Monday, February 8, 2016

Experiencing the Work of the EU in Brussels: Report from the Illinois EU Center Delegation

By Lucinda Morgan, Michele Spalding, and Matthew Krause

As a member of a four-person delegation sponsored by the EU Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we greatly appreciated the opportunity to first-hand learn about the history, operations, and programming of the European Union in Brussels. We were a part of a group of approximately forty educators and university students, organized by the EU Center of Excellence at the University of North Carolina. From June 21-26, 2015, we visited EU offices and attended lectures given by various EU representatives. In addition to the intended purpose of the study tour, we were in Brussels during a very interesting time, as the EU was deciding the future of Greece’s membership due to its economic situation, so we experienced an increased amount of security and media coverage during our visits to various divisions around Brussels.

Our first official visit was to the EU Commission, where we learned about its role and functions. We learned about the origins of the EU with Robert Schuman’s 1950 speech, in which he expressed the goal of making “war but physically impossible” in the aftermath of World War II. His words quickly came to fruition, as within a year, the six founding members of the EU signed their founding ECSC Treaty, thus establishing the Commission, Parliament, Council of Ministers, and the Court of Justice. Emphasizing the importance of the EU in the world today, we learned that though the EU is only 7% of the world’s population, it represents 25% of the world’s GDP, and provides 50% of the social welfare to developing nations. In terms of voter participation, it was interesting to learn that over 90% of people vote in Belgium (they are actually fined if they do not vote), and less than 20% vote in Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. We also discussed how since 2008, Greece’s economy had contracted by 25% since 2008, and that the only other time that such a drastic decrease has occurred was with the post-Soviet countries.

Throughout the duration of the week, we also visited a school for the children of EU diplomats and staff, and also the Education, Audiovisual, and Cultural Executive Agency, which funds more than 4,000 educational projects a years. It was interesting to learn that though Finland is often in the global spotlight for its educational achievements, Estonia also has scores at a very high level on international assessments. Though the EU creates policies regarding the environment, agriculture, and economics, it was interesting to learn that the EU Commission does not have an overall general education policy, and that some countries have more than one national education system, such as Belgium, which has three distinctively different systems.

We also had the opportunity to visit the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is the foreign and security policy service, and performs many of the same duties as the State Department in the USA. Founded by the Lisbon Treaty in 2011, the EEAS works in close cooperation with diplomatic services of member states in order to enhance the EU’s “common message” regarding defense and security, both bilaterally and globally. The EEAS has 139 Delegation Offices around the world, and coordinates trade, developmental aid, humanitarian assistance, and enlargement on behalf of the EU. We also met with the EEAS International Relations Officer for the US and Canada, and learned more about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and also the EU-US Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement that was established in 1998.

Beyond our visits to EU offices and agencies, we also experienced local culture and historic sites, such as visits to the Atomium (a unit cell of an iron cell 165 billion times that was the iconic building of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels—it looks like a structure from The Jetson’s cartoon) and Matonge Quarter (the Congolese neighborhood in Brussels, as The Democratic Republic of the Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960; there are over 100,000 Africans living in Brussels which is about 10% of the city’s population). We also very much enjoyed the outdoor cafes located near the Grand Place-Grote Market, where we devoured pots of fresh mussels and many varieties of cheese and Belgium chocolate. We are very grateful to the EU Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for sponsoring my participation in the study tour, as well as the EU Center at the University of North Carolina for coordinating and organizing this amazing experience. It was also enriching to interact with the other participants from the other EU Centers of Excellence in the USA, as we continue to stay connected to them beyond our time in Brussels through various social media platforms.

Lucinda Morgan is a PhD student in the Educational Organization, Leadership, and Policy Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the past six years, she has been the Coordinator for the Transatlantic Educators Dialogue (TED) for the EU Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. TED connects educators in Europe and the United States online so that they can share about their experiences teaching in the classroom and how various social issues impact their teaching and their students. For more information about TED, please see: http://europe.illinois.edu/ted/

Michele Spalding is the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs for Health Professions at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois.

Matthew Krause is a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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