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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - When Alex Godson accepted his first unpaid internship in Brussels after receiving a master's degree in international relations from the University of Manchester, he believed a full-time position was just a few months away.
But Godson bounced from one low-paid traineeship to another for three years before finally landing a proper job in May at the European Movement International, a Brussels-based group that lobbies for a federal Europe.
He is just one of the thousands of young graduates who toil on the Brussels treadmill without job security, benefits or sometimes even a salary under the noses of European Union leaders meeting this week to declare war on youth unemployment.
"When you're just rolling from one unpaid traineeship to another, you're not on a path to anywhere," said Godson, who had to rely on his parents for money. "There's always that intern in the office, and you're just the person holding that position at the moment."
EU leaders have pledged to ensure that every young European who is out of work will be offered a proper job, training or an apprenticeship within four months. They will announce more money to back that drive on Friday.
But if they just look around them, they will see plenty of unpaid or underpaid youth slaving away in Europe's engine room.
Often dependent on grants or donations that shrink when the economy turns down, the many non-governmental organizations and think-tanks in Brussels have become increasingly reliant on short-term hires.
Graduates trying to build a CV make a good fit - young, ambitious and willing to put in long hours at very low pay.
The European Commission offers some 1,400 sought-after five-month traineeships a year with a 1,074 euros monthly salary that is top tier, according to Sophia Kabir, a representative for the networking organization Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
This so-called "stage", French for work experience, is often the first rung on an EU career ladder. Yet the pay is well below the Belgian minimum wage requirement of 1,500 euros per month. Many other advertised positions offer monthly stipends of a few hundred euros and sometimes nothing at all.
Valentina Mat, with a master's degree in international politics from the University of London, received just eight euros a day in food allowance when she worked for a Brussels-based international development organization for a year.
"Even in the offices of some members of the parliament there are trainees employed who are paid very little or nothing at all," Franz Obermayr, an Austrian member of the European Parliament, complained in a letter to the legislature's president, Martin Schulz.
Traineeships are supposed to provide training, but the line between that and actual employment is often blurred.
Caritas Europa, an umbrella organization for Roman Catholic charities that champions social justice, advertises three-month unpaid advocacy internships for which candidates are required to have a bachelor's or master's degree in law or politics, fluency in English and French, reporting skills, "excellent" IT skills and prior experience working in or with EU institutions - a list arguably fit for a full-time employee.
Peter Verhaege, the group's migration officer, told Reuters that while resources are thin, giving young people experience is "the least we can do."
Not everyone agrees.
"It's modern slavery," Kabir said. "People in my generation are struggling to understand their market value."
Reporting By Anders Melin; Editing by Paul Taylor