In love with…the Council of the European Union, a trainee’s story

Hi lovebirds,

Do you remember the times when the grown ups used to tell you how time flies? And now you’re one of them, wondering what happened? Well, today is my one month anniversary of being back in Vienna, meaning that yesterday six months ago, I was on a plane to a new adventure. Today six months ago one of my biggest dreams that I had almost given up on finally came true. Today one month ago, it was all over and oh how many times have I complained about Brussels and yet, my friends were right: it grew on me, in a weird way, but still.

As most of you know, I was a trainee at the Council of the European Union for the past few months. It all started on a cold December afternoon, when I received an email from the Bureau de Stage (Traineeship Office) inviting me to a phone interview for a traineeship. I was in a really bad place back then and desperately needed some good news. Having just come back from my graduation ceremony in Strasbourg (France), where I did my masters, I automatically assumed – although very confused as I almost tripped on the escalator  at H&M where I was headed – it was my Uni sending me that email. I didn’t quite understand why they were sending me another email, especially because I already had my final certificate, and even less so the part where I got invited to an interview for a traineeship that I didn’t recall applying for.

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After an unsuccessful half hour at H&M Home, I finally realized who the email was really from: the Bureau de Stage of the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union (so obvious, right?). All of a sudden, it all made sense and I remembered applying for the Department of Foreign Affairs last summer, clearly without high hopes. Knowing that I had nothing to lose helped me remain calm during the interview and all my last minute preparations paid off when I got my traineeship offer the next day. Although very undecided at first, I accepted the position and off I went to Brussels to start my new adventure at the Council of the European Union.

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Now here’s a bit of explanation for those who are not very familiar with the European Union. For those of you who are familiar with it, I am terribly sorry, but please bare with me, or skip a few lines: The Council of the European Union is one of the main EU institutions, which – together with the European Commission and European Parliament – is responsible for EU legislation. It’s where the Member States are represented and the so-called ‘Council Meetings’ take place, I’m sure you’ve heard of them on the news or elsewhere. The ‘Council’ is perhaps the least known institution, which is why I am even more grateful to have interned in this institution. Very often, we believe that the Council only meets several times a year, but we tend to forget that representatives, diplomats and experts from our countries meet in the Council on a daily basis to prepare the work of the Council Meetings and to negotiate and discuss EU laws and the texts that are being adopted at the end of a summit, the so-called ‘Council Conclusions’. Those experts, diplomats and representatives get instructions from our various capitals, so don’t trust anyone who says it was ‘Brussels’ who decided on a law because our national governments have a hell lot to say in the EU that people clearly are not aware of, which I find problematic.

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I, personally, worked in the Development Unit of the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU. The General Secretariat is an institution that many people not working in EU politics don’t know exists. It is mainly supporting the work of the Council, particularly its EU-Presidency, as well as the European External Action Service with carrying out their agendas. Every six months, another EU Member State is holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. The presidency’s role mainly is to push forward the agenda and to mediate between the Member States and find consensus on EU legislation. Since 1 July Austria is holding the EU presidency. As you can imagine, with 28 Member States, a country doesn’t hold the presidency very often. This is why it is essential to have the General Secretariat, as it supports Member States with expertise on procedures and mechanisms and advises/assists them throughout the presidency, but also prepares them before they take over the lead.

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The General Secretariat is also responsible for – hold on and now it gets confusing – the European Council. Now what is that? The European Council is another EU institution bringing together all 28 Heads of State or Government and the President of the European Commission (currently Jean-Claude Juncker) and is chaired by the President of the European Council, currently Donald Tusk. The European Council usually meets four times a year to ‘define the general political direction and priorities of the European Union’.

Now what was I doing there? As a trainee, I particularly worked on EU-Africa relations, as well as on UN-related issues and migration in the broader context. For me, it was the first time to actually work in the development context and to see how policy in this field is made. My daily tasks included following the Africa Working Party, attending weekly (preparatory) meetings and conferences, writing reports, carrying out research and of course some administrative tasks. I was one of the few people who got to work both with the EU-presidency, as well as the EEAS who chairs some of the geographical working parties in the field of external relations. It was a good way for me to experience yet another EU institution and to get a better idea of what the General Secretariat does.

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Following a geographical working party meant that I wasn’t an expert in one specific field or country, but we basically discussed the political and economic situation of countries of a whole continent (although Subsahara Africa). So every week we discussed another three to five country situations. We got updates on elections for example, or from the EU Delegations on the ground. Sometimes, when the situation in a country is very volatile, the Member States adopt ‘Council Conclusions’ at the Council Meetings. For example, we had Council Conclusions on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in May this year.  DRC is discussed in the Africa Working Party, which is part of the Department for Foreign Affairs, chaired by the EEAS. Council Conclusions on DRC would therefore be prepared within the framework of the Africa Working Party, which usually entails very long discussions, as Member States decide on them unanimously. They then go up to a higher political level until they end at the Foreign Affairs Council, where they are adopted. This was of course very interesting to follow, even though it was exhausting in some way to discuss different countries every week, as you feel like you start over every week and don’t get a specific expertise in a certain country.

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I consider myself as very lucky, as I was able to attend the Foreign Affairs Council (in the General Secretariat’s listening room) – a meeting of all 28 Foreign Ministers chaired by the High Representative of the European Union (Federica Mogherini) – that adopted the Council Conclusions on DRC. I had then completed the whole circle. I also got to go to both study trips (more on that below), was able to volunteer at the European Council in June and participate in many interesting meetings and conferences and managed to see very high-level politicians and diplomats. I am so grateful for having been selected for this very competitive traineeship and am aware of how privileged I am to have had the opportunity to collect all these experiences and participate in events that always seem impossible to attend because they are. I know how many people apply each year for very few positions, but I hope that by sharing my impressions, you can at least be part of my adventure for a little bit and profit from my experiences.

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Here are some of my highlights:

1.Volunteering at the European Council – Hello Mr. Chancellor 

As a trainee at the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, we also get to experience the European Council, as already explained above why that is. Volunteering at the European Council was probably the highlight of my time as a trainee. Maybe you’ve seen my stories on Instagram with French President, Emmanuel Macron, almost shaking my hand, or Germany’s Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, giving her press conference, but even if you haven’t seen my instastories, I am certain that you have heard some sort of news of the ‘migration summit’, as it was simply impossible to avoid. Truth is, it wasn’t all JUST about migration, a lot of other important issues were discussed, as well but it was very interesting for me to see how the media works and how they portray and report about such a huge event.

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Of course, I wasn’t actually inside the room, where they discussed the topics, as nobody is allowed inside. But I was in the same position as a journalist these two days and veeery long nights. Mainly, we went to press conferences, or arrival/ exit doorsteps, which is when the leaders enter or exit the building and speak to the press, which you can also watch on a live stream, and reported on what the leaders said. It all sounds super fun, which it was, but it also included a lot of waiting, waiting for someone to come out of the meeting to give briefings to the journalists, waiting for the leaders to finally agree on a text, which wasn’t an easy one.

Most of the volunteers had already gone home at around midnight, as a lot of leaders don’t actually give press conferences on the first day, but some of us stayed, or even fell asleep on the couches and at around 5 in the morning, when they finally reached an agreement, we all had to type real fast and concentrate one last time before we could head home to get a bit of rest for the next day. Nobody forced us to stay of course, but as it was my first and only opportunity to volunteer at the summit – something that no other regular staff member of the Council gets to do by the way – I wanted to experience the whole thing. Unlike most people, I was one of the few who actually worked on both days, so you can only imagine how tired I was by the end of the summit.

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After three nice hours of sleep (I had constructions right outside my window and a heat wave had hit Brussels that week, so sleeping was very difficult anyways), I found my way back to the Council, covering arrival doorsteps and finally going to press conferences, which was the most exciting part of the summit to actually see the politicians in action. In case you’re wondering: I saw Sebastian Kurz (Austria), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Emmanuel Macron (France)’s press conference. After I’d sent my last notes, I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to leave the Council building and get some sleep (which of course I didn’t).

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2. Study Trips to Strasbourg and Luxembourg

Within the framework of our traineeship, the Traineeship Office organised two study trips: one to Strasbourg and another one to Luxembourg. I might spare you the details right now, as the post is already very long, but I might share some more experiences of the trips in separate entries, in case you are interested. This is yet another privilege that we enjoyed as trainees, as most of my colleagues told me they’ve neither been to Luxembourg nor to Strasbourg. On our trips we visited other EU institutions, such as the European Parliament, which has its official seat in Strasbourg, or the European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg. Most of what we saw in Strasbourg wasn’t all that new to me, after having lived there for almost two years, but Luxembourg was a completely new territory for me and I really enjoyed both trips. It’s always nice to get away and visit new places, but I also have the feeling that I learned a lot about some of the institutions that I wasn’t that aware of, like the European Investment Bank.

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3. EU – Open Day

On the occasion of Europe Day, the Public Affairs Team of the Council annually organizes the open day, where all EU institutions are open to the public, including the Council. Us trainees volunteered to actually make this day happen. Should you ever be in Brussels around that time (5 May), make sure to visit at least one or two institutions, as it is usually not that easy to get in the buildings. On the open day you get to see the conference rooms where the leaders of our countries meet, work and take very important decisions that may affect our lives. I was giving guided tours in German for the day, showing people different conference rooms, telling them about the role of the Council  of the EU, the European Council and its General Secretariat. Even though I’m not a big fan of public speaking, it was fun showing people around and I saw it as a bit of a challenge. I even discovered my picture on the banner of the traineeship stand, my little moment of fame!

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4. Trainees Projects – Story Tellers of the Council

A fellow trainee, actually succeeded in getting his own project realized. It’s about folk stories and mythology in Europe and the things they have in common. He shot videos of people from different Member States, telling a folk story in their own language. I of course covered Austria as the only Austrian trainee and I had real trouble finding an Austrian folk story with a good ending. I ended up telling the Blondel Saga. Check out the Council of the EU’s Instagram to watch the stories.

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5. Photo session with Donald Tusk – President of the European Council

Almost at the end of our traineeship, we all got the chance to meet the big boss for a group photo. Our conversation was rather brief (Hi! How are you? Bye! pretty much sums it up), but I did have a bonding moment with him when we all waved at the camera man for a nice photo and I made a reference to the queen who usually waves like this. He must have found my comment funny as he laughed and replied with a ‘oh yes, that’s true’ (like I said: very brief conversations!). Even though it was only a very short moment that we got to spend with him, it was really nice of him to take the time to meet us. It was a gesture of appreciation which I am sincerely thankful for.

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Copyright: Council of the European Union

A big thank you to the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union for having me! I had an unforgettable five months that I will never forget!

Bisou, M

P.S.: All thoughts are my own. Some of the photos are bad quality, as they are snapshots that I took with my phone.

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