By Laura de Boer
Welcome to the Euroculturer’s new series: Euroculture Basics! In this series, we will give you some basic information about the European Union so that new, but also not-so-new, students will gain a better understanding of this massive international organisation. In this first article, we will be taking a look at the different EU institutions. What do they do? How do they work? Why should I care? And, in typical Euroculture fashion, we will also offer some tips on how to apply for traineeships at these institutions. So get ready to get informed!
The European Commission
Maybe the most well-known of all is the Commission, often abbreviated to EC. The Commission is a supranational institution that is not connected to individual member states or national governments. Those who work for the Commission are technically there to promote the interests of the EU as a whole, they do not represent their own countries. Well, officially at least. One can imagine that if Commissioners have the chance to help out their own country, it will be rather unpatriotic to not take it.
🡪 What does the Commission do?
The Commission does quite a lot, actually. One of its roles is to propose and draft legislation, AKA making laws that others have to follow. It also controls the EU’s budget and gives funding to member states. The Commission also has to check that member states use these funds accordingly and not spend them on train tracks leading to nowhere (*cough* Hungary *cough*). The Court of Auditors helps them with this. The Covid recovery fund? That was the Commission. The regulations surrounding the Green Deal? Also the Commission. The constant pop-ups about cookies that you get when clicking on a website? You guessed it, the Commission. This is maybe an extreme over-simplification of how regulation comes into existence, but these initiatives all come from the great minds of our Commissioners. Speaking of which…
🡪 How does the Commission function?
The Commission is ruled (with the occasional iron fist) by a president. At the moment of writing this, the President is Ursula von der Leyen, also known as VDL. She was elected by the European Parliament after the previous election in 2019. A process that was filled with enough political drama to fund the popcorn industry for weeks and is sadly a little too complicated to get into right now. VDL runs a College of 27 Commissioners, one from each member state. They all have their policy area, known as Directorates-General (DG), and a team to help them out. Notable commissioners are Frans Timmermans (Green Deal), Margrethe Vestager (digitalisation), and Josep Borrell (High Representative). What’s a High Representative? It is a bit complicated to get into now but just think of it as a fancy title for someone who makes sure the EU acts as one entity when dealing with the rest of the world.
For an institution that wishes to promote democracy, the Commission is not exactly what you would call ‘democratic’. Citizens of the EU cannot directly vote for the Commission, which seems strange seeing how powerful it is. This also means that Commissioners have rarely been held responsible for their actions, and generally do not have to be popular with the people to stay in power. You will not see them with flyers and buttons on Place du Luxembourg at the end of the election cycle. This is one of the largest problems people generally have with the Commission and the EU as a whole.
🡪 But what about traineeships?
The traineeship at the Commission is also known as ‘the bluebook traineeship’ and it is considered to be quite difficult to get into. Against popular belief, you don’t need to be an EU citizen to apply, you don’t even need to be young (or old). All you need is a Bachelor’s degree, and knowledge of at least two EU languages (but more = better, a little bit of boasting is advised), and you should not have worked for the EU before. Many people apply so the selection procedure is quite tough, but don’t get discouraged. Take your time and make sure that you have worked your application out to the smallest details. A lot of people don’t make it because of silly mistakes like punctuation or typos. Don’t be one of them! The next application window will probably open in January, but be sure to be on time. Update your CV, think about your motivations, and do some homework on the different DGs.
The European Parliament
Now, it’s time to get into politics. Because even though the Commissioners generally do not have to advertise to get their jobs, those flyers aren’t going to hand themselves out. The European Parliament (EP) is generally considered to be a supranational institution. But national ties are often stronger for people working for the Parliament than for the Commission. This is because of the elections. Once every five years, European citizens can vote on whom they want to represent them. And if you spend five years debating for the rights of Maltese goldfishes while you’re actually from the Irish Dolphin Party (not a real thing, sadly), chances are you won’t get re-elected. Don’t underestimate the power of voters.
🡪 What does the Parliament do?
The Parliament has two main roles: legislative and supervisory. On the one hand, it votes to implement new EU laws and it decides on international agreements. And you might be thinking: ‘but wasn’t the Commission the only one with the authority to draft legislation?’ First of all, thank you for paying attention. And second of all, you are totally right. The Commission drafts, but the Parliament votes. If the Parliament does not like the proposal by the Commission, it can vote to drop it or amend it. It almost always offers amendments, because if you have the power, why not use it? Its second role is mainly in effect after the election. Then the Parliament chooses the President of the Commission and must approve the Commission as a whole before they can get to work. If the Parliament thinks the Commission is doing a bad job, is corrupt, smells funny, etc, it can vote on a motion of censure and send them all home. The Parliament has gained a lot of power over the past few decades. It has grown from the weak institution that was mostly there for show, into a kind of more powerful, but still not very influential part of EU-decision making. But, its role as the democratic part of the EU, gives it a
lot of status.
🡪 How does the Parliament function?
The EP is made up of 705 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The more citizens your country has, the more MEPs it sends. Most of these MEPs are members of national parties, and these national parties are working together as European groups. For instance, if you are German and vote for Nicola Beer because support the Freie Demokratische Partei (and definitely not because her name is funny), your vote indirectly goes to the Renew Europe Group. The Parliament has 20 Committees that handle certain policy areas. Think of them as the Commission’s DG’s but with much less power. The Committees are the ones that propose the amendments to the laws of the DGs. When most MEPs are happy with the amendments, the EP organises plenary sessions where all MEPs come together to vote on proposed legislation and amendments. Similar to the Commission, the Parliament also has a president. Currently, this is Roberta Metsola from Malta. She represents the Parliament inside and outside of the EU.
One of the main points of tension that surround the EP is its lack of ‘real’ power. It all comes back to the main critique people have of the EU: its lack of democratic responsibility. As the Parliament is the only institution that is directly voted in by the people, many feel that it should have legislative initiative. Another critique is that the Parliament moves several times a year between Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg. A move that costs more than 100 million euros per year.
🡪 But what about traineeships?
The traineeships at the secretariat of the Parliament are known as Schuman traineeships. With one of these, you may end up in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg, or any other member state with an EP liaison office. The requirements to apply are very similar to the ones for a blue book traineeship. Be an adult, have a university diploma, speak a bunch of languages, don’t be a criminal, and you should not have worked for an EU institution before. The application windows are in October and May, so pay attention to when the next one opens.
A second option for some sweet EP experience is to apply directly to one of the party groups. These often also offer unpaid traineeships, for if you get really desperate for a spot and are willing to work for free! Check for the different options here: EPP, Renew, S&D, Greens/EFA, GEU/NGL. As far as I could find, the ECR and ID groups did not offer any traineeships, but maybe they will accept open applications, you never know. One tip for your application for these groups is to pretend that you actually agree with their viewpoints, at least at the start. Sometimes you have to sell your soul for a career so… Welcome to Brussels!
The European Council and the Council of the European Union
Last but not least of the big three: the Council of Europe! No wait, that isn’t right. We’re talking about the Council of the European Union! That’s confusing. Confusing enough for the Council of Europe to have a special ‘Do not get confused page’. As if that helps. So, the European Council- Ah, wait, that’s not the same either. Did they really have to make it this complicated?
Okay, in short: ‘Council’ refers to two different institutions. The European Council, and the Council of the European Union. Apart from having similar names, they also share the same buildings and websites, which is amazingly helpful! Both councils are intergovernmental institutions. Meaning that they are there to represent the interests of their member states. No funny EU-superstate business wanted. They are there for their people, not those of others.
🡪 What do the Councils do?
The European Council sets the political direction of all of the EU. Simply put, if the EC says: ‘Hey guys, can we do something with the climate this time?’ then the Commission has to do something with climate. This is basically all it does, which sounds easy enough. But remember that they have to decide with 27 member states on hundreds, if not thousands, of issues. There has to be a draft, then there are revisions, then they have to be discussed with the permanent representations (there is no time to get into it now, but stay tuned), then they have to write up conclusions, then everyone has to be in favour with these conclusions, and then you have a policy agenda. Maybe. As long as no one vetoes.
The Council of the European Union is a council of many names. Sometimes it is referred to as the Council of the EU (simple enough), the EU Council (because it wasn’t hard enough yet), and the Council of Ministers. To avoid causing any more confusion than I have already, I will use the Council of Ministers here, because it is the most distinct and gives a hint of who is in it. Together with the Parliament, the Council of Ministers adopts the laws that the Commission drafted. Therefore, both of these institutions have to agree with the legislation drafted by the Commission before it comes into existence. They also have to adopt the EU budget together, so they are basically BFFs at this point.
🡪 How do the Councils function
The European Council is built up of all the heads of state and governments of the 27 member states. This gives a second dash of democracy to the EU since the heads are chosen democratically in national elections. At least, most of the time (*cough* Hungary *cough*). The heads meet four times a year to adopt as many conclusions as they can within two days. This happens generally by consensus (i.e. no one explicitly disagrees), but if the topic is important enough they will have a vote. It is the job of the President of the European Council to chair this meeting and to make sure that everyone behaves. Currently, this is Charles Michel, who was recently re-elected for his second term of 2,5 years.
The Council of Ministers, on the other hand, does not have a president. However, it does have a presidency. Every six months, one member state holds the presidency of the Council. For the second half of 2022, this is the Czech Republic, from January onwards, it will be Sweden. The country that currently holds the presidency holds meetings and makes a programme of things they want to achieve. Every presidency has its own shiny logo and website to check out, making the Council also a good business for web designers. Way to go EU! The Council of Ministers consists of (surprise, surprise) ministers from all member states. When there is, for instance, an agricultural law that needs (dis)approval, all EU ministers for agriculture gather to make a decision. But because they are very busy people, there needs to be a lot of preparation. That is why there are preparatory bodies, working parties, and the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER) to help the Council by making sure everyone had stopped fighting when the vote has to be cast.
Arguably, one of the issues with the European Council is the veto and the power that it holds. It allows one country to block certain types of decisions by itself, even if the majority of other member states (and European citizens) are in agreement. Every time a new country enters the Union, people argue that the veto should be abandoned. But even though states hate it when a veto is used against them, they love to use it themselves. So it is unlikely that the veto disappears any time soon. It is an annoying but necessary tool to keep the balance between the EU and the individual member states.
🡪 But what about traineeships?
If you read the other two paragraphs about traineeships, then you should know the drill by now. Be young, well-educated, boast about your language skills, make sure you haven’t worked for the EU before, and it helps if you are an EU citizen. At the time of writing this, the website on traineeships at the General Secretariat of the Council is actually not working. So it appears that the Councils are a little less ‘intern-friendly’ than the other institutions. However, if you are really devoted to the Councils, and have already tattooed the face of Charles Michel on your chest, you can still try your luck at the permanent representatives. Although I barely talked about them here, every member state has a permanent representation that deals with Council business. So you might still be able to get first-hand experience with council meetings. If you are lucky, your country may have the council presidency soon, giving you much more insight and responsibility in the process.
So, what’s next?
I hope that this guide has been somewhat helpful in giving you some basic EU knowledge, even if it only served as a refresher. Do keep in mind that this is only the bare-bones explanation, much has been cut out for the sake of brevity. However, if you want to know more, try googling ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ or ‘trilogues’ and do your best not to fall asleep. Also, why don’t you put this basic knowledge of yours to the test? The Council has a quiz on basic EU workings and history, so give it a try and tell us how it went!
In addition, now that you know where you can apply for EU traineeships, go out there and write that motivation letter! These traineeships are great ways to get to know the EU (and pay you much more than the average internship) so it is definitely worth it to try. And preparation is key, so don’t leave everything until the last moment. The Euroculturer will organise events with current and former EU interns to help you out, so stay on the lookout for those!
Also, make sure to stay tuned for new parts of our EU basics series. That way, you will be an expert in no time.
Pictures credit: Google Creative Commons