After arriving in Brussels and briefly orientating ourselves in the city centre on the Sunday, on Monday morning we visited the EU commission. As soon as you arrive at the building there are clear efforts to display who is the head of the commission and try to gain support. On the outside of the building there is a large #TeamJuncker and on the walls of the foyer is a large display of the roles Jean-Claude Juncker and the other commissioners have. We were given a talk on the general role that the EU Commission plays as an institution, learning about how it proposes laws, enforces laws, manages budget and represents the EU outside of Europe. Interestingly, the speaker didn’t touch much upon the unelected nature of the 28 Commissioners, something which is a key argument within the Brexit debate.
We also had a talk about the European External Action Service, which serves as the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic corps, essentially representing the EU and its foreign policy outside of Europe. The main insight I took from the talk was how the EU Commission’s overall mission is to try to represent Europe’s interest as a whole, as if it were one nation, and the difficulties that come with this; staying supra-national and neutral, when the ‘interests of Europe’ are really just made up of the interests of all the constituent countries. It has to be said that the talk was a little lacking in useful and interesting information relative to only the common knowledge we had as a group about the EU. However, it was valuable to get the general gist of who the commissioners are and what they do, and just being in and around the building brought to life what you normally hear on the news as “over in Brussels”.
After this, a visit to Brussels largest mosque was made quite brief by the impending preparations for Ramadan, but nonetheless it was a good representation of the diverse ethnicities in Brussels as the political centre of an ethnically diverse Europe.
On Tuesday morning we began with a great talk at the European Economic and Social Committee. The speaker was bright, fun and engaging, and she gave us a clear overview of the work the EESC does as a consultative body to the EU. Essentially the EESC is made of members who represent either Employers, Workers, or Interest Groups, aiming to strengthen European integration, ensure EU policies tie in better with economic, social and civic circumstances on the ground, and promote the development of a more participatory EU which is more in touch with popular opinion. The EESC works by creating formal platforms for groups across civic society to express their views, and by creating official “Opinion” documents which advise the three main bodies of the EU (Commission, Parliament and Courts). They work across several sections, from agriculture and environment to economics and employment. It was really interesting to see how the EU attempts to stay in touch with everyday people and initiate participatory democracy – even though the EESC is only advisory and what they advise doesn’t necessarily have to be used.
After this we had a nice break and a group photo on the terrace overlooking the EU Parliament building – it’s huge!
After lunch we took part in a role-play activity at the EU Parlamentarium. This was another really great exercise which I personally got a lot out of as I’m sure the rest of the group did. We were given the role of MEP’s (Members of European Parliament) and the activity gave us a flavour of what their daily job is like. We were split into four political parties with differing agendas and went through the steps of discussing our position as a party, consulting experts and the public, and then negotiating between parties to try and reach an agreement on the issue of water management and bio-chips. After this we then had to try and also reach a compromise with the EU Council. At times it was frantic and difficult to find an agreement between the Parliament and the Council – probably a very accurate role-play of real life!
The afternoons and evenings were free time spent exploring Brussels. The EU quarter was sleek and modern, which contrasted with the artistic and historic centre of the city. The countless cafes and bars gave the cobbled streets and squares a great vibe. There were also quality museums such as the museum of musical instruments and the comic book museum. Of course the waffles, chocolate and frites were delicious and were sure to be a highlight. Of particular note was the fine Belgian beer, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to try all 3,000 types at Delirium Café…
Overall a great trip of interesting insights into the workings of the EU just weeks before we go to vote on the EU Referendum, and fantastic cultural experiences of a buzzing European capital city – all topped off by a group dinner on the Tuesday evening! Thanks to Ruth and Shelley for a fine trip.