The European Parliament’s new rules, effectively banning MEPs from offering unpaid internships, will come as a relief to many (mainly young) trainees who work at the offices. But covering the health insurance of interns does little to address the deep-rooted issues surrounding the opaque recruitment channels, and the larger culture of nepotism and bias in the European Parliament. Indeed, the unfair practices surrounding internships are an issue across the board.

Steps taken to improving the current poor conditions of interns, anywhere, should be welcomed, but with caution. In the UK, A 2017 survey by Prospects found that 48 per cent of 16-25-year-olds had undertaken an unpaid internship, with 25 per cent saying the most important factor for pursing an internship was to gain experience for their CV. It’s clear that unpaid internships are a prominent feature of the student job market, not just in the UK, but Europe too — more than half of internships on the continent are unpaid. Surely then, the European Parliament’s new rules should signal the start of widespread reforms?

Countries and institutions may well reflect upon exploitative practices. This can be a positive, as long as it doesn’t distract from the underlying issue of a rigged system for gaining internships in the first place.

Financial reward is of course a key consideration for people when deciding whether or not to undertake an internship, especially for those from poorer backgrounds. The guarantee of decent pay immediately opens the doors to a wider field of candidates, but this means nothing if internships are ultimately gained through contacts rather than merit. A search online for ‘how to get an internship’, shows a recurring theme of ‘connections’. The new guarantees of pay by the European Parliament now make the stakes even higher. Whilst internships are of course highly desirable and competitive, seen as a platform to launch careers, they are also unglamorous, brutal and demanding. The addition of pay, although undoubtedly deserved and appropriate, elevates the position of intern to a level higher than it perhaps should be. It is, at the end of the day, scut work (as much as the role is always embellished).  And it must not be forgotten that the promise of financial gain will not only encourage more people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but will also entice those less motivated by the nature of the work, and more by the economic gain. If there was already corruption surrounding the competition for unpaid placements, added pay will only prompt further unfair practices, like bribery.

For all the talk of money, getting your foot through the door in the first place is a struggle. The European Parliament itself demonstrates this fatal flaw. The appointment of Elisaveta Peskova, daughter of Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, as an intern to French MEP Aymeric Chauprade caused ‘outrage’ in the parliament. Ethical and security issues aside, Peskova has been accused online of ‘living off her father’s alleged corruption and nepotism‘ — now it’s just paid nepotism. As one person online pointed out, there are ‘many smart young European[s] … whose daddies don’t wear €600,000 watches … who are more deserving of a European Parliament internship’.  The issue here is not about pay, but the ‘process'(if it can be called that) of recruitment, and the lack of transparency which robs many talented young people of even the opportunity. But, it’s still important to point out that she is being paid 1000 euros per month, and this is before the new rules were announced. This demonstrates that even the new legislation, due to be enforced from July, still leaves room for the MEPs’ discretion, which clearly leads to unfairness and inconsistency. Even under the incoming rules, interns can be ‘remunerated between €800-€1313 euros per month’, and if there is still wiggle room when it comes to pay, the recruitment process is even more unregulated.

When Senior European Commission officials are accused of ‘hand-picking candidates for lucrative jobs’, giving ‘well-connected people … preferential treatment’, there can be little hope of a fair selection process for low level, albeit competitive, internships. The problem with internships across the field is not solely the conditions, but the dubious selection process and the lack of a regulatory body. Pay or not, internships remain the reserve of the privileged. Even when institutions have established internship programmes, the process is often nuanced and complicated. The UN, for example, has no central internship programme, and each secretariat and department within has a separate process, making it difficult to navigate without insider knowledge — the website offers little more clarification.

Following the announcement of the new rules, MEP Brando Benifei said:

‘more work needs to be done. Companies and national governments need to … ensure quality internships’.

I would argue that the issue is not only ensuring ‘quality’, but equality, and challenging the culture of bias and nepotism that exists in the world of internships, which locks out many skilled young people.

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