Guy Verhofstadt is a Lad

In a world with few heroes left, Guy Verhofstadt stands out. Since the Brexit vote last year, Guy has been standing up for the rights of all those left uncertain and dislocated by the referendum result. His CV is long: MEP, leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium… And all-round lad.

Guy Verhofstadt – a ray of hope

In February this year the Independent reported that Guy was hoping to offer “associate EU citizenship” to UK citizens who wanted it. I probably don’t need to tell you how my heart leapt at the prospect. “Thousands” of Brits had already requested a continuation of their EU citizenship, he said. And so, in a flurry of emotion, I looked up Mr Verhofstadt in the EU’s internal email address book, and I fired off a message to him, to add my voice to the chorus.

Imagine my surprise when yesterday I got a reply!

Group hug for anyone who loves the EU!

In a kind email, Guy assured me that he fully understood my worries and uncertainty. It was necessary to “look at what special arrangements could be put in place for individual citizens…who want to continue their relationship with the European Union”, he said. He acknowledged that it would be hard, and that success was not guaranteed. But he finished with the promise that:

I will do everything I can for people like you who feel European, did not vote for Brexit and are concerned that no one is listening to them. I hope this reassures you that your voice is being heard and that I am doing all I can to fight for your rights.

What a top bloke! Guy, you are my knight in shining armour. You join the short list of people who give me any hope about Brexit.

Queen Elizabeth of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha flaunts her EU credentials. I always knew she was on our side!

Now let us turn to the other side. While Guy Verhofstadt, the former PM of Belgium, is championing the rights of me, a British citizen, what is my own government doing?

It is hardly worth wasting time on Theresa May’s “generous” offer to EU citizens residing in the UK, which will involve all 3 million of them applying for something new called “settled status”, in a move which the EU dismissed as “below our expectations”.

“Below our expectations” – Donald Tusk is not impressed

Furthermore, if ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and champion of austerity George Osborne is to be believed, in the days after Brexit, every single member of David Cameron’s cabinet agreed to reassure EU nationals that they would be allowed to stay in the UK. Every single member, that is, except the Home Secretary Theresa May, who blocked the motion.

There was a brief moment after the general election when I felt a bit sorry for Theresa May. Then I was reminded of her “Go Home” vans that she sent into neighbourhoods with high immigrant populations. And her campaign against the Human Rights Act. And that time she lectured a nurse about “magic money trees”. And the xenophobic tone of her first Conservative Party conference. And how she had been determined to force through the hardest of hard Brexits. And now, it turns out, it was her that blocked any chance of citizens’ rights being guaranteed right from the start. This was presumably so that she could later use these people’s lives as bargaining chips.

One of Theresa May’s notorious racist vans

Theresa May waited a year before making any kind of offer on citizens’ rights, and her offer is disappointing. It is very telling of these times that I feel my rights are being better represented by Guy Verhofstadt and the European Union than by my own government in London.

Theresa and Guy – I know who I have more faith in

On a related note, I have not yet written to my new Tory MP as planned in a previous post. I’m waiting to see how long this current government lasts before wasting a stamp.

R.

The Return of Ralph?

Everyone remembers how they felt when they heard that Ralph’s Bar on Plux had closed down. Grief, panic, indifference… Any of the above. Ralph’s was the place where trainees were lured into parting with their meagre earnings in return for supposedly discounted Carlsberg and wine.

And then, in November last year, it closed.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

Often irreverently referred to as the EU’s unofficial 7th Institution, Ralph’s absence was keenly felt by the trainees of the October 2016 intake. Ralph was, after all, one of the places where they were led to believe they might find an employer. In reality, chances of this were slim, unless Ralph had an opening for bar staff.

Nonetheless, by the time the next intake of trainees arrived in March 2017, Ralph’s reputation as the melting pot of the traineeship had been assumed by Pullman’s, an equally insalubrious bar next door. Life, as ever, moves on.

The punters at Pullman celebrate the sad demise of Ralph

But wait. On an off-peak trip to Plux last Friday, I happened to notice that Bar Ralph was shrouded in stygian darkness no longer. No, its doors were open, people were moving about inside, and its parasols were up and fluttering in the unseasonably cool breeze. Is Bar Ralph back in operation? Who can clear this up for me?

Needless to say, I didn’t go in to investigate myself. In my view, the only place to be seen on Plux is Quartier Leopold. The main reason being that Quartier Leopold sells Pilsner Urquell, a superior beer.

Pilsner Urquell. I know I want one now…

It is also the bar where I once saw Alyn Smith MEP knocking back a few pints amidst a group of admirers. Starstruck, I failed to ask him why his press officer had never responded to my speculative job application.

Alyn Smith MEP, about to receive a standing ovation from the European Parliament the day after Brexit

Oh well. I’m sure she’s getting round to it.

R.

 

Being an Interimaire: Coffee and Toilets

I have been an interimaire now for almost a week. As a trainee I had easy access to all my coffee and pain-au-chocolat needs. In this new building however, things are different.

Pain au chocolat. Never start the day without one.

Coffee

The route to the cafeteria is long and complicated. You have to take the lift up two storeys, walk down several corridors until you are actually in another building, take a different lift down to the ground floor, walk through the lobby, up some stairs, and there is the cafeteria.

The success of the next step depends on who is on shift. There is a woman who works in the cafeteria who does not smile. Last week I asked for a coffee to take away.

‘Non,’ she said. ‘C’est impossible.’

There were paper takeaway cups in plain view. I asked for a coffee ‘pour ici’ instead, which she made for me. Then I took it out of the cafeteria and back to my office in the other building, making sure she didn’t see. By the time I got there, it had gone cold. So far, though, I have not been caught.

Exhibit A: purloined coffee cup

Toilets

I am still very happy that I get to work for the European Commission here in Brussels. Not every trainee gets the chance to stay on. Even in this post-Brexit, post-truth world, many people are still impressed when you tell them you work for the Commission. Despite the bad rap that the EU sometimes gets, working for the Commission still retains a hint of glamour.

The glamour starts to fade, however, when you find that someone has blocked the u-bend.

Opening a door onto uncertainty.

I don’t know who it was, but in my previous building such infractions were rampant. I left at the end of my traineeship without knowing who the culprit was. But I had my suspicions.

Now, in my new building across the street, it has happened again today, forcing me to go to a different floor.

So whenever someone’s eyes widen when I tell them that I work for the European Commission, inside I carry the secret and unspoken shame that some people in the office still don’t know how to flush.

I suppose we are all just human in the end.

R.

End of the Traineeship and the Next Steps: Becoming an Interimaire

It hardly seems like any time has passed since I first tinkled my cuticles across the keyboard to write the inaugural entry on this blog. But now, after 5 months in Brussels, my Traineeship at the European Commission is coming to its natural end. On 01 March the new intake of stagiaires will arrive to take our places, and Place du Luxembourg will once more be throbbing with the fresh faces of Trainees who have been duped into thinking that drinking pints of Carlsberg while cowering under a heat lamp in the rain will get them a job.

Happy trainees jostling on the Commission's application website. It can be this good!

Happy trainees jostling on the Commission’s application website. It can be this good!

What Next?

This is not to say that my time in Brussels has come to an end. Far from it! I learned this week that I have been lucky enough to be kept on as an “Interimaire” at another Unit in the European Commission, starting from 01 March, for a duration of 6 months. This, I think, is probably the best that could have been hoped for in the short term. It will save me from furiously prowling the streets in search of gainful employment for a while yet, at least. (Though there is a very nice old pub in St-Josse which I had been planning to frequent by day in the event that I found myself jobless in March.) So the European Dream continues!

Hooray! Cheers to being an Interimaire

Hooray! Cheers to being an Interimaire

What is an Interimaire?

As I understand it, an Interimaire is someone who works for the Commission on a short-term basis, usually to fill in for permanent employees who are temporarily elsewhere. You receive a Belgian contract rather than an EU contract, and it is renewed (or terminated) week-by-week. If this sounds exhilaratingly unstable, then yes: it is. But the Commission department offering you the Interimaire position will tend to enter into a “gentleman’s agreement” with you to employ you on this basis for a set period, e.g. 3 or 6 months. It may sound slightly dodgy, but I know current Interimaires who have been working as such for several years.

The Holy Grail of working at the European Institutions is of course becoming a permanent employee. However, this involves sitting a number of difficult tests (the notorious EPSO tests) and then, if successful, being put on a waiting list, possibly for a year. Being an Interimaire is the maximum-risk-for-immediate-gratification alternative. While Interimaires are at the very bottom of the food chain here at the Commission, becoming one is regarded as a glittering prize by Trainees, and is often seen as the best chance of staying on after the end of the Stage. (Or at least that was my impression.)

The elephant in the room. The turd in the punch bowl.

The elephant in the room. The turd in the punch bowl.

What Next for Europe?

You’ll note that I’ve held off from making political comments so far in this post. Following months of outrage, anger and self-flagellation over Brexit, I’ve now entered a state of numbness. I am keeping Brexit at arm’s length, and have been avoiding reading about it too much in the news. I found that reading the news just makes me angrier.

In December I found a new outlet for my Remoaning on the Huffington Post. However, that too has fallen quiet of late. I wrote a couple of articles there, and received “Likes” from like-minded friends, and unpleasant comments from Leave voters. I realised that these articles were being read either by people who already agreed with me, or by people who hated everything I stood for and would never be made to see otherwise. I don’t think anybody was persuaded by my articles. As such, I was merely adding unhelpfully to the noise.

A few weeks ago I met up with my old European Studies professor from my MA. He too was taking Brexit rather hard. We complained about how it was impossible to have constructive arguments with many of the people who voted Leave. As a European Studies professor and a Commission employee, anything we say or write is branded as “propaganda”, and the substance of any argument we put forth is therefore nullified. We generally failed to comfort each other.

The joy of British politics.

The joy of British politics.

The European Dream

And so my precarious European career here in Brussels goes on, while I try to ignore the Brexit vultures circling overhead. The current plan is to stick it out here for as long as possible, until the big meaty Brexit turd hits the fan and I’m shipped off back to Fortress Britain. I know of some fellow British Trainees who applied for jobs at the UK Representation here in Brussels. But to be quite honest, I don’t think I could bring myself to work there as a representative of the British Government. Not in the current climate.

I did briefly think about joining the Scottish Representation in Brussels, and even had an (unsuccessful) interview there. However, I think that probably my true alignment is with the EU itself. These days I am feeling more European than British or Scottish, and indeed I haven’t lived in the UK for over 5 years now. With Theresa May’s hand hovering over the self-destruct button, urged on by the now all-powerful Brexiteer fringe of her party, the UK feels like a very foreign place nowadays.

That is not to say there is not hope! Only today I read that Tony Blair has popped back onto the scene, emerging like grizzled prairie-dog from its burrow, and wanting nothing less than to block Brexit. His rallying cry to Remainers is to “rise up in defence of what we believe”. (Though I seem to remember him ignoring all the people who rose up in defence of their belief that the Iraq War was a bad idea.) He accepts, apparently, that the British people did vote to leave the EU. But then again, who is more adept than Blair at flouting public opinion?

Can Big Tony stop Brexit and save Christmas?

Can Big Tony stop Brexit and save Christmas?

I will keep my excitement in check over Big Tony’s intervention. At the moment it seems like little more than another step in the big, mad Todestanz of Brexit. I’ll try to cheer myself up by ordering another subsidised portion of steak and chips in the Commission canteen. And then I’ll pour myself a couple of stiff Mussolinis.

R.

Why Is There No Free Coffee at the Commission

The European Union gets a bad rap sometimes. Its Institutions are vilified by the tabloids, and its employees are lambasted for not having proper jobs.

Contrary to stereotypes, working for the EU is not quite the gravy train that some people imagine it to be. True, there are 2-for-1 pints of Carlsberg at Ralph’s Bar on Thursdays between 6pm and 7pm for Commission trainees… But on the other hand, there is no free coffee.

The true federalist only drinks out of an EU mug.

The true federalist only drinks out of an EU mug.

This can be a rude awakening. Before starting my internship at the European Commission in Brussels, I worked for a well-known holiday company in Amsterdam. In plush offices in the Dutch capital we guzzled free coffee, gorged ourselves on free fruit, and pushed the boundaries of decency at the subsidised daily lunchtime buffet. Once a month, the company organised free drinks for all its employees at several local bars. I don’t think the tabloids ever accused us of being profligate.

But after such luxuries in the private sector, arriving at the European Commission seemed a bit austere in comparison. As a government organisation the Commission can’t be seen to be frivolous with things like free apples. Apples have to be bought and paid for out of one’s own private pocket. EU employees also have to fork out 1.01 EUR for very small cups of coffee. No one I know is quite sure why the coffee is such an awkward price, nor why it hasn’t been rounded up or down to a less awkward number. Basically you end up with a lot of loose change rattling around in your pockets.

Perhaps I am too far down the food chain, but neither does the EU seem particularly elitist. The Commission employs a large number of remarkably normal people. There are IT staff, janitors, people who do photocopying, cleaning staff, kitchen staff, and of course the people in the canteens who make small coffees. Here on the inside, I have met surprisingly few people whose sole aim in life is to freeload on champagne and screw over the United Kingdom. You are more likely to come across people whose job it is to allocate funding for research at UK universities, or who are fighting for more investment in youth programmes in Britain’s cities.

Reality Check

But if anything were to prove that life isn’t all a blur of caviar and parties at the Commission, it is the misery that broke out last week in our office when the departmental kettle stopped working. The on/off switch snapped off irreparably, and the broken kettle was packed away into its box; an event which shall forevermore be known as Kexit. Those of us who had brought in our own sad jars of instant coffee to avoid shelling out 1.01 EUR in the canteen were deprived even of this small comfort. Life at the Commission did not feel like such a gravy train that day.

Dead kettles in the Commission's kettle graveyard.

Dead kettles in the Commission’s kettle graveyard.

At my previous company, broken kitchen appliances would have been instantly replaced and paid for out of the company’s overflowing coffers. At the Commission, though, we had a whip-round. Everyone in the office coughed up 2 Euros to pay for a shiny, new kettle for communal use. (Imagine it, if you will, as a bit like paying into the EU budget in order to use the common benefits of the Single Market.)

Since then, life has returned to a semblance of normality. The dark days of kettlegate are thankfully behind us. Nobody opted to ‘take back control’ from the evil communal European kettle by trying to negotiate a better deal for themselves at Starbucks. For better or worse, we all have a stake in this new departmental kettle.

And for my part, I will always be glad that I contributed my 2 Euros to Kemain.

R.

Life After Ralph

“2016 has thrown up its fair share of shocks. Unfortunately the Trainees’ Committee are sad to have to inform you of one more.”

It was with these words that the current intake of European Commission trainees were apprised of the news that Ralph’s Bar, that most dubious of Brussels institutions, had closed down.

If you remember from a previous post, Bar Ralph is where much of the EU’s ‘networking’ goes on. Located on a corner of Place du Luxembourg outside the Parliament, it offered generous Happy Hour deals on Thursdays from 6pm-7pm to lure in beer-hungry trainees. And now, alas, it is no more.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

A Ralph-shaped hole has opened in our lives.

Where, I hear you ask, where will trainees go for cheap booze on a Thursday night? Luckily Ralph’s was merely one bar in a long row of bars on Place du Luxembourg. Each one offers some sort of Happy Hour deal. Ralph’s was in any case one of the less salubrious of these bars. It was tacky, it sold Carlsberg, and you had to pay to use the toilet. The only advantage it had was that most of the trainees met there.

I don’t think Ralph’s will be too sorely missed. It is doubtful that networking opportunities will decline as a result. I doubt how much career-building really went on there. Most employers probably avoided Ralph’s like the plague.

So long, Bar Ralph! It was short but sweet. But what am I going to do with my Thursday evening now…

R.

What is the Point of Networking?

To network or not to network?

Incoming trainees at the European Commission are encouraged to network as much as they can. Landing a cushy job in Brussels is partly about who you know. Of course, if you want to work for the Commission itself then you also have to pass rigorous EPSO tests. But to work at the numerous lobbying firms, NGOs, interest groups and think tanks in Brussels it is advantageous to have contacts who already work there.

I recently went to a meet-and-greet event at which former trainees were present. Clutching my half-pint of Stella, I did as you are supposed to do and interposed myself in small groups and thrust out my hand in search of a handshake. It feels less obnoxious if you try to think about it as a game, and yourself as a persona. (“Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be a Networker.”)

"You don't say!" Bridget Jones networks with an unimpressed Salman Rushdie.

“You don’t say!” Bridget Jones networks with an unimpressed Salman Rushdie.

I asked some former trainees about finding a job once the traineeship was over. All of them had managed it. Not surprising though. I suppose all the people who ended up jobless had to leave Brussels and were therefore unable to attend. Generally the method by which these former trainees landed their current jobs went along the lines of “I got really lucky”. So no actionable tips there. It wasn’t all plain sailing though: one trainee told us she had had to do a total of six internships before she finally got her job at a lobbying firm. This was met with gasps of horror from the current trainees.

The hottest place to network, though, is Place du Luxembourg next to the European Parliament. On Thursday nights hundreds of trainees congregate in the three or four bars that line one side of the square, and there they network the shit out of each other. The networking is helped along by the Happy Hour deals that most of these bars offer from 6pm-7pm. One word of warning though: Bar Ralph’s at the end of the square is often touting its generous Happy Hour deal, but I have discovered that this is simply shrewd marketing, and the deals at the other bars are generally better. At Ralph’s you get one Euro off a beer, whereas in other bars it is BOGOF. Also at Ralph’s they only seem to sell Carlsberg.

Ralph's Bar on Place du Luxembourg

Ralph’s Bar on Place du Luxembourg

During our introduction week we were told that Place du Luxembourg (or ‘Plux’ to the insiders) is where we would make contacts that would help in our future careers. People whispered feverishly that EC officials sometimes lurked in Plux’s bars, and that making a good impression on one of them would do wonders for your future job-hunting. Maybe I am doing it wrong, but the only people I have met at Place du Luxembourg are drunk trainees.

That was until last night. While jostling for warmth under a heat lamp, who should I espy leaning against the bar? Was it the Conservative MP for North East Somerset, everyone’s favourite Eurosceptic maverick old Etonian, the Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg enjoying a crisp, frothy pint of Stella Artois? You decide:

Is it Jacob Rees-Mogg? Is it?

Is it Jacob Rees-Mogg? Is it

In any case we didn’t speak. A failure of my networking skills, no doubt. Also it probably wasn’t him.

R.