Guest blog post by Elodie Sellier.
On 29 June, in the European Parliament’s premises, interns in EU institutions organised a conference gathering Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), officials from the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), and representatives of the private sector and youth advocacy groups to discuss the oft-overlooked issue of unpaid internships in the European Union.
Increasingly, when students graduate from university, they do not turn to a job, but to an internship as the next big step. Estimates provided by the Brussels Intern NGO (B!NGO) highlight that every year, more than 8,000 young people undertake internships in Brussels’s so-called ‘EU bubble’. It is distressing that nearly half of these internships are unpaid, although much of the work done by interns is often worth more than the minimum wage. In Brussels, what was once unthinkable in our supposedly modern societies – working for free, has become the new normal.
So, last Wednesday, interns asked: Should the EU institutions lead by example on quality internships?
All three institutions, the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council of the EU, offer their own highly selective, prestigious internship schemes, which provide a financial compensation ranging from EUR 1,000 to 1,250, include accident and health insurance, and cover travel expenses. But competition is fierce. Twice a year, no less than 25,000 young people apply for the Commission’s flagship Blue Book internship programme, for just over 600 placements.
But all is not lost for those who do not belong to the ‘chosen ones’, but still want to get a taste of what a European institution looks like ‘from the inside’. In the shadow of existing programmes, the institutions hire hundreds of unpaid trainees, an outstanding issue that often goes unnoticed even among EU officials themselves.
In the European Parliament, the bulk of unpaid interns can be found among young people undertaking an internship with an individual MEP. In many cases, the amount of the financial compensation is determined by the MEP. Some interns receive no compensation at all.
In the European Commission, they are known as ‘atypical trainees’, a surname commonly used to designate unpaid trainees performing outside of the framework of the ‘Blue Book’ stage. Last month, MEP Siôn Simon filed a written question to the Commission asking the institution to disclose the number of unpaid interns working within its premises, but so far the request has remained dead letter. What is more, the EEAS employs every year more than 400 unpaid interns in some 140 European Union delegations based in third countries. In March 2014, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly received a complaint from an unpaid intern working in an EU delegation arguing that such treatment was unfair. So far the details of the case have remained confidential, but the Ombudsman is expected to deliver its judgement at the end of the summer.
Proponents of unpaid internships argue that these contracts offer clear benefits – an opportunity for people entering the workforce to learn alongside professionals, gain practical skills and experience, or simply to include an experience on their CV that jumps off the page. For some, it may lead to a job at the end. But this is far from a given.
In a competitive environment such as that of Brussels, the surge in unpaid internships is dragging down the number of entry-level positions. This logically propels young professionals to compete harder for the remaining spots, pushing them to beef up their résumé by accepting unpaid internships, thus exacerbating the downward drag on the number of available paid positions, and creating an inevitable vicious cycle for entry-level job seekers.
Despite noticeable endeavours undertaken by the institutions, such as the release of a Council recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships in 2014, along with significant endeavours made by youth organisations towards the implementation of guidelines to help both employers and interns improve internship conditions, investing in quality internships for young people clearly remains a second-order priority for EU leaders.
In many respects though, the future of the European Union lies within the hands of the young generation. If anything, the dramatic results of the British referendum have exposed the social and political cleavages of a society bitterly divided across generational lines. With 75 per cent of 18-24 years old voting in favour of Remain, it showed that young people may well be the most powerful weapon against the wave of Euroscepticism that casts a veil of uncertainty over the continent and presages an uncomfortable political future in Europe.
Just as the Erasmus programme tore down the European borders a few decades ago, bridged the countries and eventually gave birth to a new generation of Europhiles, ensuring quality internship opportunities in EU institutions provides an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate the added value of the EU and re-instil trust in the European project, by delivering concrete and tangible benefits to a whole generation of young European citizens.
Clearly though, a binding, EU-wide legislation is unlikely to see the light anytime soon, as social and employment affairs remains one of these policy fields that touch upon the core of member states sovereignty. Yet, it is the EU’s own responsibility to make sure that, at least within its own institutions, the standards of fairness and equity for young people desirous of pursuing a career in the European bubble do not crumble on the altar of competitiveness and profit. Comprehensive, equal and fair rules that cover all interns in EU institutions constitute a prerequisite to incentivise the thousands of organisations that gravitate around the EU to ethical behaviour and integrity, and a first step towards the improvement of employers’ bottom lines and the creation of a level playing field in Europe’s job market.Blogactiv Team