Day #2 – Briefings Begin (Brussels)
Today was the true start of our Belgium Study Abroad program. Things got underway at the hour of 7am with a wakeup call from our fearless team leader Yasmeen. Surprisingly, everyone in our room was pretty well awake by the time she arrived to give us the ‘get the hell’ moving knock. I didn’t get a chance to mention this in my last post, but our professor, Dr. Stephen Brooks wasn’t able to join us on the first day as planned. Due to a mechanical issue, his plane did not take off on Saturday. This forced him to take a much later flight that put him in Brussels by about 2pm this afternoon. Luckily for us, we have a very capable group leader in Yas and made our way through the first day and half without too much trouble.
So, as I was starting to say, today got started early, but comfortably. I still didn’t get near enough sleep, but overall I felt relatively rested and capable of moving my body when I awoke. Our first task was to find our way into Brussels from Leuven by train. We really don’t have enough trains in Canada. The train is kind of the way of life over here. It may be directly related to my childhood obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, but I think that trains are the most exciting mode of transportation. They never get old! We took the 9am train from Leuven into Brussels, then connected to Metro line 1 and headed towards the European Council of Ministers.
After reaching the Council, we were escorted into a pretty neat building with one of the coolest projected display things that I had ever seen. I really don’t know how to describe it, other than to say it was fascinating for someone like me! I’ll try to take a picture or a video of it the next time we go into the building because it’s worth showing you. The point of our visit was clearly not to marvel at the technology, so we continued off to a meeting room where we enjoyed a fantastic introduction to the European Union by Mr. Tobías y Rubio. Mr. Rubio was the perfect first speaker for our group. He seemed genuinely pleased to be speaking to us and gave an extraordinarily open and honest description of the EU and its functions. We commented afterwards that it was incredible to speak to someone in government who was happy to speak to a student group, and was also willing to give his honest opinion on the directives of the EU. He didn’t sugar coat his presentation which gave us a sense of being involved in a meaningful briefing. One of the more interesting aspects of the European Union is the power structure. Without getting too much into the various councils, working groups and organization, it is important to note that there is actually a President of the EU. Each member state has its own leaders and delegations, but officially the EU is governed by its own presidency. In reality, we found that the majority of power rests in the hands of the leaders of each state, its delegates, ambassadors and diplomats. Mr. Rubio stated that the Union currently had less recognizable politicians in its upper positions and that it might add a certain amount of legitimacy to the union if higher profile politicians assumed leadership roles.
After the briefing we went off into Brussels to find lunch. A group of us ended up finding a place to eat in a little market area.
After eating we headed off to meet Dr. Brooks and to attend a briefing at the US Mission to the EU. At the US Mission we were met by an extraordinarily helpful host by the name of Maryse Van Wonterghem. She was very concerned with making our visit the best that it could be and even offered to get us in touch with some of the interns in Brussels that were our age. She said that there might be some events that we could attend together. At the briefing we learned a little bit about the way the American’s manage their relationship with the EU. The policy directives and priorities of each government are often slightly different, but often they are able to reach common ground on many issues. Our group threw some pretty difficult questions at the diplomat giving the briefing. We covered everything from Arizona’s new immigration law to the BP spill, so we definitely made them work!
After finishing at the EU we headed back home to Leuven where Yas and I happily located voltage converters for Belgian plugs. I am slightly poorer than when I left as a result, but it was worth it. Lucky for you, I will be able to stay in constant contact with all y’all over the next two weeks! Well…maybe not quite constant, that could be annoying and excessive, but at least consistent contact.
Feeling energized from my great purchase, I headed into the last briefing of the day with confidence in my ability to stay awake! The final briefing dealt with issues of equality and minority rights in the European Union. It was a very informative session because the presenter knew quite a bit about Canada and was able to relate many of the topics to the Quebec and First Nations issues at home. We talked about how there is not Internationally accepted definition for a minority and how this can be problematic when attempting to address problems from an International law perspective. We also looked at ways to address the issues raised by minority rights and determined that no system has been completely successful as of yet. One of the more interesting problems with recognizing minority rights is that it forces people to self define by what may be a small segment of their identity. For example, a census might ask people to identify as being French or English, but what happens if your mother is French and your father is English? Interesting question, because it would force the individual in this case to chose an identity, one being in the minority and one being in the majority. I don’t have the solution, but it certainly makes you think.
Once the briefing was completed we went out for dinner with Dr. Brooks and the group. We had a great meal and are now getting ready to pack it in for the night. I’m going to try and post some pictures each night as well, so keep an eye out for those as well!