TCS Daily

The Bruges Mafia

By Justin Stares - December 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Looking for a well paid job-for-life in the relaxed atmosphere of one of the European Union institutions? That will be €16,000, please.

This amount of cash, a relevant degree and a suitable recommendation to the board of directors in your home country will get you into the College of Europe in Bruges, food and lodging included. Once inside, your career on board the Brussels gravy train is more or less guaranteed.

Graduates of the one-year College of Europe masters program have a far higher chance than anyone else of landing jobs in institutions such as the European Commission and Council of Ministers. They have been so successful that after almost 60 years the network of alumni in Brussels is now so dense it is more commonly known as the 'Bruges Mafia.'

The European Commission's top civil servant, Secretary-General David O'Sullivan, studied in Bruges, as did around 1,000 alumni who now occupy key posts almost everywhere you turn. 'Anciens' (the French word for alumni) as they are collectively known, run four of the European Commission directorates-general.

"Bruges graduates fill more than 30 of the 200 or so places in the cabinets of the incoming Commission, including several of my own cabinet members," newly appointed Commission president José Barroso said in his speech to this year's Bruges intake - the first speech of his mandate. "Bruges is not just a pole of academic excellence; it is above all a place of practical application - a rich source of tomorrow's Europe... So when I say that many of you will be closely involved in shaping Europe's future this is not an idle threat."

Given its restricted annual intake, the Bruges mafia punches well above its weight. Student numbers have increased substantially since the college was founded in 1949, but this year there are still only 400 students split between the two campuses: Bruges and Natolin, near Warsaw, which was inaugurated ten years ago as a precursor to the EU's eastward enlargement. Since the Second World War there have been only 8,200 College of Europe graduates. There are just four masters (MA) courses on offer: politics, economics, law and a law/economics combination.

But statistically speaking, getting one of these highly contested places gives you a big advantage over other Eurocrat wannabes and aspiring Brussels insiders. When the Commission kicked off its most recent recruitment drive to accompany the enlargement to 25 states, there were thousands of applicants from all over Europe. Of the 700 who made it through the vigorous series of exams, more than 100 had studied at the College.

"This is a huge proportion," says Anne Draime, careers officer for the College of Europe alumni association. "Graduates have been very successful at landing jobs in all the EU institutions."

The private sector has recently caught on to the value of the specialist knowledge acquired. Of the 1,500 'anciens' currently on the books of the association, 500 work in the private sector. Many are employed in the nebulous industry known as 'European public affairs,' more commonly known as lobbying.

The association receives around 20 job offers a week which it then posts on its website, reserved for association members. Many offers come from alumni looking to hire one of their own. "I don't like to hear talk of a mafia," says Draime. "This is simply a network which works very well. All the top schools have them."

But despite talk that top consultancies will only look at your CV if you have been to Bruges, the penetration of the College within the private sector is still relatively limited. "Bruges is pretty well irrelevant to our selection process," said Martin Porter, co-founder of public affairs consultancy The Centre. "Much more depends on personality, outlook, gift for communications and lateral thinking. Bruges is by no means a good indicator of all that, even if it does indicate academic ability and, probably, one or two EU contacts."

And despite its reputation for training the EU's elite, no top-notch, world-changing politicians have passed through Bruges. Graduates do well within the existing structures, but they are not taught to criticize the EU. They are simply taught to understand it, and they therefore do not become leaders in the field. If anything they are indoctrinated into the Europhile spirit, a passage oiled no doubt by the unending stream of decadent parties for which Bruges undergraduates are famed.

The College of Europe is essentially a cramming school which produces students well versed in the intricacies of the European Union. Given the increasingly complex nature of the beast, this is a valuable head-start when they reach the job market.

Graduates often marry each other, creating 'European' couples often fluent in four or more languages. Almost all of them also marry into the EU ideal of "ever closer union." They are prototype 'good Europeans' and as such, in Brussels, there is no better calling card.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Brussels and a graduate of the College of Europe, Bruges.


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