A bold call for traineeship equality
This is fairly bad press for the European External Action Service.
On 17 February, EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly handed down her much-awaited decision on unpaid internships offered by the EEAS in its network of 139 delegations across the world.
O’Reilly did not mince her words. She said the EEAS should “pay all of its trainees an appropriate allowance to allow greater access for young people of all backgrounds”, so as to conform to the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The decision came after an unpaid delegation intern lodged a complaint to the ombudsman in 2014, arguing that the EEAS “had acted wrongly by failing to offer remuneration for certain traineeships” and claiming that they should stop offering unpaid placements.
In a blunt and shocking display of disrespect at young people, the EEAS responded that unpaid internships had not been invented by the diplomatic service, but rather followed a “tradition” pursued by other international organisations, such as the United Nations.
Until now the question of unpaid EEAS internships had not garnered a great deal of attention: the relatively young agency established in 2010 does not enjoy the same attention as the European Commission, the arch-villain which has come under fire for using hundreds of atypical trainees every year.
Today, around 800 interns toil alongside EU diplomats in these so-called ‘embassies for Europe’, for placements that can reach over six months.
This number is far too important not to be taken seriously.
Internships risk becoming privilege for few
In practical terms this means that hundreds of students and young professionals travel all the way from Europe, sometimes the other side of the planet, in the hope to be exposed to what is popularly known as ‘field experience’, which supposedly makes you desirable for international assignments.
But this comes with an expensive price tag.
The costs of expatriation, spanning global medical insurance coverage, housing, visa application and travel arrangements, must be entirely born by interns.
Unpaid internships in EU delegations, O’Reilly said, “risk becoming a privilege for the few” and “attract only those with sufficient financial resources to pay for themselves”.
Interestingly, the much vaunted and well-remunerated internship programme of the European Commission, the ‘Blue Book’ scheme, also offers the possibility to students and young professionals to intern in a delegation.
Why then is the EEAS holding on so tightly on its unpaid internship programme? Part of the reason is the need for more human resources.
It is no secret that EU delegations remain strikingly understaffed and constrained by multiple budget pressures, despite the many duties that they took over from the embassy of the rotating presidency after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.
But there is more to it than that.
EU delegations recruit hundreds of unpaid interns among the local populations of third countries where they operate.
Local interns are a godsend for EU diplomats: a useful supply of cheap workforce that speaks the host country’s language with plenty of local expertise and knowledge.
But then again, this would hardly be possible under the Blue Book programme, which applies a cap on non-EU nationals at 15-20 placements per five-month internship session.
Though placements in delegations offer a first-hand, practical glimpse to third country nationals into the workings of the EU’s diplomatic service, the EEAS internship policy has the simultaneous and pernicious effect of directly transposing in some of the world’s poorest countries unfair labour practices that exist in Europe.
So much for the EU’s constitutional vow to eradicate poverty in its external relations and nurture the sustainable economic and social development of developing countries, as stated in its treaties.
The injustice of it leaves a somewhat bitter taste.
What’s more, in its guidelines on unpaid traineeships in EU delegations, the EEAS stresses that “the working conditions and the status of the trainee in the host country should be in full conformity with the local legislation”.
EU delegations failing to be fair
A similar stance is adopted in the EEAS’s response to the complaint filed to the ombudsman: “if the legislation does not allow unpaid traineeships, the delegation cannot recruit an unpaid trainee.”
These conditions are far from being met.
In France, where unpaid internships of more than two months are unlawful under the labour legislation, the EU delegation to the OECD employs interns for a duration of minimum three months. It is a similar story in Geneva, where the EU delegation to the United Nations offers unpaid internships for young graduates with already some professional experience.
This is clearly at odds with the provisions of the Geneva Labour Rules, which provide that interns must be paid unless the internship makes up part of their degree course.
Whether the EEAS is in breach of the Geneva legislation has yet to be clarified.
The EEAS Guidelines, as soft law instruments, cannot coerce EU delegations into complying with the provisions they contain.
For all that, the ombudsman’s judgement is a small victory for interns. It brings a much-needed ray of hope in the on-going arm wrestling with the EU institutions and gives further legitimacy to the recent uptick in advocacy activities from youth movements.
Young people from various cities across the world, including Brussels, Geneva, Vienna, New York and Washington DC, came together to organise a global interns strike, which is scheduled on 20 February.
Former intern at the delegation to Geneva Pau Petty, elated at the release of the ombudsman’s decision, shared his hopes “EU institutions will stand up for our generation and for European values.”
On the flip-side, the ombudsman cannot formally compel the EEAS to abide with her decision. There is little that O’Reilly can do beyond publicly naming and shaming the EEAS for what may result in “fewer future job opportunities for the less privileged, initiating a vicious circle where ‘privilege follows privilege’.”
Yet, the ombudsman’s decision not only serves as an important warning that piles pressure on the EEAS to lift its morally dubious internship policy that has persisted for so long.
It also sets an encouraging precedent for broader and tougher action directed at all EU institutions. It will take a shift in mentality to achieve, but the time to do so is ripe, in the name of the respect for the equality and worth of everyone.
Elodie Sellier is a former Schuman trainee at the European Parliament and a member of the Subcommittee of the European Parliament Stagiaire Association on Fair Internships.