activities.

Ten years ago, the only such diversions available to trainees were French classes, raucous parties and the odd trip to Antwerp or Bruges. Stagiaires are still formidable party-organisers (see left), but nowadays there is a whole lot more to keep them occupied.

Classes are available in almost all European languages; the trainees have their own theatre company; there are martial arts classes, football leagues and even cricket matches on offer.

The trainees have an intranet site to keep one another posted about upcoming events, such as their top-notch conferences which attract Commissioners, ministers and ambassadors.

The stagiaires also collect huge amounts for good causes through their Solidarité charity, set up to handle the 500,000 Belgian francs collected on each course.

Scott says that one of the main purposes of the charity is to "give back to the city of Brussels what we take out of it". On the local level, interns organise information technology and language classes for disadvantaged children. But Solidarité is also active on the international scene. Recent stages have sent wheelchairs to youth homes in Estonia, funds to help the street-children of Brazil and aid for the gypsy communities in Bulgaria and Macedonia.

As well as broadening the range of activities, Scott pushed through a much-needed reform of the stage selection procedure during her four-year stint as head of the traineeships' office. By the mid-1990s, the whole selection system was widely seen as being corrupt and having more in common with a medieval court than a modern-day administration.

It was virtually written into the rules that to get a stage an applicant had to procure a letter of approval from his or her MEP or 'national' Commissioner, fork out for a ticket to Brussels and lobby officials incessantly.

For those in the know - usually the sons and daughters of politicians, diplomats and Commission officials - it was easy. But for those out of the loop, it was as baffling and bewildering as Kafka's castle.

One Commission official says that the stage programme was "ripe for reform" by the time Scott arrived. "It was all fairly shambolic - rules were forgotten about and there were no proper selection rules in place," he admits. With up to 7,000 applications for 600 available places, competition to get an internship is fierce. But Scott insists that this should not be used as an excuse for underhand practices of the type that gave former President Jacques Santer's Commission such a bad name.

She introduced a selection procedure based on merit, where would-be stagiaires send in a standardised application form, preferred candidates appear in a 'blue book' and officials in search of trainees pluck the lucky few from the short-list. Scott says that as a result, selection is "purely and simply based on what you know rather than whom you know".

Recent stagiaires suggest this might be something of an exaggeration. String-pulling still goes on and many would-be interns still lobby hard to get their places. But at least nepotism, petty corruption and political patronage are not as rife as they used to be.

Another impression Scott has tried hard to change is that the stage is just a finishing school for Europe's elite. This was certainly the feeling one former trainee had on her first day. "I felt very poor. People were walking around in designer suits and driving fancy sports cars. It seemed like all their parents were ambassadors," she says.

Part of the problem in the past was that only half the trainees received the miserly monthly allowance of 28,000 Belgian francs. This almost ensured that you either had to have rich parents or a friendly bank manager to do a stage. The first thing Scott did was to phase out unpaid internships, to the extent that today 95% of trainees receive monthly stipends. "It makes it more important everyone is paid now that we are not getting the sons and daughters of the good and the great," she says. "Now it's on merit you get people from across the board."

Despite the wide geographical spread of stagiaires - more than 100 of the present class come from non-EU countries - it is unlikely that the Commission internship is suddenly going to start attracting unemployed sheet-metal workers from Mons.

The current rules state that all applicants must be university graduates and under 30. A knack for foreign languages and a keen interest in the workings of the European Union also rule out most people.

Nevertheless, there is a feeling that things have changed since the bad old days when a newly-arrived stagiaire's first question to a fellow fresher would be: "Which directorate-general do you work in and who was your piston (string puller)?"

lFor information about how to apply to be a stagiaire, call +32 2 295 60 61 or visit the trainee office website at You will need to complete an application form which can be downloaded from the site and send it to the stage programme coordinators along with a copy of your university degree certificate. Information on deadlines and application procedures is also available online.

Major feature. The EU executive's in-house trainee scheme, the 'stage', has been maligned in the past as a finishing school for those with the right connections. Now it claims its entry system is based on merit rather than string-pulling.

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