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Working for the EU in Brussels

Although the European Union has not formally declared a capital city, the degree to which “Brussels” has become shorthand for “EU” should tell us much of what we need to know about the city’s relation to that expanding federation of states. The history of Brussels’ assent to this lofty position is a long and convoluted one, stretching back to the post-World War II Brussels Treaty / mutual defense pledge signed by the Benelux nations, the U.K. and France. In the 1950s, when Luxembourg remained the seat of the nascent EU, the Common Assembly (now the European Parliament) still convened in Strasbourg. Indeed, much jousting back and forth between Strasbourg and Brussels occurred in the 1960s before the 1965 Merger Treaty combined the European Economic Community and two other energy-related governing bodies into one union.

Today, the city of Brussels owes much of its economic success to its hosting of the EU facilities, as well as its indisputably international character: almost half of all Brussels residents hail from other EU member states outside of Belgium, due to either employment with the EU proper or with the numerous businesses and services that profit from its presence. Plenty of staff must be on hand for the international schools that serve the needs of EU functionaries’ children, while business hotels are similarly busy.The city and its surrounding regions are also home to the majority (over two-thirds) of all EU civil servants. Those working in communications media will find plenty of opportunities for employment within Brussels (virtually every media outlet in the EU member states have dedicated Brussels correspondents, despite a shortage of U.S. media representatives), as will those working within lobbyist or ‘pressure’ groups.

Working with or for the EU?

Not all jobs involving the EU are of a “working for the EU” nature; many could be more accurately described as “working with the EU”: the numerous diplomatic positions available in Brussels do not entail having the European Union as one’s employer, nor does working as a ‘secondary national expert’ or END [from the French expert national détaché]. Both types of position are more likely to involve employment by the government administration of one’s home country, though they may require working within a Directorate General and doing work very similar to that of “proper” EU employees. The aforementioned lobbyists, along with policy analysts and parliamentary assistants, all must liaise to some degree with EU representatives, though careers in this area are best seen as a “stepping stone” to proper policy-making positions within the European Union.

Jobs constituting the “working for” category also account for a broad number of functions, and some younger professionals with a degree from a 4-year university may wish to seek out a EU traineeship [stagiaire in French] rather than working at any of the above “para-EU” jobs (some of these may be more like internships with housing costs paid for, rather than regular salaried positions.) Given the vast scope of the EU’s activities, jobs nearer to the administrative bottom of the organizational pyramid will deal more with human resources issues and easing the transfer of data from one mode to another, and jobs that confer some degree of seniority may require one to accrue 15 years’ of work experience prior.

Some challenges of EU employment

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Working in the EU may come with some occasional pitfalls. Though it is unlikely that anyone unprepared for inter-cultural exchanges would end up working for a quintessential internationalist organization – save as some kind of journalistic experiment – you might still find yourself overwhelmed from time to time with the degree of linguistic and cultural variety being compressed into this small segment of the country. Those who are not ready to be highly sensitive in this regard, and to dispense with cultural prejudices, will likely not pass their EPSO job assessment, let alone flourish in their position. This will make for a very awkward backtracking along your career path, and a fairly embarrassing explanation to future recruiters or employers as to why you eventually opted out or were forced out of EU employment.

EU employees will also have to take it as a given that many in the Belgian population will greet them with varying degrees of frostiness, from those natives who view Brussels as a separate country altogether to activist ‘Euroskeptics’ who see the EU as everything that is wrong with the world, and are eager to find any available representative to air their grievances.

The feeling of working and living in a sort of diplomatic ‘island’ may get to some employees, too, but this can be dealt with easily enough. Brussels’ centrality within Europe means that high-speed rail and air routes out of the city are readily available to most other European destinations of importance (with the “Eurocap-rail” project aiming to provide a convenient link to the other EU administrative centers of Luxembourg and Strasbourg.)