Internships abroad are possibly amongst the most valuable working experiences for young students or graduates. You not only show that you are willing to work, but also that you are capable of living independently in a foreign country. As you are probably interested in international relations, why not go on an internship at an embassy of your country? From the 8th of October to the 23rd of December 2015, I myself did an internship at the Belgian embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. Based on this experience, I will detail the importance of embassies, what working at one is like and how to get an internship. (Featured Image © Wikimedia Commons)
Note: this article focusses on the experience at a Belgian embassy, although citizens of certain European countries may apply to these as well.
Belgian Diplomacy and the Role of Embassies
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belgium takes a three pronged approach to international relations: multilateral (UN, OSCE, etc.), European and bilateral. While the first two require a mission or representation to a specific body, bilateral relations are usually maintained by embassies in specific countries. The embassy generally fulfils the following tasks1 in a foreign country:
- Representing their own country abroad;
- Protecting the interests of their own country and its nationals;
- Conducting negotiations with the foreign government;
- Reporting on the conditions and developments abroad;
- Promoting friendly relations with the foreign government;
- Developing economic, cultural and other kind of ties with the foreign government.
Depending on the country, different and more complex structures may apply for varying reasons. On political grounds, the Belgian embassy in Israel is based in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem. As a strong supporter of a mutually agreed upon solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Belgium believes that Jerusalem should become the shared capital of both parties. This closely aligns with the European Union’s position. Belgium therefore refuses to establish its embassy for Israel in Jerusalem until a solution to the conflict is found.
Due to a complex historical evolution, Belgium does have a so-called consulate-general in Jerusalem. This office represents Belgium in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1993, it also serves as the representation with the Palestinian Authority. It provides the same services as an embassy, with the added responsibility of providing development aid. The main difference is that a consul-general, contrary to an ambassador, does not represent the head of state vis-à-vis another head of state. This would be impossible in Jerusalem, as Belgium currently does not recognise Palestine as a state.
Belgium also has honorary consulates in both Haifa and Eilat. These are manned by Israeli nationals with a strong affiliation to Belgium and serve two purposes. Bringing Belgium closer to its nationals in far away places, such as Eilat, and ensuring its presence in these two economically important cities.
Working and Interning at a Belgian Embassy
But how does an embassy work in practice? In Tel Aviv, the embassy is headed by an ambassador who overviews all sections. It is a small embassy of about twenty people, including Belgian and Israeli nationals. The Counsellor of Political and Economic Affairs works directly for the ambassador and is responsible for politics, diplomacy, economy, and even military or human rights. The economic section is particularly complex, as Belgium has split foreign economic affairs along federal lines. As a consequence, this section is rather large and also has a Flemish and a joint Brussels–Walloon office.
The Consul also works for the ambassador and is in charge of cultural, consular and practical affairs such as embassy management and finance. Consular affairs need special mentioning: the provision of passports and visas is among the most complex and time-consuming tasks of any embassy. Taken together, the embassy in Tel Aviv or those elsewhere are constantly bristling with activity.
As an intern, I started playing my part in this team from the very first day of work. My tasks were diverse and did not include things that horrify aspiring interns, such as making coffee or copying files. Instead, I was assigned to work for the Counsellor of Political and Economic Affairs because of my personal focus on Middle East politics and security.
My day usually started with reading up on news and developments in Israel and the broader region. My main tasks were threefold. For one, I was given different research tasks regarding the bilateral relations between Israel and Belgium. Secondly, I helped plan the visit of Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders, although this visit was called off at the last moment. I did, however, have the chance to meet Secretary of State for Foreign Trade Pieter De Crem in October. Thirdly, I attended a lot of events and activities. These included, for example, EU meetings on the policies towards Israel, a conference on LGBTI rights at the American Residence and a Knesset meeting about the financial situation of the Arab minority. Needless to say that I learnt a lot at these events and managed to do a fair share of networking in the process.
I actually felt like I was making a difference and that my own input was particularly appreciated.
Variety was key to my job and it became even more so with the additional tasks I fulfilled from time to time. In light of the December trade mission, for example, I aided the economic section in setting up contacts between Belgian and Israeli companies. I actually felt like I was making a difference and that my own input was particularly appreciated. Rather than submit to a limiting intern-boss hierarchy, I felt like I was working with colleagues.
I made a real contribution to the diplomatic mission and gained valuable insights about Belgian diplomacy and Israeli politics and society. While this may vary according to the embassy, it should not surprise that I would summarise my time at the embassy in Tel Aviv as unforgettable.
How to Apply
Getting your hands on a similar experience is not as difficult as it may seem. First, however, you should look at the general guidelines published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most are self-evident, but two requirements stand out. First of all, anyone from the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland is allowed to apply for an internship. This means that non-Belgian nationals can also apply, although I would advise thorough knowledge of Dutch or French and decent knowledge of the other language. All documents are written in these languages and the majority of conversations are in Dutch or French as well.
The second prerequisite is the most important to consider: the internship is unpaid. You do not receive a wage and housing, transportation or other costs of living are not reimbursed. There are no subsidy programs either. Whether this experience is worth the investment is a very personal decision. Whatever you decide, make sure to inform yourself properly. Costs may vary greatly per country, so ask for more information from the embassy or anyone you know that lives there. Websites that compare the cost of living may be helpful, but caution is required as these are not always accurate.
Whether this experience is worth the investment is a very personal decision. Whatever you decide, make sure to inform yourself properly.
After some consideration, I decided that it would be worth investing in this experience. I did decide to apply for an internship of just three months. Although I later learnt that a six month internship is more common and possibly more interesting, you should be realistic as to what you are financially capable of. Rest assured that the embassy staff is aware of this problem and is very likely to understand your decision in this regard. Evidently, it is up to the Belgian government to change this unfair policy.
Your next decision would be what embassy you would like to apply to. You can scroll through the list of Belgian embassies and send an e-mail with your application to the relevant ambassador. I would advise you to pick an embassy in a country or region in which you have an educational specialisation or an incredible interest. This will significantly increase your chances of being accepted.
It is an open application, meaning that you do not have to run through a predefined process. Send a letter of motivation along with your resume, requesting whether there is an internship position available. You can suggest a section you would like to work in, although I would advise against this. Working at an embassy is about more than, say, economic or political activities. Especially if you dream of becoming an ambassador one day, you will have to understand all sections of an embassy.2 On that same account, just ask the ambassador if you would like to learn more about a certain section while on your internship!
To further ensure that there is a vacant position, be sure to apply six months or even a year prior to your preferred starting date. Normally, the ambassador or his secretary should reply and inform you of vacancies and whether you are accepted. When I was provisionally accepted for the Embassy in Tel Aviv by the Counsellor of Political and Economic Affairs, he requested to have a phone interview. It was a rather informal conversation and nothing to worry about if you are genuinely interested in an internship. Afterwards, upon acceptation, the embassy will give you further information about visa requirements and other such practical details. A final word of advice: do not underestimate the search for a place to stay and other such practicalities!
With this information, you should be ready to send your own application to your favoured embassy. If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to ask them in a comment or e-mail. Did you go on an internship at an embassy, Belgian or otherwise? Feel free to share us your own story!