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The European Commission, “a humanities-friendly work environment”

On February 29 2024, the Humanities Career Service of Leiden University organised a career day to the European Union institutions in Brussels. Natalia Papageorgiou, student of the MA History (Politics, Culture and National Identities), talks about how the day went.

The purpose of the career day was to give the opportunity to humanities students to engage with alumni from Leiden University's Faculty of Humanities who have pursued careers in fields related to the European Union.  Having thought about applying to European Commission and Parliament’s traineeships as an upcoming MA History graduate, I signed up for the trip. My goal was to gain insight into the EU working environment and gather both inspiration as well as useful tips from the speakers.

A thorough explanation of the different EU Institutions

Our first stop was the Directorate General’s for Communications Networks, Content and Technology building, where we gathered in a modern conference hall style room. Olivier Fajgenblat, Policy Officer on digital affairs at DG Connect, was our introductory speaker.

Olivier gave us a thorough explanation of the different EU Institutions and their work, before starting to describe some of the projects his team has been responsible for, such as the ‘AI Act’, the first legal framework on Artificial Intelligence in the world. While presenting his own educational and professional path, he answered one of the students’ most frequently-asked questions: what skills from his humanities education are most valued in his work. Multilingualism, excellent social and writing skills and a strong network were some of the tips given to prepare for a job in the field. Finally, we were presented with multiple ways to access the European Commission professionally.

Recent graduates embarking on their careers

After that, two recent graduates, Kristina Kovalenko and Anna Sackl, who were finishing their Blue Book Traineeship, presented their own experience at the Commission. It was refreshing to hear the viewpoint of recent graduates embarking on their careers. Their insight was mostly focused on the importance of being proactive in order to make the most out of your traineeship, and they also offered practical tips, such as the importance of submitting all the necessary documents in Blue Book Traineeship applications.

The last talk before our afternoon break, was from the EU representative of the province of South Holland in Brussels, Katinka Janssen. Katinka gave the perspective of working for a member-state, since her role revolves around aligning Dutch interests with the European Union. Katinka also devoted some time in answering students’ questions, for example describing a typical day in her professional life, and analysing the challenging but rewarding aspect of cooperating in a national and international environment.

Diplomacy, foreign affairs and political negotiation techniques

The day continued with a visit to the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands at the EU, situated at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Belgium, a modern, welcoming building opposite the European Commission. Tristan Schyns, advisor at the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands at the EU as well as Jelle Jaspar, advisor of member of Parliament Thijs Reuten, spoke to us in a friendly panel-style discussion.

The inner workings of the European Council and the European Parliament were explained as well as the dynamism between all the EU institutions and the different member-states. During the discussions, we went in depth into issues about diplomacy, foreign affairs and political negotiation techniques. The goals and ways of working of the Dutch Permanent Representation were also described. A lot of time was dedicated to answering challenging questions from students, such as the pros and cons of the working environment, or the possibilities of making EU institutions more efficient and transparent.

Surprise appearance

Lastly, Max Valstar, Deputy Head of Mission at the Netherlands’ Embassy to Belgium made a surprise appearance during the visit. Before addressing students’ questions, he showcased how an academic background in the humanities can lead to a fascinating career path in diplomacy. The work visit concluded with a vibrant networking session where drinks were offered and students were given the chance to interact with some of the speakers.

All in all, the working visit to Brussels was a great way to gain insight into the works of the EU institutions. The speakers’ different educational backgrounds and career paths were inspiring and the recommendations they gave enlightening. Taking a glimpse into the working life in EU institutions is definitely a worthwhile experience for anyone that has found the idea of applying in any EU - related job appealing, and would like to explore this career path.

Text: Natalia Papageorgiou 

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