For several months, I worked as a trainee in the European Parliament for one of the political groups. In this post I am reflecting on my perceptions of the influence of political advisors working in the Parliament and on some other aspects of work there. My overall judgement is that political advisors can have some beneficial influence in some situations given the wide reach of EU legislation among other factors.
Working as a political advisor in the European Parliament
There are two types of political advisors in the European Parliament: advisors working directly for a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and advisors working for a political group. The former are known as Accredited Parliamentary Assistants (APA) and I will refer to the latter as “group advisors”. The word assistant in APA is a bit deceptive, because APAs usually play a key role in the MEP's political work. Few perform exclusively administrative activities (although many are also responsible for administration). Each political group in the European Parliament also employs advisors who do not work for individual MEPs, but for the group as a whole and in a specific committee. Advisors working for the group tend to be older and more experienced than APAs; often they have previously worked as APAs. Much of the day-to-day work of advisors consists of drafting amendments to proposed regulations or draft resolutions, negotiating such amendments with advisors from other groups to create majorities, consulting with MEPs on amendments, coordinating the group's position across committees and assessing amendments from other groups with regard to the position of their own group or MEP.
Important qualities of advisors are focus and speed because they often work under time pressure. Advisors also need to communicate well and should be fine with submitting to the authority of MEPs.
The influence of political advisors
Advisors have very limited influence on any issue on which there is a party line (and this includes most of the big topics of politics). Then there are other questions which do not directly affect political battle lines. These are topics that are unexciting to the wider public (which need not always mean they are not important) or practical questions relating to a more prominent issue. Most of the work occupying MEPs and advisors probably goes into this category. My impression is that an experienced advisor can make a difference here, because MEPs are to a certain extent dependent on advisors' input: they don't have enough time to deal with all matters in as much detail as advisors and moreover, unlike MEPs, advisors are recruited based on their ability and experience. (However, I'm not suggesting that most MEPs are incompetent.) A capable advisor who genuinely wants to make a difference can do so by putting in more effort in such a situation than an average advisor and providing different input. (However, I do believe that many advisors are motivated beyond professional incentives to do a good job.) Of course, an advisor can also make a positive contribution to legislation through special expertise in unpoliticized areas, especially since the counterfactual advisor is likely a generalist, not an expert.
I have not had direct experience of the work of APAs but I have had exchanges with several of them and asked them in particular about their advisory role. The unanimous answer was that MEPs do care about their opinions and advice. Their advantage relative to the group’s political advisors may be that they can establish a far closer relationship to their MEP, possibly making their advice count more. A disadvantage is that APAs’ productivity is (to varying extents) lessened by administrative work.
An observation I made which carries some information about the influence of advisors in the political process is the fact that advisors are silent during MEP meetings even within the own group: There are meetings where one MEP meets with advisors to discuss with them but there are other meetings where several MEPs of a group within a committee or across committees discuss an issue. Even though advisors always attend such meetings when they are relevant to their responsibilities they never take the floor.
Work and culture in the European Parliament
The work of the European Parliament consists primarily of editing bills submitted by the European Commission and negotiating them with the Council of the European Union, as well as drafting and passing resolutions itself. Resolutions are statements of the Parliament’s opinion on specific issues. For example, they can be addressed to the Commission and formulate Parliament's expectations with regard to upcoming bills. Parliament is divided into committees responsible for different policy areas. Within committees, work is further divided between MEPs: Every file (i.e. a legislative project or a resolution) has a MEP from one group responsible for it (the “Rapporteur”) and each other group appoints a Shadow-Rapporteur responsible for this file within the group. The best way for an MEP to affect a file is to be Rapporteur or Shadow Rapporteur on it. Most MEPs belong to one or two committees and also have substitute membership in one or two others. The day-to-day work of Parliament takes place within the committees (rather than in plenary).
At the moment, conservatives and socialists do not have a majority together, so they are dependent on the other groups. Indeed, many compromises are negotiated on a very broad political basis and enjoy the support of Conservatives, Socialists, Liberals and Greens. I generally found the atmosphere between these four central groups relatively cooperative. Sometimes disagreements between different committees are more pronounced than group differences. (I once took the lift with two conservative and a socialist MEP from the committee I worked in. They were lamenting how difficult it was for them to convince their respective group members from other committees of a position everyone agreed about in their own committee.) In other ways, however, the culture of the Parliament does not transcend the prejudice many people have of politics. Evidence and deliberation play a subordinate role there. Debates in committees and in plenary are often shallow and I wasn’t even too impressed with the rhetorical prowess of most MEPs. Maybe my biggest frustration about the political culture was the unwillingness to be explicit about the necessary trade-offs between contending objectives to avoid being perceived negatively by certain interest groups.
The power of the European Parliament
The European Parliament has the reputation of having less leverage than the Council. However, the Lisbon Treaty has given Parliament extensive co-decision rights, so that Council and Parliament are on an equal footing in most matters. Most regulations and directives require the approval of both Council and Parliament and are therefore the result of negotiations between the two institutions mediated by the European Commission. However, unlike most national parliaments, the European Parliament does not have the right of initiative (the right to introduce bills).
Individual MEPs (and therefore their APAs) may well have a bit more leverage on the Parliament’s output than their counterparts in other parliaments because the norms about voting in line with the group are more lenient in the European Parliament.
Internships in the European Parliament
Advisor jobs are generally competitive and internships are an important way of starting a career in parliament and in the European institutions more generally. Many advisors are former interns. There are several types of internships one can do at the European Parliament: In normal times, most MEPs have interns but there is a lot of competition for these internships. You should not be shy to send them unsolicited applications since some MEPs simply don’t publish job postings for internships, which also means that there is less competition for these internships. MEP assistants could also offer to get back to you once they are searching for an intern or tell you when to apply again. For some MEPs (especially those who have a standing job opening on their website and the more famous ones) one should apply up to a year in advance. For others it can be sufficient to apply three months in advance. Political groups also offer (usually five month) internships. In the group with which I did my internship interns are assigned to a particular committee and will support the work of group advisors in these committees. I believe this is similar in the other groups. I am not sure whether group internships or internships with individual MEPs are better suited to offer insights but interns working for individual MEPs certainly have more administrative work to do. The Parliament itself also offers internships (the “Schumann traineeship”) but these are usually not political in nature; I wouldn’t recommend them for someone interested in exploring impactful career paths. An important consideration is that former interns of an EU institution are not eligible for the European Commission’s internship program (the Blue Book traineeship), which is an important avenue into the Commission. This also holds for former MEP interns but I am still not sure whether it also holds for people who did an internship with a political group in Parliament.