Kris Peeters (CD&V), the Federal Minister for Work and guest speaker at our second Career Fair in International Affairs, sits down with IP to discuss pursuing a career in international relations. “Don’t overestimate the importance of networking.”
Interview by Ken Demol
Even though Peeters’ attention is currently drawn towards national politics – between budget negotiations and a debate surrounding the future of our F-16 fighters – he is far from a stranger to international relations. As the previous Flemish minister-president, he was in charge of foreign affairs. Recently, he got back from the World Economic Forum in Davos. “As I travel the world, I am continually surprised by the enthusiasm of our young diplomats,” Peteers remarks. “I am nothing short of positive about the work of these talented individuals.”
Encouraging words, but where exactly do young professionals make a difference?
Kris Peeters: “In the past, diplomats were simply representatives of their country abroad. In many ways, they lived in an ivory tower. Today’s diplomats – and tomorrow’s – increasingly have to keep an open mind, and have to represent international and European ideals as well as their country’s interests. I find that young diplomats are extremely well suited to this task.”
You stress the importance of young professionals for the Belgian government, but Selor, which handles its recruitment, does not have the best reputation. How can the government remain an attractive employer?
Peeters: “I cannot comment on Selor, only that quality should be present both in those taking exams and in those organising the exams. As far as working for the government is concerned, however, I firmly believe that representing your country professionally is a fantastic opportunity, be it as a diplomat or whilst working for the UN or the OECD. Most of the problems facing us today will have to be tackled on an international level. A choice for a career in international relations is a choice for the future.”
Having a large and reliable network seems essential to building such a career. How would you advise students and graduates to build their network?
Peeters: “Step by step. Don’t overestimate the importance of networking. Your network will grow naturally over the course of your studies and throughout your work. It is not something you can force, nor will it automatically lead you to your dream job. Take it slowly, and gradually build your own network. That will be the most durable in the long term. “
At our previous Career Fair, Hans Maes, currently the national president of Jong VLD, advised everyone to consider a career in politics. But how wary should young people be of a political label?
Peeters: “I encourage everyone to consider a career in politics. Everything boils down to politics, after all. But do not get into politics hoping to advance your career as a diplomat, or any other line of work, for that matter. Skills and experience should determine who gets the job, not party membership or political colour.”
Job openings being decided based on party membership: is that the way diplomacy –still– works?
Peeters: “We mustn’t be naïve. The practice is disappearing, but still exists.”
Alternatively, can a diplomat be a member of a political party? Students considering becoming politically active may wonder whether or not they would be damaging their careers by doing so.
Peeters: “As far as I’m concerned, yes, a diplomat can be active in a political party. Being a diplomat is all about having an opinion, be it left or right, and expressing it well. It is a shame that taking steps into politics can still stand in the way of pursuing a career in international relations and diplomacy.”
Another concern students and graduates might have is whether or not to take on unpaid internships, which is often seen as a necessary evil. Just under a year ago, the European Youth Forum filed a legal complaint against Belgium for allowing unpaid internships, which it called ‘unfair and discriminatory’. Are you considering any measures to prevent the potential abuse of interns?
Peeters: “Generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with unpaid internships. My son did some as well, actually. But they should be used sparingly. We cannot allow employers to take advantage of young people who want to show their potential. Unpaid internships should be limited in time, and should offer the intern a prospect at an actual job. It is unacceptable for a company to be hopping from intern to intern.”
Are there any specific measures in the pipeline that would offer such guarantees?
Peeters: “This will have to be reviewed in due time. We have to make sure that the use of unpaid interns does not spiral out of control.”
Currently Belgium has the EU’s largest share of unpaid interns – less than one in five interns is paid for his or her work, according to the Youth Forum. Has it already spiralled out of control?
Peeters: “This will have to be reviewed, in due time.”