The European Union gets a bad rap sometimes. Its Institutions are vilified by the tabloids, and its employees are lambasted for not having proper jobs.
Contrary to stereotypes, working for the EU is not quite the gravy train that some people imagine it to be. True, there are 2-for-1 pints of Carlsberg at Ralph's Bar on Thursdays between 6pm and 7pm for Commission trainees... But on the other hand, there is no free coffee.
This can be a rude awakening. Before starting my internship at the European Commission in Brussels, I worked for a well-known holiday company in Amsterdam. In plush offices in the Dutch capital we guzzled free coffee, gorged ourselves on free fruit, and pushed the boundaries of decency at the subsidised daily lunchtime buffet. Once a month, the company organised free drinks for all its employees at several local bars. I don't think the tabloids ever accused us of being profligate.
But after such luxuries in the private sector, arriving at the European Commission seemed a bit austere in comparison. As a government organisation the Commission can't be seen to be frivolous with things like free apples. Apples have to be bought and paid for out of one's own private pocket. EU employees also have to fork out 1.01 EUR for very small cups of coffee. No one I know is quite sure why the coffee is such an awkward price, nor why it hasn't been rounded up or down to a less awkward number. Basically you end up with a lot of loose change rattling around in your pockets.
Perhaps I am too far down the food chain, but neither does the EU seem particularly elitist. The Commission employs a large number of remarkably normal people. There are IT staff, janitors, people who do photocopying, cleaning staff, kitchen staff, and of course the people in the canteens who make small coffees. Here on the inside, I have met surprisingly few people whose sole aim in life is to freeload on champagne and screw over the United Kingdom. You are more likely to come across people whose job it is to allocate funding for research at UK universities, or who are fighting for more investment in youth programmes in Britain's cities.
But if anything were to prove that life isn't all a blur of caviar and parties at the Commission, it is the misery that broke out last week in our office when the departmental kettle stopped working. The on/off switch snapped off irreparably, and the broken kettle was packed away into its box; an event which shall forevermore be known as Kexit. Those of us who had brought in our own sad jars of instant coffee to avoid shelling out 1.01 EUR in the canteen were deprived even of this small comfort. Life at the Commission did not feel like such a gravy train that day.
At my previous company, broken kitchen appliances would have been instantly replaced and paid for out of the company's overflowing coffers. At the Commission, though, we had a whip-round. Everyone in the office coughed up 2 Euros to pay for a shiny, new kettle for communal use. (Imagine it, if you will, as a bit like paying into the EU budget in order to use the common benefits of the Single Market.)
Since then, life has returned to a semblance of normality. The dark days of kettlegate are thankfully behind us. Nobody opted to 'take back control' from the evil communal European kettle by trying to negotiate a better deal for themselves at Starbucks. For better or worse, we all have a stake in this new departmental kettle.
And for my part, I will always be glad that I contributed my 2 Euros to Kemain.