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.

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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.

New Year Round Up and Defeating the Nazis

Happy New Year, everyone. January has certainly been an interesting month. And February looks set to prove equally interesting.

I suppose the main news from Brussels must be the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, who was once the UK ambassador to the European Union. His attempts to warn that Brexit negotiations might take up to 10 years to negotiate were not well received in Downing Street, nor in the tabloid press. The Daily Mail opined that “there is no good reason an agreement with some of our closest allies should take nearly twice as long as it did to defeat the Nazis”.

I suspect the author at the Daily Mail probably knows as much about negotiating with the EU as he or she would have known about how to defeat the Nazis. In any case, Sir Ivan Rogers resigned, frustrated that his advice was falling on deaf ears, and as such, another expert was thrown under the Brexit bus.

The owner of the Daily Mail in the 1930s, Viscount Rothermere, plotting to defeat the Nazis while standing next to Adolf Hitler.

The owner of the Daily Mail in the 1930s, Viscount Rothermere, plotting to defeat the Nazis while standing next to Adolf Hitler.

In general I have been struck by the frequency with which references to the Nazis are being made these days, and not just in the Daily Mail. Days ago, Boris Johnson suggested that any EU attempts to give the UK a bad deal on Brexit would be similar to WWII punishment beatings, in which the EU is a Nazi prison camp and the UK is a noble POW who has tried to escape its fascist captors. Perhaps likening the other EU states to the Nazis will get us a better deal, but I don’t know. If only Sir Ivan Rogers was around to offer his advice.

Moving on. Following complaints that the civil service is unprepared for Brexit, David Davis and others have asserted that if the civil service was able to cope with WWII then it can cope with Brexit. Hurrah! Britain defeated the Nazis, so it can do anything!

It is clearly irrelevant that no one who has any first-hand experience of defeating the Nazis is in power in 2017. Yet the defeat of the Nazis still looms large in our political discourse. Is it because 1945 was the last time Britain was Great? And are Boris Johnson and David Davis under the impression that Britain defeated the Nazis alone? My understanding, flawed though it may be, was that the USA and the Soviet Union were also at least partially involved in the Nazis’ defeat. And so, in a bizarre twenty-first century re-enactment of history, perhaps Trump and Putin will become our new best friends in our endeavours to tear up our friendships with the countries of Europe. We shall have to see.

"The Special Relationship": cartoon by Steve Bell for the Guardian, 26.01.2017

“The Special Relationship”: cartoon by Steve Bell for the Guardian, 26.01.2017

Which brings me to Trump. Yes, Trump has also now been inaugurated as leader of the Free World. So far he has imposed a 90 day ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, and banned federal money from going to organisations that support or provide abortions in the developing world. With such a volatile president ensconced in the White House, it might be prudent not to cast ourselves adrift from our European neighbours just yet. But no, the government’s Article 50 bill is currently being debated in the House of Commons, and is likely to pass. As such, while the US is banning immigrants from seven countries, an upcoming hard Brexit is likely to ban immigrants from twenty-seven countries. It is on such policy alignment that Special Relationships are made.

Trump and May: a friendship is born

In recent days the UK government has been criticised for its slowness in offering its mealy-mouthed opposition to Trump’s draconian Executive Orders. Theresa May’s recent “tour of questionable world leaders”, which so far has included Trump and Erdoğan, has led to comparisons with Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease the fascist leaders of Europe in the 1930s. We have been treated to the usual reminders of the “Special Relationship” that is said to exist between the UK and the US. Yet here in Brussels, it is difficult to see the wisdom of ditching our EU neighbours in order to cosy up to the Trumps and Erdoğans of the world. But then a lot of things confuse me these days.

On a lighter note, speaking of fascist dictators: in Croatia there is a popular cocktail called a “Mussolini”, which consists of red wine and Coca Cola. I was told this by a Croatian trainee at the European Commission. Fun fact for the day.

This is how you make a Mussolini.

This is how you make a Mussolini.

Anyway, that’s about it from Brussels at the moment. The only other news is that a cup of coffee in the Commission canteens has gone up from 1,01€ to 1,02€ as of 01 January. The size of the coffee remains the same. Then again, we might all be needing more than coffee to get ourselves through the coming months. Time to 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.

An Epistolary Spat

It is interesting to know that in this day and age politicians still indulge in the exchange of epistles. There have of course been some changes since Biblical times. Nowadays important letters invariably appear online rather than in print. Such was the case in this week’s spat between Donald Tusk and Justin Tomlinson MP.

Tomlinson and around 80 other MPs had taken it upon themselves to inform the European Council, or the Commission, or whoever else would take notice, of their outrage that the EU seemed ‘worryingly indifferent to securing reciprocal rights for our and your resident citizens’. This, they felt, was causing ‘anxiety and uncertainty for the UK and EU citizens living in one another’s territories’. An interesting argument, Mr Tomlinson; thanks for bringing it up. I will address it with the following points.

Justin Tomlinson MP - defender of my rights, I think not.

Justin Tomlinson MP – defender of my rights, I think not.

First of all, as a UK citizen (and currently very much still an EU citizen) living in an EU territory, I must presume that I am one of the people whose interests Mr Tomlinson is trying to defend. I should therefore like to point out to him that ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ are nothing new to UK citizens living on EU territory. I for one have been experiencing ‘anxiety and uncertainty’ ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Indeed, my levels of anxiety and uncertainty were markedly lower before 24 June 2016. Furthermore, I am very sure about who I blame for my current state of uncertainty, and it certainly is not the European Union.

Secondly, Mr Tomlinson et al. express concern at the EU’s ‘worrying indifference’ towards the rights of the EU’s resident UK citizens. I wholeheartedly agree that there has been an overabundance of ‘worrying indifference’ regarding the question of Brexit; however, I was (and am) far more concerned about the worrying indifference that the Leave campaign, and ultimately the British electorate, showed towards not only the safeguarding of my rights as a UK citizen abroad, but also towards issues such as Northern Ireland’s border, the value of the pound, and various other looming calamities. Therefore I do not think it is the EU that has shown the most callous indifference.

As I’ve written before: prior to Brexit, my rights as a UK citizen on the European mainland were settled. Now, they are very much in question. This is a state of being which was brought about solely by the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016. The EU has not thrown my rights, nor the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, into question; British voters have.

Thankfully Donald Tusk has pointed this out. On 29 November 2016 he wrote a reply to Tomlinson et al., and asked ‘Would you not agree that the only source of anxiety and uncertainty is rather the decision on Brexit?’ The UK has put itself, and its citizens living abroad, into the situation in which we now find ourselves. I do not believe the EU owes the UK anything over Brexit, and is rightly concerned about the rights of its own citizens living in the UK. The MPs who wrote the letter seem unhappy that UK citizens abroad will be used as ‘bargaining chips’; but let us not forget that it was our own Secretary of State for International Trade who referred to EU citizens in the UK as ‘one of our main cards’ in the Brexit negotiations. We were not bargaining chips before 24 June.

It is the recklessness of the Leave campaign, the results of the vote on 23 June, and the embarrassing actions of the Conservative government since then that have brought the EU’s internal emigrants into this state of anxiety and uncertainty. Any attempt to shift the blame for this onto the EU is duplicitous and shameful.

R.

Guilty Secrets: Why I Have A Soft Spot For Anna Soubry MP

Brexit is a strange time. It has made judges into enemies of the people, and Etonian ex-Bullingdon types into champions of ‘ordinary working-class people’. And it has made an arch-liberal like myself gradually warm to a certain Conservative MP. I am talking, of course, about The Honourable Member of Parliament for Broxtowe: Anna Soubry.

I was reading the Guardian on Saturday (yes, I know…) and Decca Aitkenhead was reporting on an interview with Anna Soubry. Anna had come to my attention during the Referendum debate for being one of the few Westminster Remainers who seemed to share the same genuine horror with regards to Brexit as me. I mean yes, she has spoken out in favour of fracking… But on the plus side I recall her being one of the earliest to raise alarm over the rising levels of xenophobic rhetoric being brought about by the Referendum. She seemed genuinely worried by the frequency with which she had heard constituents saying things like ‘get these foreigners out’.

Anna Soubry looking as numb and shell-shocked about Brexit as I do.

Anna Soubry looking as numb and shell-shocked about Brexit as I do

And then their is her delightfully saucy way with words. Anna Soubry once said of Nigel F*rage (and I quote):

“I always think he looks like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it.”

Magnificent. Wonderful. I cannot fault it. Anna Soubry, you have won a hard-fought place in my heart.

Unfortunately for those of us who voted Remain, we woke up on 24 June to find that the majority of the British electorate had put rather more than their fingers up our bottoms. And we did not like it at all.

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.