18th Mar 2018

EU foreign service should pay its interns, EU watchdog says

  • The EU's foreign service should be available to as broad a range of people as possible," said EU ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly. (Photo: European Parliament)

EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has told the European External Action Service (EEAS) to pay all its interns to open the door to people from poor backgrounds.

The EU watchdog presented her report on Friday (17 February), following an investigation into a complaint brought to her by a young Austrian woman who had worked as an unpaid intern in an EU delegation in Asia.

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The EEAS has almost 800 trainees in its delegations around the world, who work there full time for free.

The ombudsman heard both the former intern and the EU foreign service before making her recommendation.

“Traineeships in ... the EU’s foreign service can be a significant stepping stone in young people’s careers and should be available to as broad a range of people as possible,” O’Reilly said in a statement.

But the costs of housing, insurance and travel could bar some people from applying for unpaid internships.

"This may, eventually, lead to fewer future job opportunities for the less privileged, initiating a vicious circle where privilege follows privilege", the ombudsman added.

She recalled that equality is a founding value of the European Union and that discrimination is strictly forbidden.

She pointed out that the EU Council, representing member states, in its 2014 recommendation on a quality framework for traineeships, acknowledged that unpaid traineeships can limit career opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and be a form of unpaid labour.

She recommended the EU foreign service to pay an "appropriate allowance", which could reflect the cost of living in the country where the delegation is located.

"While the nature of this allowance will be a matter for the EEAS, the ombudsman believes that the allowance should be such as to respect the principle of non-discrimination and should ensure that young people will be encouraged to apply for a traineeship irrespective of their (or their family’s) financial status," O'Reilly said.

"This will benefit both trainees and delegations,” she added.

The ombudsman's recommendations are non-binding but EU institutions usually follow them.

The EU foreign service has until 31 May to submit an answer.

The ombudsman said she would look into the practice of unpaid internships in other institutions.

The ombudsman's investigation comes days before EU interns organise a protest to demand an end to unpaid internships in the EU institutions.

Demonstrators will gather in front of the European Commission on Monday (20 February).

The European Parliament has banned unpaid internships in its secretariat, but MEPs are still free to propose such internships in their offices.

The European Commission offers 200 unpaid internships at any one time.


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The EU ombudsman's slapdown of the EU diplomatic service's unpaid internship programs offers a glimmer of hope to a future of paid internships in Europe.

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Negotiators from the member states, EU Parliament and Commission reached a 'common understanding' to guarantee equal pay for equal work in the EU. They hope to reach a final agreement in June.

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Negotiations among the EU institutions will start soon, but could be difficult on several issues - like the inclusion of the transport sector or the duration of a posting.


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