EU in Focus: Brussels 

In conjunction with the La Pietra Dialogues EU in Focus Series, students from NYU Florence joined a working group to research some of the EU's most important current political issues. This year's working group focused on two policy areas: immigration and Brexit.  Our students then joined a group from NYU Washington D.C. on a trip to Brussels, Belgium, the center of the European Union Institutions in order to develop a deeper understanding of what the legislative process in the European Union is like. 

LPD Writing Intern Michaela Wotorson wrote a reflection on her experience in Brussels in contrast with her experience growing up in Washington D.C. 

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Brussels Day by Day

By Helen Bermudes

Day 1: The EU Parlimentarium  

After a 5 am bus ride and a 9 am flight out of Pisa, NYU Florence students landed in Brussels and immediately went to the Parlimentarium of the European Union. Acting as members of the European Parliament, the working group played a political role-play game in order to fully understand the EU legislative process. The students formed into political parties, gathered data from EU citizens, outlined party platforms, and debated with the other parties in order to pass new laws on the role of micro-chips in national security and sustainable infrastructure as a way to address climate change

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Students in front of the EU Parlamentarium building in Brussels, Belgium.

Consulting with experts, talking to citizens, debating with Parliament members =

compromise! compromise! compromise!

The path to passing a motion in the EU parliament is long and complicated. In order to push forward their party's position in the role-play game, students learned that the most important thing in the EU political process is debate and compromise. 

Day 2: The Council of the EU, US Mission to the EU, and the European Commission 

The front of the European Commission, which students visited first in the morning on the second day. 

Students in one of the official debate rooms at the Council of the European Union where they discussed the Brexit negotiation process. 

NYU Florence student Alexandria Falzarano with an Intern at the Council of the European Union.

Lobby of the Council of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

The second day of our program was fast paced and in depth. We had come a long way from our initial meetings as a group, when many of us had never studied the European Union or it's modern day political issues. The group started with a meeting at the Council of the European Union, in which students -sitting in the very seats of member state representatives- met with two experts currently working at the Council. The first conversation was with Mr Piotr Krygiel, Political Administrator on Transatlantic Relations Working Parties. The second discussion was with Mr Pierre Saglier, a member of the 'Article 50' team on Brexit.

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NYU Florence and NYU Washington DC students at the European Commission with speaker M. Argyrios Mammis.

How does the EU prepare for Brexit? What is the significance of the Irish backstop? What can the EU do to address the rise of nationalism in Europe? What happens to government officials working in the EU who are from Britain? What effect will Brexit have on the reputation and credibility of the EU as a government system?

These are just a few of the pressing questions students asked when seated in the Council of the European Union. We left with a deeper understanding of the unpredictable effects of Brexit, the exhaustion of the topic in political debate, and that the legislators in the council have just as many questions about Brexit as EU citizens do. 

The rest of the afternoon was a blur- filled with event after event, most of which we had to run between just to squeeze anything in. In a way, the chaos of our busy afternoon seemed to be an accurate reflection of the city itself and the way the political ​institutions operated. Even the weather in Brussels was crazy! In the matter of a couple hours, the sun shined, it poured rain, and it even hailed for a while (we were told this is some of the nicest weather in Brussels!)

First stop after lunch: U.S. mission to the EU! We spoke with Mr. Walter Parrs, a United States Public Affairs Officer. The contrast between the message here with the U.S. official and the message from the EU officials really illustrated how these members are truly representatives of government. They do not speak on behalf of their own values, but on the goals of their respective governments. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but proves how important the critical analysis of individual citizens is. 

Next up: EU Commission. We learned about the European Union’s TransAtlantic relations and the process of expansion. These two meetings emphasized that though the EU has strong roots in its role as a single economic market, it is a political system as well. As it grows (and in some cases shrinks), its identity and political relationships change. 

The final event of the day was a more relaxed dinner with two people working in the field in Brussels: Alessandro El Khoury, Legal and Policy Officer, Data Protection Supervisor at Directorate-General Health & Food Safety and Miriam Dopo, Senior Activist for the NGO Friends of the Earth. This was a completely different side of the EU. As activists and lobbyists, these speakers unveiled the importance of individual engagement. It was interesting to hear from people who were thinking critically about the EU's role in the governance of each member state. Before this point in the trip, we had heard from very biased perspectives in favor of the EU. 

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Day 3: Final Reflections

By the end of the trip, the EU in Focus student working group had visited 4 political institutions and spoken with 8 experts working in the political field in only 48 hours. Before this trip I knew very little about the EU. The American government and political system can feel like an isolated bubble. One thing that struck me about Italy and Europe in general is its interconnectedness. From this trip, I see that this results partly from the European Union. It is impossible to predict how long this type of government system will last. It is built on the idea of voluntary membership, compromise, and consensus, and hopefully as it grows and changes it preserves these core elements. 

"Brussels is more than just a city in Belgium; it’s an edifice for justice, global active communication, compromise, and governance. The EU and Focus Group Trip widened my perspective and breadth on the way the Commission, Council, and Parliament interact. I felt that this trip instilled the importance of civic duty, which is something I will take back with me to the United states."

-Alexandria Mae Falzarano