When we talk about getting a job in EU affairs, you have to ask the question- what is an "EU job"?
Everyone in Brussels seems to be talking about different types of positions, which can range from working with the different EU institutions such as the European Commission, the European Parliament or other EU agencies, to working inside the institutions as a civil servant.
However your position involves EU affairs, you will always need to work with the Commission and you will always be affected by the European Parliament, just to mention to two most prominent institutions. Whether you’re an economist, an assistant, a lawyer or a statistical analyst dealing with European issues, you will always be involved with the EU institutions, even if you end up working for an NGO or a consultancy. Broadly speaking, "EU Affairs" can be equated to EU law, EU institutions, and European interest representation.
When it comes to finding a job in European Union affairs, I believe there are some best practices and actionable ideas that can help you through the cumbersome selection procedure, both in the private and in the public sector alike. That is why I have collected 7 tips that you may consider when applying for your dream EU job. Here they go..!
1. Know Your USP
USP as an expression is coming from marketing and it stands for "Unique Selling Proposition", that is, something that makes a product, a service, or as a matter of fact, a person stand out from the crowd.
What makes you unique as a job candidate? It is vital to look at your own profile when you are drafting your CV or considering applying for a position in order to be aware of what differentiates you from others.
- Previous Work Experience: if you have done an internship in the Council of Ministers or the European Court of Auditors, you are very well-placed to apply to a consultancy or an EU agency. You will have spent 5 or so months gaining an inside perspective and becoming familiar with the inner workings of the EU institutions, you know what the abbreviation "DG" means, you understand the different departments and you are familiar with the basics of decision-making procedures.... which makes you a well versed candidate for any EU job.
- Sectoral Knowledge: The actual department, institution or policy area where you did your traineeship gives you another USP. If you have spent some time in DG Trade, you will be in a much better position to find a job in a law firm or as an economic analyst or researcher in trade issues than someone who trained in a different area. Make sure that you present this specific experience as an asset. On the other hand, sectoral experience may also come from your studies or previous work experience. For example, if you have a diploma in environmental studies or mathematics, and you also understand EU policies, bang, you have an amazing USP!
- Your Network: Having a network should not be underestimated. The single fact that you have a unique network of colleagues in a DG or the European Parliament or your fellow students from a Paris university, and therefore that you can call those people if you need a piece of information is something that Brussels consultancies, NGOs and institutions value highly because you understand how the system works and you can find out things faster than anyone else.
- Knowledge of a Particular Region: Someone from the Baltic region would be highly sought-after by a company involved in writing tenders for that region for example. An NGO seeking to launch a campaign in Spain would be thrilled to employ someone with an understanding of the national political system. Something as simple as where you come from can be used as an asset to achieve your career goals!
- Understanding EU Jargon: It may not seem exceptional but try explaining co-decision procedure to your parents and you’ll realise the value of really knowing EU jargon. The fact that you can read Brussels insiders' weekly Bible, the European Voice and understand everything may distinguish you from other candidates.
The following 3 USPs are actually a bit special: when you apply for a job with the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), they will only look at these three factors.
- Language Skills: When you apply for an EU job through EPSO, they will look at your knowledge of certain languages (depending on the given competition) plus English, French or German, ideally backed-up by a diploma.
- Qualifications: When you apply for an Administrator (AD) competition, you are formally required to have a diploma, and for AST3 competitions as well (unless you have the sufficient work experience instead). Most EU jobs will ask for a diploma or degree in a particular subject or European studies.
- Skills: Well-developed analytical, communication and organisational skills will set you apart from other candidates. Make sure you actually demonstrate these or provide some sort of evidence when presenting your application (see more on "being concrete" below). If you take the EPSO concours, it is essentially these skills which are tested at the Assessment Centre.
2. Relevance Brings Success
SPAM, as we know it, is unsolicited mail or publicity.
In an EU job context, just put yourself into your potential EU affairs employer’s shoes. An EU public affairs expert is looking for relevant candidates to fill a position of an "EU clean energy policy consultant". In the same way that no one wants to receive irrelevant spam, no one wants to be overloaded by candidates who do not have the right profile for the job or fail to convince him of their merits.
For example, let’s take Martin Schulz, the newly elected European Parliament (EP) President. Imagine you are applying to be his assistant to be in his team at the EP. Which of your USPs should you emphasise? Obviously, the fact that you speak German would be highly relevant but wherever you come from may be completely irrelevant for the job. Bottom line: you need to re-frame your entire profile in such a way as to present it to be as relevant as possible to the specific EU position you are applying for.
Though this may sound obvious, people too often send off their CVs or cover letter without carefully, thoughtfully considering what the employer is actually looking for. Just have a quick look at the above USP list and you should be able to craft the perfect cover letter!
Relevance, at the same time, is also a formal criteria for the EPSO exams that you will need to pass to become an EU official. To pass the Assistant (AST) or Administrator (AD) exams, you nearly always need a relevant diploma and/or work experience in your chosen field.
In short, my advice is this: do not send out 200 applications to various Brussels consultancies or think tanks hoping one will hit the target, because it won't. This is what spammers do but they tend to fail big time. Rather think about which position matches your profile more-or-less, then frame your message to suit it. Highlight your relevant sectoral knowledge ("I have worked in developing the national position on the Common Agricultural Policy reform") or the fact that you speak Greek or the language that the position requires.
This does not only relate to EPSO recruitment exams or EU affairs jobs: even though EU agencies do not require you to pass a recruitment exam, they will look at your cover letter and CV, making it crucially important to properly formulate your relevant message in order to get an interview.
3. Nobody Cares About You
When you apply for a job, potential employers have a certain specific need. They are not interested in you personally: they want to solve their particular problem. Here is an example cover letter to demonstrate how to ensure your relevance:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am applying for the position of EU consultant at your association.
I have graduated from the London School of Economics and I speak fluent English and German apart from my native Swedish.
I have 3 years of experience in EU affairs and I am just completing a traineeship at the European Commission.
This is probably a typical cover letter. The problem with this is that it makes the potential employer think, and thinking takes time and lots of effort: it is so much easier to just reject the candidate and look at the fifty other applications in their inbox than trying to find out why this profile is actually relevant to the position. You need to be one step ahead, and already answer questions the employer may not even know she has. The most important question is: what’s in it for them? Have a look at the following letter, which is a re-phrased version of the previous one.
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am applying for the position of EU consultant at your association because I believe my diploma from the London School of Economics can be a great asset to your company.
I am convinced that my perfect command of English and German, along with the traineeship I am just finishing at the European Commission, can prove beneficial when dealing with Members of European Parliament, many of whom, as I understood from your website, your company has business with.
This person describes his background but also tells the employer that he will be an asset to the company. The employer is not obliged to think - the candidate tells them upfront that his background is relevant to the company’s existing needs.
This may seem like a simple technique or a formality but you should not underestimate the value of addressing key points by proving to the employer that you have looked at their website, understand their needs and the job description and that you are the very best candidate for the job. Instead of talking about yourself, talk about how you can address their concerns.
4. Abstraction is for painters
If ten people were asked to describe this painting, we would probably end up with twelve different descriptions. Everyone would try to attribute some sort of form or meaning to the image.
In fact, it is a similar situation when you write a cover letter, give a presentation or take an interview. If you say ‘I speak many languages’, everyone will have a different guess of which languages you actually speak. If you say ‘I’m an expert in EU environmental policy’, you must remove the abstraction by explaining which projects or dossiers you are familiar with.
The sentence ‘I have several years of experience working on EU structural funds’ becomes much more concrete by simply adding the dates you worked on it, the projects you were involved in or the sums you handled. If you present yourself in an abstract manner, your application becomes less credible, less relevant and less effective.
5. Speak the local dialect
Become familiar with the "local jargon". This, first and foremost, means that you should know the unique EU affairs terminology and its translation in your other working languages. The translation of ‘committee’ may be ‘commission’ in another language, so always make sure you know which terms are used in that particular institution or organisation.
I once blew a job interview at the European Parliament because I mixed up the above two terms in Spanish - which is most unfortunate since I was applying for a post in an EP committee whose name I could not even express properly! No wonder the job was given to someone else.
As seen in the above story, two words may have very similar meanings in your native tongue but if you mix up ‘effectiveness’ and ‘efficiency’ when discussing European energy policy, you will seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about. This can therefore make you less credible and could lessen your chances of getting the position you want.
It is the same story when it comes to abbreviations. Every EU institution has a long list of abbreviations, as might every industry, trade association and lobby group. If you are unfamiliar with an abbreviation or its accurate translation, you minimise your chances of success. Similarly, you should be aware of "industry" jargon. If you are asked about the "European semester", in the field of of EU budget policy, this has nothing to do with the calendar but rather refers to a budgetary control initiative from the European Commission. If you are familiar with the terminology, you demonstrate that you speak the local dialect which is required for the position.
6. Preparation : Performance = 99 : 1
The ratio of time spent on preparation compared to performance should be 99:1. An EPSO exam may take 2 hours but the time you spend preparing should be at least 99 times as much. If you are going to take an EPSO exam, spend at least 3-4 weeks practicing verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning questions. If you have an interview, make sure that you do sufficient research, simulate with friends or professional coaches and understand key concepts.
Do mock job interviews, simulate EPSO assessment centres and group exercises. Practice giving presentations in front of friends who video record it and you can analyse it afterwards.
Sit down with someone who can evaluate you in a critical but positive manner. The feedback will be surely very beneficial. You may think that you are giving a good impression but someone else might find your body language inconsistent with your words or could notice that your intonation doesn’t match up with what you’re saying.
Lastly, in the framework of your preparation, always get a second opinion on your CV before submitting it. Someone with a fresh eye will notice the typos which you haven’t seen even if you have read through your CV a million times. Simple errors take away from the credibility of your CV and you may be left wondering why you were not invited to the interview after all?
7. Internet: friend or foe?
If your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, your application will never be taken seriously. While it may not be a deal-breaker in and by itself, it will certainly not help you create the desired impression. This applies to all aspects of your image: the less serious you are, the less chance you have of getting the position.
Have no illusions: potential employers will Google you.
Either make sure you have extremely high privacy settings on your Facebook profile or make sure that your profile projects a serious image of you.
Take advantage of online connections: create a Linkedin profile which demonstrates your skills and knowledge and ensure that you use your online presence to your advantage by showcasing your talents, your achievements and your skills via presentations, videos, articles, photos, blog posts or other. As an example, if you had given a preentation on EU career, you could even shocase that as a PowerPoint on your Linkedin profile!