Is becoming a Eurocrat worth the effort? If you want to be at the heart of European power and earn a lot the answer is yes. New graduates on top-grade postings start on more than pounds 35,000. Within two years many can reasonably expect to be earning pounds 41,000-pounds 51,600, with generous allowances. Helen Jones finds the way in.

If you think that the European Union is big, complicated and steeped in bureaucracy then you should try getting a job there.

Sarah Stevens, a recent graduate in French and business studies says: "It can be a nightmare finding your way around the system. There are so many different departments to deal with and lots of different competitions for jobs, that it can be a bit dispiriting."

Despite the difficulties, there are a host of jobs available within the different European institutions - if you know your way around the system. These range from Grade A posts - where staff are involved in developing European policies to Grade D posts, where staff work as messengers and drivers.

More than two-thirds of the 28,000 staff employed by the EU work for the European Commission, which originates the policies and laws of the Union, although there are also posts available with the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Court of Justice and a number of other bodies.

For any European Union posting, a satisfactory knowledge of a second EU language is required but the European Commission, for example, says that it does not recruit staff purely on the grounds of linguistic ability. Here, formal qualifications in a second language are not a prerequisite - successful candidates can be given intensive training if required.

All posts are available to citizens of member states and the European Commission says: "There is no national quota system for European Civil Servants but the Commission's regulations require it to strive for a broad balance of nationalities."

In reality, according to British sources, Britain is under-represented in terms of recruits, while France is slightly over-represented. "At the top end of the scale this is due partly to the fact that Britain hasn't particularly promoted the opportunities in Brussels and the fact that pre-selection tests are based on the French educational model rather than the British one," one source says. "At the lower end of the scale for C and D posts, more Belgians apply for jobs than any other nationality because they are local."

All posts are subject to open competition and these competitions are published in the Official Journal of the European Communities and in the national press. Competitions for jobs in all categories from A to D are usually in three stages: a pre-selection test, then a written examination and finally an oral examination. Having passed these, candidates are placed on a reserve list and their CVs circulated around the commission until a suitable vacancy arises.

Those applying for Grade A postings will need "drive, initiative, skills in managing people and resources and imagination," a commission spokeswoman says. "And competition is extremely fierce."

To give potential A-grade candidates a taste of what working for the EU is like, the commission organises a series of "stages" or internships twice a year for a period of five months. These 650 "stagiaires" are paid a small living allowance and are attached to one of the Directorates-General such as Economic and Financial Affairs, Education or Consumer Policy.

Last year 12,000 graduates applied from Britain and 40 got in. Candidates are selected via entry forms and the successful ones appear in the "Blue Book" which details their qualifications and relevant work experience. Candidates are encouraged to use any contacts they may have such as MEPs and are also advised to promote their applications through arranging to meet EU officials in Brussels, all of which is time-consuming and expensive. It's little wonder that the stagiaire system has been described as a "finishing school for the intellectual elite".

One current stagiaire, who does not wish to be identified, says: "It was really tough to get in and I haven't got a wealthy family, but I'm committed to working for the EU. A lot of the others are rich and clever and don't seem to take it particularly seriously or really want a job here. They are using it as a way of meeting useful contacts and going to some good parties."

High-flying British graduates also have another route into the system. The British Civil Service has a European Fast Stream entry programme where candidates are trained in European issues and public administration, given coaching to help them in the open competitions, are given placements in Brussels and receive language training. However, as a spokeswoman for the Civil Service says "It's hard enough to get into the Civil Service Fast Stream in any case, and even more difficult to get into the European Fast Stream."

Useful telephone numbers: For information on open competitions, call European Commission Info-Recruitment on 00 322 295 3237. UK office of the European Commission: 0171-973 1992. For details on becoming a stagiaire: call Bureau des Stages, on 00 322 295 0902. European Fast Stream: (01256) 383683.