With the ratio Bar Vocational Course (“BVC”) places to pupillages standing at three or four to one, every student knows that they have to diversify their work experience in order to increase their chances of success. As such I was immediately interested when I discovered that the European Parliament has a scheme to allow young graduates and professionals to work on the various committees. Twice a year they offer paid, five-month traineeships (Robert Schuman scholarships (see box below)) to enable the stagiaires to supplement their existing knowledge and to familiarise themselves with the work of the European Parliament.
My undergraduate study in European, comparative and international law had provided an introduction but if one picks up a newspaper in England it is difficult to find stories that go beyond the question of the expenses of Members of the European Parliament (“MEPs”) or “Brussels regulations”. In fact, the Parliament is the only European institution whose members are elected, by universal suffrage every five years. The committees of the Parliament, which deal with issues ranging from legal affairs to agriculture and rural development, consider and amend legislative proposals from the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. I decided to apply to the traineeship scheme.
The online application procedure was relatively straightforward. As the programme aims to encourage deeper European integration and co-operation, it is a requirement that each applicant has a thorough knowledge of one of the official languages of the European Union, and a good knowledge of a second. Applicants are also asked to list their areas of interest, stating specifically their preferred department with reference to the Parliamentary committees. As well as opting for the obvious choice of legal affairs, I also listed my interest in the areas of human rights and civil liberties, justice and home affairs. Two months later I was informed that I had been selected for a paid traineeship within the Directorate-General for External Policies, Subcommittee on Human Rights.
Life in Brussels
To the newcomer, life in the European Parliament can be very confusing. There is a myriad of acronyms and codes to decipher in order to know which building, committee or political party you are being referred to. However, I quickly got to grips with everyday life there. The European Parliament is also probably one of the single places in Europe where you can hear at least ten of the official European languages on a daily basis. To say the least, there are plenty of opportunities to improve one’s language skills.
The Subcommittee on Human Rights is responsible for all human rights issues and the promotion of democratic values in non-EU countries. I was enthused by the prospect of working there and I was particularly interested in seeing how the European Parliament advocated in this field. My main area of focus was EU dialogue with African, Caribbean and Pacific States. One of my first assignments was to research and draft a briefing note on the practice of capital punishment within this region for the 16th Session of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly. I also attended meetings in relation to African human rights and development, notably discussions on rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and EU peacekeeping operations in Africa.
One of my main projects was compiling a briefing paper on the weaknesses of the current legal framework regulating private security companies, in preparation for a Subcommittee discussion on the topic. This was particularly satisfying as I had no previous experience with this topic. More generally, I drafted letters of concern on individual cases of human rights violations, to be signed by the President of the Parliament or the Chair of the Subcommittee. I also researched the monthly human rights urgencies which were to be debated at the Parliament’s plenary sessions with a view to passing resolutions, and I contributed to the briefing note on the human rights situation in Gulf States for the President’s visit to the Gulf region. I also accompanied members of the Subcommittee when meeting NGO representatives, and I represented the Subcommittee at external conferences.
I was fortunate enough to be involved with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom and Thought, which is the annual prize awarded by the Parliament to human rights defenders, another key area. Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the prize and the previous Laureates were invited to attend the ceremony. This coincided with my trip to the Parliamentary session in Strasbourg, which each trainee has the opportunity to visit at least once. I was privileged to meet the previous Laureates, and to help the Subcommittee with co-ordinating the events.
I was able to see how the European Parliament advocates legal reform, particularly by highlighting the work of the International Criminal Court, and also by lobbying States to comply with their obligations under international law in the field of human rights. Using advocacy to influence legal reform in the field of human rights is something that I am keen to work on in the future, and to translate into a career at the Bar.
For students who are committed to pursuing a career at the Bar, a traineeship at the European Parliament would be an interesting opportunity to develop skills which would be applicable to future practice. Researching and compiling various policy documents improved my written skills and legal research, and helped to ensure that my work could be accessible to different audiences. Public law practice, one of my areas of interest, often requires a good knowledge of political and social trends, and my work on the comparative study into the laws on capital punishment aided me in this respect as I had to evaluate the socio-political influences which led to legal reform in this area. I also improved my communication skills through liaising with different personnel on a variety of issues, when engaging on individual and collective projects.
My experience at the Parliament was sometimes challenging, as there are often a variety of issues on the work agenda, and it can be difficult keeping track of new developments in different areas. Yet, at the same time I welcomed the challenge, as Brussels is a dynamic place to be for young lawyers who are eager to broaden their knowledge base. Whether you are interested in competition law or international trade regulation, working at the European Parliament will give you access to external organisations relevant to your field, and provide insight into the relevant EU level initiatives. I must admit to being struck by what seemed to be the small number of my fellow trainees who were also from the UK. It became clear that completing a traineeship is embedded more in the professional culture of young graduates from other countries, particularly Italy, Spain and France. I hope that this article may in some way encourage British graduates to also take advantage of the opportunities available to them as EU nationals.
Yvonne Kramo is currently working at the Open Society Institute, Brussels Office