Welcome to Brussels, D.C.


Part 1

Back in April, I remember texting Louise for a drink after work. “People here just stay so late”, she texts back. “When I leave at 6.30 I’m always the first to go.”

 I work in Brussels and a lot of my friends are internationals. They work in, around, and about the EU institutions, that gloat of bureaucracy that lies mostly south of the city. I was born in Belgium and am a sort of oddity among my friends –a ‘local’.

 Later, at said drinks (“Thatcher is dead, damn our work ethics, let’s just get drunk!” -she is from Sheffield), she twirls her whisky around in her glass with a joking air of fatalism when she says “Honestly, no way I’m getting a job at this place -there’s like five interns, and they stay fucking forever.” Except this wasn’t a joke –and as an overqualified twenty-something hitting the mark of her one-year anniversary of permaterning (permanent-interning), she could really do with the luxury of a contract longer than 5 months and that at least makes her minimum wage.

 Permanent uncertainty is bad for you. For one, you can’t plan. Want to get a phone contract? Why, if you’re staying for six months? Want to buy a decent mattress? Why, if you’re only staying for 6 months? This impermanence of the traveler, but when you’re stuck in one place, makes you waste a lot of money. It also leads you to lead an uninsured life.

 ”I received this neat little card from work that says Medi on it, I think it will save my ass if I’m ever in hospital,” says I, who actually has a real work contract from a company that is under severe unions pressure.

“Oh god,” says Louise. “I honestly have no idea whether I’m insured or not. I doubt they bother.”

It’s not like she could afford her own private insurance, anyway. She can barely pay the bills -Brussels is expensive, and she earns less than 900 euros per month.


A month later, Louise fell ill. It was probably nothing, but she was bedridden for a few days, and I suggested she go see a doctor.

 “How much is a consultation? I don’t think I can afford it.”

A few days later, she was back on her feet. We’re young and resilient, which is a lucky thing. But priorities for interns get lopsided – welcome to Brussels, D.C. It honestly isn’t a stretch to say it. There are only a couple of other International Organisations hotspots I can think of that fuel such a huge by-economy of think tanks and consultancies and lobbies, those little parasitic satellites that hover around UNs and EUs and Congresses –and those are Washington, D.C., and New York, New York.

Both Washington (Intern Nation, The Washingtonian, etc.) and New York (Al Jazeera) have received a lot of press. Brussels, not so much. For one, it is perhaps because interns do receive some pay, as unpaid labour is supposedly illegal. But to name only one, the prominent human rights advocacy NGO International Crisis Group regularly advertises such positions, for assignments as long as 6 months, full-time –so it isn’t that uncommon to work for free in Brussels, either.

Perhaps it is because you do not expect it –that little bustling nest of ants, tucked away in the less touristy, less talked-about corners of Brussels, where the people have their own idiosyncrasies and habits (Plux Thursdays) and do not mix with the rest of the world.

No matter the reason, the absence of press –the quiet acceptance with which we have come to collectively let this new job market reality creep upon us– is disconcerting.

By Maxine Lemm

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