One of the perks of my role as Dean is that I was in a position to develop and participate in our new annual trip for second year Liberal Arts and Sciences students, taking the group to the heart of Europe: Brussels.
This built on their first and second year core modules, studying the nature of modernity and crises facing humanity, and helped us all as a group to think hard about recent and forthcoming flash-points relating to European and UK politics.
We are fortunate at the University of Birmingham to have close research and development ties with continental Europe, and the University has an office in Brussels giving us a base for engaging with policy developments across the Union. To get our second years in the mood, the big questions we posed for the trip were:
- When you hear “Brussels”, what does it represent? Does this change over the course of the trip?
- What in Brussels’ historic relationship to European power-dynamics might have led to its primacy in the EU? This might touch on politics but also, think about Brussels and the development of the Modern in art and architecture.
- What characterises contemporary Brussels? How does it differ from, or seem similar to, other capitals?
- To what extent has the city been swallowed by its EU role?
- What can “European” signify, and how well does Brussels as a lived city and living community fit in with those implications?
- How much is homogeneity OR multiculturalism a defining feature of perceptions of the EU?
- What is your understanding of decision/policy making processes in the EU? How might you propose to enhance them? What would be a better organisational executive structure?
A challenging set of discussion points, but they did keep reverberating right through our three-day visit.
The early start was bracing (a coach from Birmingham at 7am), but by the time we were all gathered at International Departures in London’s St. Pancras Station, there was a fantastic buzz. The energy was increased by our guest academic Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, an expert in policy, faith, and communities.
Brussels has a compact centre, and our hotel was a pleasant walk from the Gare du Midi. The first evening was exploratory, and once we had settled in, the students somehow found a new lease of life and decided to explore (as students later put it: ‘It was really interesting to see other parts of Brussels outside the standard tourist hot spots’, and ‘Having already been struck by the apparent beauty and diversity of the city, we had the chance to delve deeper’).
We started early the next morning, with a coach-tour introducing the role of socialism and political change in the development of the Art Nouveau movement (students commented: ‘I really enjoyed the Art Nouveau Bus tour…thanks to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide, the tour was both engaging and informative’, and ‘learning that the fundamentals behind designing buildings can be synonymous with the core principles in a culture to reflect the important values of learning, community and appreciation of beauty, was inspiring’). Visits to key buildings included Schaerbeek School No.1, where our guide spoke compellingly about the interplay between social modelling and educational values underpinning some of the most interesting architectural projects.
The afternoon took us back out into the heart of old Brussels, where over the course of two-hours, our walking-tour guide introduced us to the backstory by way of which Brussels continued to punch above its weight in shaping the forces of change long before European union was dreamed of. One student commented, ‘every building was different from the next and had a unique character/story behind it. There wasn’t just one amazing piece of architecture, but many.’
We time-travelled from the medieval core of the early city, right through to the urban planning revolution of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century urban quarters, taking in history, art, and politics en route.
Jagbir and I hosted a dinner for the students that evening, in a charming Brussels restaurant where moules (mussels) were just one menu highlight. It was wonderful, after an action-packed year, to spend some time just talking to the students and reflecting on our collective achievements. Plus, the chocolate pudding was outstanding (and I did take the opportunity to do some chocolate-shopping; well, it would have been a waste not to!).
Tuesday morning saw us negotiate the Brussels metro in order to get to our first EU appointment, a presentation and Q&A at the Commission.
Shepherding the group through the unexpected intricacies of the metro was more bracing than I had imagined, but we made it on time and with good humour intact. Our guide, Simon Pascoe, was from the civil service team working day-to-day with the College of Commissioners to transform their work into directives ready for the EU Parliament and Council. It was fascinating to gain insight into the processes, the stress points, the trade-offs, the enthusiasm, and the difficulties that make up the Commission’s work. Simon stressed just how crucial the continuous feed-through of new minds and new ideas is, and encouraged the students to consider applying for Commission internships.
We left with many new questions (always a good sign).
The EU Parliament runs a challenging, frustrating (in a productive way), illuminating role-playing exercise, at the Parlamentarium. We arrived for 2pm, and after 2.5 hours of mock politicking our new political factions had managed to agree the progress of one directive. I managed only to shout once, and one student was so compelling in speaking for his party’s position that two students voted across party lines (hence the shouting). Jagbir’s take on this is lovely: ‘when having to negotiate on the legislation passions ran high, and we all learnt that this involved a lot of horse-trading; everyone entered into this negotiation with dynamism and enthusiasm, and in some instances when students were defending their positions you could see young MEPs in the making’.
Personally, I was exhilarated (ok, exhausted) by the high-pressure tempo of the exercise, dealing with lobbyists, managing a party office and phone-line, being called upon to react when a major natural disaster struck, having to stand (literally) under the spotlight during briefings… As one student commented, ‘the Parlamentarium also helped to reinforce the information we were given during the EU commission trip the same morning. It was really fun and interactive!’
Jagbir summed the role-play up eloquently: ‘Students received two directives from the Commission to move through the process and liaise with the Council. All were then divided into four different parties, with defined manifestos. Using their manifestos they had to negotiate their position with the other parties, in order to reach an agreement. Through this process they learnt the complicated nature of legislation, lobbying and political positions. For example through the various lobbying videos they learnt the importance of listening to the viewpoints of the people for and against legislations and learn and understand peoples’ concerns. What was clear to the academics was that they were utilizing a number of skills needed to make learned information useful in the real world: self-awareness, problem solving, communication, initiative and teamwork’.
We all agreed that we wanted to visit the EU history exhibition, which told the story of European union through an intriguing and unexpected medium — photos from significant moments in European history which taken collectively encouraged viewers to reflect on how and why union was the right solution. The ideological takeaway was for the most part delivered with subtlety and panache, and although over the course of the day there were striking moments of media geared to just one (positive) EU message, visitors were continually challenged to think hard about the pros and cons.
Our last night’s dinner was a little more subdued — everyone was tired. But the students took the chance to explore Brussels’ nightlife when Jagbir and I headed back to the hotel. Counting them all back onto the Eurostar on Day 3 made me feel very proud of the intellectual effort they had put in, the energy they had expended, and the real sense of drawing intellectual and academic strands together at the close of a busy year. As one student summed up: ‘Everywhere we looked something interesting was waiting, it really made me think how we don’t pay enough attention to things in daily life and I really want to be more aware of simple things’.
When I asked Jagbir to reflect on the trip, her comments were illuminating: ‘I was particularly impressed with how the students engaged with our visit to the EU parliament and the role play activity. That activity showcased and made real the role of MEPs in the European Parliament, and until this point most of our students had only read or heard about what MEPs do. This activity allowed them to experience first-hand how intense and complex this position is and the immense responsibility attached to it…this visit highlighted for the students, but also the academics, the intersection between politics at the EU level and our daily life in our respective countries’.
Jagbir’s expertise, the students’ enthusiasm, and my interest in getting everyone thinking about how transdisciplinarity can deliver really original insights, mean that we are now planning some provocative events addressing the UK in Europe, the EU referendum, and other big world events for 2016 and 2017. I expect we’ll blog about that over the coming months!