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Working at the European Commission

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Are you living in Ghent and curious about working at the European Commission? We asked Alexandra Pötz from Germany to tell us how she got her job there as a conference interpreter, why she lives in Ghent (and not Brussels), and what she thinks about the city – and the commute. She also gave us some tips about expat status and how it might impact your salary.

This article is part of a series of Square-posts on the topic of: How To Find A Job in Ghent Without Speaking Dutch. 

This is a picture of the European Commission, where you also can find a job
The European institution offers a range of different jobs for all kinds of backgrounds and levels of expertise and experience.

Alexandra Pötz was working as a freelance conference interpreter in Germany and decided to apply for the accreditation test with the European institutions. This practical test is specifically designed for freelance interpreters who want to work for the European Commission and the European Parliament on a contract basis. The test is very different from the normal selection procedure i.e. the so-called competition for EU staff.

This is a picture of Alexandra Pöts works as an interpreter at the European Commission
Alexandra Pötz works as an interpreter at the European Commission

Alexandra freelanced in Brussels for about 2 years after passing the test in early 2010. Then she got offered, and accepted, a temporary contract with the European Commission.

Around the same time, a competition for staff interpreters in the German language unit was launched. Having successfully taken part, she became a permanent member of staff in September 2013. “The competition, both for specific job profiles like mine and for the more general selection of EU staff, is a long, competitive and challenging process”, she says. “It took over 9 months and entailed a series of pre-selection tests. Furthermore there is an assessment centre (which you have to sit in either English, German or French and you can’t use your mother tongue). On top of that, I also had to do a practical interpreting trial for all my working languages”, she adds.

This latter part obviously doesn’t apply to other professions, but all job profiles will follow the general procedure and have some specific test elements to complement it. Alexandra recently heard that the general selection procedure receives around 200,000 applications per cycle. This means competition is fierce to get a job at the Commission.

The European Commission is a demanding but good employer

As for the job itself, being an interpreter can be rather strenuous and demanding, and it’s not always easy to keep abreast of all political developments, the whole range of topics dealt with by the European institutions and all the specific terminology in all working languages.

At times the job of the interpreter is made even more complicated by the ever greater number of people who believe that speaking English instead of their own language is by definition always the best thing to do, even when their command of the English language is shaky or simply too poor to make their point in a professional fashion.

Alexandra recommends working at the Commission for anyone interested in politics and policy making at the European level. “It is fascinating to have this privileged insight into the inner workings of European decision taking”, she says.

Alexandra’s job profile is a very specific one and it requires specialist training from an interpretation school or university. The European institution does, however, offer a range of different jobs for all kinds of backgrounds and levels of expertise and experience.

“The European Commission is demanding and puts you through a difficult journey to get there, but it is a very good employer, too”, Alexandra thinks.

Expat allowance

Alexandra’s tip for expats looking into the prospect of working for the European institutions is to “still reside in your home country upon recruitment”. If you are assigned to Brussels from abroad by the Commission and are treated as an expat, you also get the the corresponding entitlement. If you are already registered in Belgium when passing the competition and being offered a job, you will be regarded as a Belgian resident and then you won’t be entitled to the expat allowance. “This is a substantial difference to your salary”, Alexandra says. 

From Ghent to Brussels

Alexandra never planned to come to Ghent or move away from Brussels whilst working there, but then met her current boyfriend in early 2014. He’s Dutch, but has been living in Ghent for about 12 years. Gradually she came to spend more and more time in Ghent with him and his social circle. They also just bought a house in central Ghent and will be moving in together in March 2017. So while she will keep her job and friends in Brussels, her home base will shift 100% to Ghent.

Alexandra commutes to Brussels by train. First she bikes to Gent Sint Pieters and then she takes the train to Brussels Centraal (ca 35min). She continues her journey by metro to the European quarter/Schuman. All in all, one way takes just over an hour and a quarter, provided there are no delays. This means a return trip is about three hours of commuting per day. “This is a lot, but still much more convenient than going by car into Brussels”, she says. She refers to the congestion of hitting the infernal traffic moving into the city in the morning. “At least you can read, work or doze on the train. And nine times out of ten you find a place to sit”, Alexandra says.

This is a picture of a train to describe commuting from Ghent to Brussels
The train is a popular way for Ghent residents to commute to Brussels for work.

Alexandra’s least favourite part of living in Ghent is most definitely the commute. She rents a room in Brussels for the odd occasion, but considers herself a near full-time commuter. “Commuting can be quite stressful and annoying. It’s my own choice and I don’t blame the city of Ghent”, she says. And adds: “but it’s the thing that bothers me the most about living here”. 

Living in Ghent

As for the city itself, she thinks Ghent is rather small and a tad provincial. “It certainly doesn’t have the big city feel of Brussels to it. I miss it a bit as I’m quite a city person”, she says. On the positive side, and this is probably what Alexandra likes best about Ghent, considering how small it is; Ghent has a lot to offer. “Ghent is a medium sized city. Yet it has a vibrant nightlife. And lots of cultural activities and events. And also a great annual festival attracting massive crowds from all walks of life and all age groups”.

About the author:

Jenny BjorklofJenny is originally from Finland and moved to Ghent in 2009. Now she works as self-employed organising events, supporting businesses with marketing and helping people starting their own businesses by being a community manager of Entrepreneurs Anonymous & co-organiser of Freelance Business Day. Find out more and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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