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Living (and working) in a bubble: life as a trainee at the European Union

A traineeship at the European Union in Brussels has always been a popular choice for ambitious young professionals. The European Institutions receive more than a thousand CV’s every year from people all over the world, thus making Brussels an attractive destination for ambitious professionals. We spoke with various trainees whom are all enrolled in a traineeship in one of the European Institutions at this moment. We asked them why they chose Brussels, how the application process went, if they are involved in the EU-bubble and what advice they have for future trainees.

There are two popular traineeships at the EU: one at the European Commission (also known as Blue Book program) or one at the European Parliament (also known as Schuman program). This unique opportunity in Brussels attracts people from all over the world, making it a very diverse and multicultural work environment. Project B had the opportunity to talk to some of the current trainees about their experiences so far.

Firstly we’d like to introduce the trainees and learn more about their background.

Why a traineeship at the European Union in Brussels?

Both Gustavo and Federico have completed an Erasmus program in Brussels. For Gustavo, his Erasmus experience made him realize he wanted to move to Brussels to pursue a career at the European Union.

Gustavo: “2 years ago when I went on Erasmus at Free University of Brussels, I realized I wanted to pursue a career at the European Union and that Brussels was the city I would like to live and work in. After finishing my bachelor’s in Madrid, I returned to Brussels for my master’s and applied for a traineeship at the European Union. Compared to other traineeships I have done, this traineeship is mostly focused on the ‘learning’ aspect.”

Federico also returned to Brussels after completing an Erasmus adventure a few years ago. He wanted to relocate back to Brussels because he is convinced this traineeship will kickstart his career in international relations.

Federico: “For someone who wants to gain experience in international relations, Brussels is the place to be. I also lived in Brussels during my Erasmus a few years ago and I enjoyed it very much. You can’t really compare Rome to Brussels, they’re two totally different cities. But in terms of professional opportunities, networking, etc., Brussels is definitely the city to be in.”

Not all trainees we spoke with plan on staying in Brussels. Eleni, on the other hand, has plans of returning to her home country Greece.

Eleni: “I wanted to gain experience working at the European Union. In a few years from now, when I feel like I am experienced enough, I would like to return to Greece and put everything into making Greece a better place. However, my short-term plan is to stay here in Brussels for a while to get some relevant experience.”

During Covid times, Anita decided to change her professional direction. After working for several years in education, she decided to apply for a traineeship at the EU. Anita is the only person that we interviewed that is working as a Blue Book trainee.

Anita: “I actually found this traineeship program through people I know, it was at a time I wanted to change professions. I really love the work environment, my colleagues do their best to make it a pleasant experience for me. Everybody respects each other, we all come from different countries and everyone wants to create an environment where all of us can work productively and feel good. This is something that really motivates me.”

The very long application process

Applying for a traineeship at the EU might sound like a very long and detailed process. A lot of young professionals apply every year for this unique opportunity in Brussels, and it might feel like only a fraction of them actually get this opportunity. We asked our trainees how their application process went and what some of the dos and don’ts are.

Anita talked us through her whole application process as a trainee at the European Commission.

Anita: “It started back in August 2021, that was the deadline for all applications if you want to start in March 2022. The first stage of the application process consisted of just submitting your CV and motivation letter. When you pass that first stage, you need to prove that what you said is actually true by showing the supporting documents (e.g. your degree). After a few months, I got a message that my name made the Blue Book and now the units that I applied for me can contact me for a possible traineeship. You always have to prove what you say on your CV or motivation letter, so don’t ever lie because they will ask for proof (laughs).”

The Virtual Blue Book is a database that consists of about 2,000 candidates for a traineeship and is available for all Commission services and agencies. Based on experiences and interests potential trainees can be contacted for a traineeship.

The case of Eleni was no different, she had to provide a lot of details about herself and also justify everything she said on her CV. She does her internship at the EPP party in the European Parliament. She gave some insights on the application process for trainees in the European Parliament.

Eleni: “Applying was not simple. You need to justify everything on your CV and there was also this super detailed application I had to fill in. After that, I got the acceptance letter. I know that you might also have to go through an interview in Schuman traineeships before you get accepted.”

Involvement in the EU-Bubble in Brussels

Brussels is known for its large EU bubble, more than 37,000 people work at the European Institutions in Brussels. According to research, Eurocrates are too little involved in the local Brussels community and live in their own ‘bubble’ (Magosse, 2007). We were curious whether or not our trainees experienced this first hand and if they’re involved in the EU bubble as well.

Eleni and Federico acknowledge that this EU-bubble exists, but they do their best to not stick within this European bubble.

Federico: “If I compare my Erasmus experience with my experience now as a trainee, I’d say that most of my friends now come from the EU bubble. However, this doesn’t mean I only stay with people from the Parliament or Commission. But I think it’s very normal because we live in the same area, we have more or less the same timetables so we can easily meet up. Also, because I consider Brussels to be the perfect city for networking, I am more encouraged to stay with people coming from the EU bubble. On Thursdays we usually go to Place du Luxembourg, it’s nice to have an informal meeting with MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) or other EU people with a beer.”

Eleni: “I’ve only been here for 3 weeks, and most people that I know, apart from people I live with, are all associated with the EU bubble. I haven’t had time to meet other people yet, but I do my best not to stick within the bubble because I don’t think it’s good to be living in your own world the whole time. I feel like Brussels has 2 communities the EU bubble and the non-EU bubble. These communities hardly ever meet each other.”

Anita agrees that it is normal for groups to have their bubble, she finds it very logical that people who work at the European Union tend to stick within his or her own bubble.

Anita: “I can imagine that people love to stick within their own bubble, it’s human nature in my opinion, but I wouldn’t say every single one of my colleagues does this. Yes, there are people who live in a bubble, but the same can be said for, to give an example, Erasmus students: if you go to Erasmus, with whom are you most likely to spend your time? Other Erasmus students, of course! For me, it’s only logical that you spend most of your time with people you associate with.”

Gustavo also does not stick to life in his EU bubble and is very involved in local Brussels communities. He does voluntary work for refugees and several NGOs in Brussels.

Gustavo: “Personally it’s not the case for me. I do voluntary work with refugees and work for other NGOs in Brussels. I understand that could be the case for other people, though. Working at the Institutions is very demanding and people might not have the time to involve in local communities.”

Advice for future trainees at the EU in Brussels

Lastly, we asked our current trainees what their advice would be for future professionals with similar ambitions. The answers that were given were really insightful, so I decided to include everybody’s answers verbatim.

Anita: “Curiosity is an essential characteristic when you want a traineeship. Also, if you’ve done an exchange program, that means you adapt well in different situations, which is also a very relevant experience to have. For people that are still debating whether to apply or not, basically, take a jump, take a risk. If you don’t have any attachments like children or a property, etc., that’s perfect. That’s the reason why this traineeship is designed for young adults. It’s easier to make a jump in a situation where you don’t have these attachments yet. At worst case, it’s only 5 months, but at the best case, it’s a future and a career in Brussels. You have to take a jump into the unknown. As a Blue Book trainee, you don’t apply for a specific position, but you apply in general. Then they will contact you with an offer, so it’s an exciting risk to take.”

Eleni: “My advice is: when you apply for a traineeship, you have to point out your own characteristics, skills that make you unique as a person. For me personally, it was essential that I worked in the Committee of Security and Defence because of my background. So in my motivation letter, I emphasized how experienced I am in this sector. If you want to work in the EU, you have to promote yourself and your experiences. You have to sell yourself really hard to give yourself a good chance of getting your traineeship here. If you want it really hard, it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. There are so many opportunities here, it’s inclusive, it has people from all over the world and offers a wide range of different professions: you could be a journalist, political advisor or an IT person and still work in the EU.“

Gustavo: “I suggest everyone to go for it. Be annoying, but in a positive way. Insist and push for it. There are too many people interested in this kind of traineeship. The groups at the European Parliament receive a lot of CV’s every day. I would suggest to insist and push, to go for it and be annoying in a positive way. Show your commitment and dedication.”

Federico: “If you’re looking for more of technical experience, I’d suggest you should apply for a Schuman or Blue Book traineeship. If you want to have a look inside European politics, you should ask the MEPs. The European Parliament is the most political institution in my eyes. From my traineeship, I can see what is going on from a political point of view. As I’m fascinated by politics and policies, I’m really enjoying my experience. If you want to have a look on ‘why policies are what they are’ or ‘how a policy will affect society’ I would recommend getting this kind of experience as a Blue Book or Schuman trainee. Don’t be scared if you don’t have deep knowledge about specific topics, for example, I work with digital policies but I have little knowledge of computer engineering. The same counts for most of my colleagues. You don’t have to know every technical detail regarding your work, especially as a trainee.”

Every trainee we spoke with had a different background but had more or less the same professional goal: a career in politics. If you’re interested in joining this diverse group of trainees, we hope this article provided you some unique insights in the life of trainees at the EU. We look forward to welcoming you in Brussels!

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