Before this job in EP you used to work for Slovak MP. Do you have impression that there is more young people working in EP?
Absolutely. The job is very demanding in terms of energy and time, sometimes even physically demanding. This is why I think it is better suited for young people. They are usually highly qualified and ambitious graduates of good European universities. The youthful spirit also creates a certain dynamism that I was missing in the national parliament. A freeride cannot be tolerated because when the job needs to be done by 1 am it simply needs to be done, no excuses. At the same time more experienced staffers hold senior positions thus ensuring institutional stability. The result is a functioning and at the same time very inspiring mix.
How does your working day look like? Is it how you imagined before starting the job or is there a gap between the image you had and reality?
Since my Slovak working environment was demanding in terms of activity and almost unconventional attitude to hard work my typical work schedule hasn’t changed that much. I read legislative proposals and try to analyse these from group’s perspective. Then we negotiate changes to the proposals and prepare the files for the votes in committees and plenary. The main difference is perhaps the amount of information I have to process. In order to be a good staffer you need to keep track of dozens of EU and national agencies while also following national politics. It is important that you are aware of numerous sensitivities and read dozens of emails with detailed, technical information every day. Another thing that was different from what I expected was perhaps the fact that it was much easier to grab attention of the media when I was working in the national parliament. Here you have hundreds of MEPs trying to get noticed and we also face the problem how to bring the European agenda to voters in the Member States. It may be important and interesting but it is perceived as distant and too abstract because it takes a long time until the voters see the results.
Before moving to Brussels what was your relation to the EU, its rules, its politics?
I studied the sub-field of International relations which was en vogue in CEE after the 2000s - the European studies. I was thus better informed about European institutional history and politics than most of my peers but by no means was I following the news on a daily basis. My memory of politics in Slovakia in the 1990s is also quite vivid, so I am proud and genuinely happy for us to be a Member State. But I also realize that this was probably a very unique time when Slovak-EU relations have been very lively, that there was connection with the public. I think we will have to reinvent ourselves in terms of our relationship with the EU.
What would you respond to the young person (high school student for example) who thinks it is a big institution cut from the reality?
An institution with 8000 employees cannot work as swiftly as we would wish but I can assure you that the people here understand the reality out there quite well. The thing is that the institutions have to accommodate many more different - and often competing - perspectives than citizens at home. In the EP you have to find the balance between interests of 28 member states, 6 to 7 political groups, and dozens of political parties. Of course the results aren’t always the way you would expect them to be, and occasionally there are mistakes and misunderstandings but given all of the above - the results are surprisingly good.
A lot of young people consider working in EU structures as a dream job. What is the thing you hate about it and on the other hand, what is the best part of the cake?
I think you can easily slip into the so-called eurobubble because you spend a lot of time with like-minded and mostly young political staffers. So I think it is also important to make an effort and meet people who are, so to say, “sociologically different” or as my boss put it today: “People who do not care about your job at all”. With this I struggle the most because it is difficult to look for people to spend time with when in reality you don’t have that much of free time. The best part of the job is that as a news junkie I really enjoy better access to information which will reach the national media only hours, or even days later. Given my job in the political group I also have the honour to work with staffers and politicians from countries with a great tradition of outstanding civil service. It is fascinating to see some of these high-powered MEPs and their staffers to pursue their agendas.
There are many people on internship in the EU, but not a lot of them find the work in Brussels after the internship is over. They return back home and they live the same story - difficult to find a job, because they have only internships behind them or, and that´s another case, they are "overqualified". How do you see the young unemployment problem? Is the chain of internships, supported by EU and national agencies, the solution?
I recently worked on of the Commission’s initiatives to boost youth employment - the Youth employment initiative, and on provisions for the young people to get a job or an internship so that they won’t end up off the labour market for longer than a few months. Keeping people active is helpful but this is by no means remedy to the unemployment problem, these are painkillers. Businesses create jobs for the economy, the role of the government agencies is to create conducive environment, educate adaptable workforce, and help the vulnerable. As for internships in the institutions - again, I think it is largely useful to have this experience to get better understanding of how the system works, but it is no job guarantee. I personally think that the institutions would benefit from people who have outside work experience and could thus offer new insights.
You meet politicians, EP members on the daily basis, and of course you work, maybe as a part of a team, meeting colleagues, assistants, other than the elected ones. It is not a secret that to get a job in the EU, you have to speak fluently at least two languages, you have to succeed EPSO tests or other rough application process. And then you see those MP who has problems to speak English, who do not really come to the plenary, or those whose activity is low... what is the feeling? Do young policy advisors or qualified assistants feel some injustice in this issue or it is only the impression from outside of EU corridors?
No injustice at all. These are people brave and skilled enough to persuade the voters that they are the ones best suited for the job. I have a tremendous respect for their mandate, because that is what parliaments are about - representing people. But there is also personal responsibility of the MEP. If he or she is serious about the issues he/she is pursuing it will be extremely difficult without the knowledge of languages. You just do not get the nuances, you don’t get invited for one-on-one sessions, you have to wait for written translations and all this diminishes your efforts and actions. I don’t see how you can be effective with no languages.
In your country of origin, Slovakia, there were only 13 % of voters who replaced themselves last EP elections, in Poland recently eurosceptic Duda was elected president, we hear everyday about Brexit or Grexit. Politicians are often pushed to be eurosceptic because it is popular among the population. Where do you see the main problems of the EU, what is the real issue that need to be solved and what is only the question of bad image?
Very often the European elections reflect what is going on in the member states rather than what is really happening in Strasbourg or Brussels. I also think that politicians in the member states shift blame on Brussels more often than is really necessary and they are not interested in “explaining Brussels to citizens”. So much for the theory. The fact is that the eurosceptics are here but you would not notice it in the EP’s outcomes. Whereas healthy scepticism is much needed, you do not see the eurosceptics being very successful in pushing their agendas forward. If you want reform, you need to show yourself as a responsible partner. The loud stump speeches look good on youtube, they catch the attention of the media but are largely useless in the everyday legislative work. To push forward your reformist ideas you need to start working hard in the committees and consistently and patiently communicate what you have in mind to the big mainstream players. You also must have a plan what to do when you get rid of all the EU agencies, bodies and policies you do not like. I do not see this happening.
Slovakia will take the presidency in July 2016, what are your personal expectations on this, let´s call it opportunity?
I wish we could use it to show our policy ideas in the European arena with a later spill-over effect in Slovakia. It would be great if we could push further and gain the ownership of the digital agenda, or the rights of citizens with disabilities, and to become a leader in one of these areas.
Can you tell us some internal jokes about EU you heard in the corridors to end this interview positively?
No, EU is a serious business.