This year I had the pleasure of accompanying the second year on a trip to Brussels – a timely location indeed. The referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU was in the forefront of our minds as we headed out of the north gate car park on our way to the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras station.
Questions surrounding governance, democracy, multiculturalism, migration, and identity had been circulating in the media for many months prior to our trip. The theme of the trip, “Borders and Belonging: Diversity and Community in Europe”, drew from across a range of social, economic, political and cultural issues central to debates about Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe. Brussels, as the seat key political institutions governing the EU, and a diverse and rich cultural city provided an ideal setting for thinking about these matters and the debates being so passionately engaged with by the British public.
Some of the ‘big questions’ which framed our visit included: What does it mean to have a European identity and belong to a European community? What is the role of the EU in making societies stronger? Is this project a ‘failure’; a ‘success’; or one in need of ‘reform’? What effect do decision making bodies of the EU have on creating a European identity or community?
We were given plenty of opportunities to consider these complex questions and the range of perspectives which necessarily inform available answers.
We first visited the European Commission where we learned about a range of responsibilities the Commission is tasked with including proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. This was followed by a general presentation on the EU foreign and security policy. From these presentations we began to gain some insights into the complex and multifaceted nature of EU institutions and decision making processes. As a starting point for our exploration of the EU the visit provided us with a lot to consider.
Since the sun was shining we enjoyed a moment of relaxation (with ice cream for some) in the beautiful Parc du Cinquantenaire before heading to the Grand Mosque, Islamic and Cultural Centre. Given it was the first day of Ramadan the Mosque was bustling with preparations for the meal that would take place that evening at sunset. As a key religious institution in Brussels the Mosque represents an important site of everyday life for the citizens of Brussel and our visit, again, helped us to understand the complexity of cultural identity in a European community that is multicultural and diverse.
On the second day our activities focused on getting to grips with key EU institutions despite their inherent complexity! We first called on the European Economic and Social Committee and enjoyed a very lively and engaging presentation on the role the EESC plays in strengthening the democratic legitimacy and effectiveness of the European Union by enabling civil society organisations from the Member States to express their views at European level. This was followed by a thought provoking discussion on Britain’s decision to leave or remain in the EU and the role the younger generation must play in making this decision about the future. Again, we were reminded of the challenging issues constituting the theme of our trip and in particular, what it means to practice active citizenship in a globalised world. Following the presentation we were invited to enjoy the views of the Parliament from the terrace.
In the afternoon we accepted the challenge of playing the role an MEP in the EU Parlamentarium simulation – a scenario in which we were invited to ‘become a “near-perfect” politician’. At times a bit frantic and stressful, the role-play helped us to understand the pressures involved in making policy decisions when reaching consensus is an imperative. At the conclusion we were pleased to have reached agreement despite our differences resulting in the creation of some sound policies in response to a ‘water solidarity directive’ and the ‘personal identification directive’! From participating in this scenario we appreciated the range of skills MEPS must exercise in order to collectively tackle common problems faced by the member states.
In between the rigors of learning about the role of the EU and reflecting on Britain’s future we took advantage of all that Brussels has to offer culturally including the wide range of museums and cultural institutions; opportunities to sample the cuisine (think Belgian chocolate/frites/beer) and free time to explore the city’s many attractions. The final night was celebrated by a wonderful meal at Chez Leon where mussels and frites were consumed enthusiastically while the conversations flowed!
Heading back home we reflected on what had been achieved: a greater awareness of debates surrounding culture and identity; an enhanced understanding of governance structures and policy making; and the opportunity to strengthen the friendships which are at the heart of the University of Birmingham Liberal Arts and Sciences community.