What to expect on a stagiaire in Brussels

A six-month internship in Brussels has helped Sarah Hajibagheri decide on her career path

It's fashionable for gappers to teach English in Ethiopia, backpack round Brazil, climb Kilimanjaro, protect baboons in Borneo and exploit their English accents in America. Their main aim is to explore and save the world, and to do it with a tenner to spare.

As my gap year draws to a close, I have yet to meet a tropical beast or don a backpack, but have nevertheless worked on behalf of an endangered species - the Tory party.

Combine working for the Conservative party with living in Brussels - famed for its grey Sixties architecture, fat cat Eurocrats and superfluous institutions - and maybe you'll understand the unenthusiastic reaction of my liberal, baboon-loving, friends. Well, it turns out I am not a conventional girl: the seven months I spent in Brussels were the best of my life; igniting a passion for politics, Belgian beer and living abroad.

I'm starting a degree in politics, philosophy and economics in October, and I wanted to pursue these fields on my gap year, so I sent a flood of e-mails to politicians requesting work experience. After an interview, I secured a six-month stagiaire (training internship) with Dr Charles Tannock, the Conservative MEP for London at the European Parliament.

Most MEPs reserve stagiaire positions for graduates; even then places are limited and highly sought after. Many stagiaire are unpaid; others gain a meagre allowance or anything up to €1,500 a month. Fortunately, Dr Tannock was generous, giving me a comfortable salary and expenses including Eurostar travel, language lessons and a contribution to my rent.

I was a tad intimidated when I first stepped off the Eurostar. I came clutching my A-Level grades, but no textbook could prepare me for six months working for a top politician, or a debate with Chinese government representatives on my first day! Alone in a foreign country with no friends, having just turned 18 and living independently for the first time, I had the added misfortune of GCSE German (why didn't I choose French?). Ok, I was very intimidated.

I had so many preconceptions about Brussels - not to mention the Tories - coloured mostly by the tabloid press. I half expected to be working alongside tweed wearing, hunt-enthusiast Etonians with double-barrelled surnames and five-figure bank accounts. No such thing. Brussels is a melting pot of nationalities; a fluid mix of people centred primarily around politics or business. I became friends with South African air hostesses, Texan oil merchants, Scottish competition lawyers, Latvian investment bankers, Belgian poets and an awful lot of Tories. The parts of Brussels yet to be tarnished by EU buildings are beautiful and full of history. Furthermore, Ghent and Bruges are just a cheap train fare away, as are Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam. The quality of life is superb - jump on a train and you can go skiing for the weekend, or just explore another beer festival.

The European Parliament is a huge glass building in an otherwise unsightly part of town. Inside I met a team of friendly, passionate and dedicated politicians with only an occasional splash of tweed. They weren't chasing fame or engaging in political gimmicks involving chameleons or iPods. You probably have no idea who your local MEP, is let alone what they do; but, like it or not, more laws come from the Continent than Westminster nowadays. MEPs work hard for your interests, supported by a strong backbone of bright young things, yet few gain recognition back in Blighty.

My work varied from day to day. If you do apply, ensure you research the specialities of your MEP thoroughly as you could be following their committees, which range from fisheries to foreign affairs. Fish don't really do it for me, so I was pleased that Dr Tannock, the Conservative Foreign Affairs spokesman, took me on, as I have always been intrigued by international relations.

I frequently wrote parliamentary questions. Dr Tannock was a vocal representative and I dealt with constituent correspondence as well as preparing research for speeches. I gained a comprehensive understanding of European issues, which are often depicted in black and white terms back home. I was particularly interested in the relationship between the press and politics, so I would orchestrate interviews, attend press conferences, and evaluate coverage. That led to me being offered a placement with Reuters in Brussels.

My most abiding memories are of the contentious parliament in Strasbourg. Debates and preparation for reports happen in Brussels, but once a month the whole building commutes to France to yet another parliament just to vote.

Strasbourg sessions are always more compact and as a result more stimulating than Brussels. You share a small office, desk and PC with your MEP, and a host of resolutions and votes that have taken months to prepare go through in just a few days. The close proximity was a privilege for me and I learnt a great deal. Dr Tannock regularly quizzes ambassadors over humanitarian violations in their countries, and my personal favourite was watching him tackle representatives from across the political spectrum over the wording of influential foreign affairs resolutions on the Middle East. It was a real education.

It is also customary for MEPs and staff to mix more in the evenings, often dining together. I would wind up in one tavern or another with some of the young MEPs. Neil Parish, the Conservative Agricultural spokesman, would drive me and a few other staff up to Strasbourg, and taught me a lot about cattle (farms abound on that five hour drive).

It's easy to put on weight living it up in Belgium. You start the day with a morning waffle, and follow that with a brunch debate over newspapers, croissant and coffee. Then comes lunch, the Belgian national dish of "frites avec mayo". Belgian chocolates combat mid-afternoon munchies. Every night you drink lashings of beer (all in the name of networking), and then there is the occasional 4am kebab. Away from the diet of excess, you can eat very well and affordably in Brussels.

So I find myself a Conservative convert, with a wealth of knowledge ranging from parliamentary protocol to how to change a fuse. The young woman who disembarked from the train at Waterloo seven months later had grown up a lot from the nervous 18-year-old of last September. She'd worked in a graduate job, paid bills to her French landlady, thrown dinner parties without a microwave. So I would encourage anyone to take a gap year, and to spend that time pursuing their passions. In my case it was politics, for others it's baboons - but don't be intimidated. I always feel it's wishy-washy of people to say they took a gap year to find out who they were, but in Brussels I found out who I wanted to be. I worked alongside them every day, admiring their commitment, passion and drive. That's right: a politician.

The writer is about to start a degree in PPE at Durham University

EU adventures

You can undertake a Brussels internship at one of the EU institutions, in journalism, a law firm, NATO, or an investment bank. Check out the range of opportunities at: www.eurobrussels.com/internships.php

The European Commission has an official traineeship, with a formal application process. Applicants must be graduates and fluent in English and another EU language. Apply at: ec.europa.eu/stages/index_en.htm

For a placement at the European Parliament it is advisable to contact an MEP directly; details can be found at: www.europarl.europa.eu

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Guru Careers: Trainee Software Developer / Graduate Developer / Junior Software Engineer

£13 - 16k + Training & Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We have a unique oppo...

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Test Systems - Graduate 2015

Competitive Salary & Benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: Role Purpose: Exciting opportunit...

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Manufacturing Test Graduate 2015

Flexible working, annual bonus & more: MBDA UK Ltd: Graduate opportunity withi...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Executive / Marketing Assistant

£18 - 23k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Executive / Assistant is n...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high