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36 Hours in Brussels

Michaela at the EU Parliament in Brussels

First on the itinerary was a day at the Parlamentarium, the visitors center of the European Parliament. Opened in 2011, the Parlamentarium is a free exhibition that explains the history of the European Union and the functions of the fourteen European Union institutions, through a multimedia experience accessible in all of the official EU languages. Since the trip was designed to be an in-depth look into the EU institutions, it was only fitting that the group participated in the Parlamentarium’s famous “role-play” game. Students were assigned political parties to represent while they worked together trying to compromise to find solutions to issues surrounding microchip implantation and water solidarity. The interactive experience let students, or “members of parliament,” speak with their constituents, political opponents, and even the press, before they convened for committee hearings and voting. The two hour role-play gave students the kind of hands-on experience that provided an intimate understanding of the EU legislative process, as well as a general understanding of legislative bodies in parliamentary systems. For example, while playing the game, students learned how coalition-building is a necessary part of the legislative process in the EU, specifically in passing legislature and advancing policy.

Upon completing our parliamentary role-play, with our media guides in-hand and headphones in-ear, we embarked on an interactive journey to understand the EU in the Parlamentarium’s museum, learning about the EU’s creation through a chronology of conflict/war-era photographs from each member state, to a 360-degree movie on the importance of European collaboration, and even a touchscreen wall with the biographies of each member of parliament. It was both a crash course on the material we had studied and material we had yet to learn: A perfect way to begin the trip.

On the second day of the trip, students visited the Council of the European Union, the United States Mission to the EU, and finally, the European Commission. Not to be confused with the European Commission, the Council of the European Union or the Council, is the EU institution in which the governments of EU member states negotiate and adopt laws and policies as well as develop foreign and security policy. Beginning the day at the Council of the European Union, the students headed to a grand conference room. Students were briefed on the history and functions of the Council, before moving into a talk about transatlantic relations by Mr. Piotr Krygiel, particularly about trade between the United States and the European Union. In the talk it was revealed that the United States has immense interest in gaining access to EU agricultural markets in order to sell American products such as beef. Also mentioned, was how American and European trade is in a strained position as the EU scrambles to figure out how to address border conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The issue of the Irish “Backstop” as it is called, in which the UK’s withdrawal from the EU raises concerns about a possible conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland, is equally a concern for trade. In the event that an open border remains, unregulated or unwanted goods from abroad might easily find their way into the EU. That interest, as explained by Mr. Krygiel, has remained just an interest, as the EU does not plan to give the U.S. such access.

In a second talk, Mr. Pierre Saglier briefed students on Brexit and the future of the EU and the United Kingdom if Article 50, the policy within the Treaty on European Union that allows for any member state to withdraw from the Union, is triggered. Mr. Saglier, a political administrator on the Special Task Force on the UK, gave students an interesting perspective on Brexit, as someone on the “inside.” Saglier was able to provide examples of how many areas may be impacted by Brexit, such as changes in the employment status of many professionals working for the United Kingdom within the EU, and even how Brexit had already affected important industries such as automobile manufacturing, as many automobile companies originally based in the UK have decided to temporarily shut down, as in the case of Jaguar Land Rover, in preparation for the disruption caused by Brexit.

Following the morning at the Council, students walked to the US Mission to the EU to discuss the relationship between the United States and the European Union. It was an opportunity to ask questions related to the United States and the EU that students had been saving, such as what the future of trade may be between the United States and the EU, namely in the face of Brexit and the issue of the “Irish Backstop,” a coincidental reexamination of the morning’s discussion. The day’s visits concluded with two lectures at the European Commission, the first about the European Union’s involvement with cultural productions, and the second about the process of becoming an EU member state. In the first session, we learned about the influence of the European Union in European cinema, particularly with regards to funding. In Brussels even, local talent was employed to create videos showcasing the diversity and appeal of the city, in an effort to encourage tourism. It was yet another moment in the day where comparison between the United States and the EU could be drawn, as artistry here could be state-sponsored, whereas in the United States it often arises from individual initiative and private funding.

In our final session, we learned in detail how complex the process of becoming an EU member state is. Examining the history of member states, students saw how the quest for membership into such a unified system is highly individualized, with each country having to meet a set of criteria known as The Copenhagen Criteria, named after the 1993 European Council conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark. The criteria defining the eligibility of a country included having institutions that preserve democracy, a solid human rights record, a functioning market economy, and accepting other obligations of being an EU member state. We also observed the cases of countries currently in the process of gaining candidacy, the step prior to membership in which countries are simply considered, such as Turkey and a number of Balkan states.

We finished our long and exciting day with group pictures in front of the EU flags, and made our way back to our hotel for a special dinner with guests Alessandro El Khoury, Legal and Policy Officer, Data Protection Supervisor at the Directorate-General for Health & Food Safety and Miriam Dopo, Senior Activist for the NGO Friends of the Earth. Similar to a Round Robin or a kind of educational speed dating, students and speakers alike moved from table to table to discuss their findings from the trip, from newfound understandings of coalition-building to where they got the best Belgian waffles, as well as to discuss government policy and issues within the EU with the guest speakers. While one table discussed activism in the EU, another discussed the presence of foreign pharmaceuticals in the EU. The conversation flowed as students poured over their hearty meals, and before we knew it, dinner was reaching its end and it was time for a final exploration of the city.

The retreat was an exciting experience from beginning to end, from travelling to meeting officials and experiencing all that Brussels had to offer. As the students made their way from the city to the airport, I reflected on the days that had passed. Content with all that I had seen and learned, and optimistic that maybe the perks of the EU and Brussels, like the interactiveness shown by the Parlamentarium, and the easy international travel, might one day be available in Washington, D.C. and the United States as well.