Worlds Collide

A round of applause please…I am now officially back on correct blogging schedule. I started writing this draft at about 4:10pm your time (on Friday) which amounts to about 25 minutes after I posted details about Thursday’s activities. I got distracted in the middle of writing this post and have ended up holding this one back until now. I guess it’s better that I don’t clutter up your lives with more news from Belgium anyway. Also, I think I stand a better chance of you reading all of these posts if I space them out a little bit!

Today was a ‘back to normal’ day for us. After the festivities of the last two days it felt good to get back into Brussels. This was also an exciting day because I broke out the portfolio that I purchased at the Belgian Parliament. A couple of us picked these great leather portfolio’s up for just 15 euros, so until I lose it I am pretty excited about this purchase. I know that you’re all thinking that I’m a huge loser right now, but come on, who wouldn’t want a portfolio from the Belgian Parliament? Forgive the giant camera flash in the middle of the picture…

Our first meeting of the day was back at the building where we met Mr. Sagaga (the journalist) earlier in the week. This time we went to the European Policy Centre to be briefed on the nature of the relationship between Turkey and the EU. The discussion began with a fairly specific look at the Turkish case and its growing importance in Middle Eastern and European politics. Turkey plays an interesting role as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. This capacity has been tested in recent months with growing tensions over the Gaza flotilla. Turkey has made great strides in recent years in terms of implementing pro-western philosophies such as democracy and rule of law. It still has far to go in other areas, but the progress it has made is fairly overwhelming. Take a moment to research Turkey and you will discover that it is not the backwards, antiquated country you may think it is. From the Turkish issue we drifted all over the map. We covered topics ranging from the perception of Canada in the EU and the Middle East to the integration of Islam into mainstream European culture. The two policy analysts, Shada Islam and Amanda Paul, that addressed our group were extremely knowledgeable, interesting and willing to speak to us. You might recognize Shada Islam because of her extensive background in journalism. We are fairly certain that she has done some freelance reporting for CTV and she has definitely been a major player in the European and Asian media for many years. It’s funny, I’ve noticed that the European analysts and officials that we have spoken to have been by far the most open and interested in our visit to Brussels. On the whole they seem absolutely thrilled that we are taking an interest in the EU and their issues and seem willing to go above and beyond to give us their time. There is also an inherent honesty and introspective criticism of Europe that I notice in these people. They are for the most part aware of their deficiencies as a society and admit them freely and readily. It is a humility that we in North America could learn much about. Even our friends at the Canadian embassy were incapable of straying from the ‘party line’. Maybe it’s just because I despise Stephen Harper, but I could definitely feel the Conservative Party cloak of secrecy being drawn around the Canadian presentation at the mission. This is probably just a trick of my imagination, but I would say that out of any of the delegations we have met with so far, the Canadian one was the most protective of its positions on certain issues. I have a sense that Canada is insecure in its existence on the world stage and feels as though everyone is looking to take shots at it. In reality I think that we are quite well respected and our civil servants need to be given the freedom to speak for themselves. Sadly, I can’t imagine that happening with our current Prime Minister…Anyway, I should stop now before I ruin any chance of a successful political career…Just know that I think the Canadians are kind of like the kid who never puts his/her hand in the cookie jar. They don’t reach for the cookies because they are afraid that someone is going to yell at them for taking one. They might even have permission built up from years of not taking cookies yet,  they still look over their shoulder to make sure that no one accuses them of doing something wrong. Maybe if we just took a cookie once and a while we would be able to confirm Canada’s value to ourselves.

Our time with Amanda and Shada had gotten all of us into a pretty enthusiastic political mindset, so I think that it took some of our group a little while to re-adjust to our next session. The next meeting was with two members of the Open Society Institute (oh, and I should also mention that the Open Society Institute is the brainchild of notable billionaire and philanthropist George Soros) who were working specifically on the case of Roma rights in the EU. The Roma are what we might typically refer to as ‘gypsies’ and are the most marginalized minority in Europe. The Roma are systematically discriminated against throughout Europe. It is an over simplification to suggest that their experience is the same as the First Nations peoples in Canada, but in a sense they have much the same experience. The Roma are often segregated into small, poverty stricken communities across Europe. Communities do not have proper sewage, water treatment or housing. There are also segregated ‘Roma only’ school across the EU where Roma students receive inconsistent levels of education. As I listened to the two speakers discuss their experiences as Roma I found two distinct experiences in my life colliding. My time up North last year suddenly became very much a part of my European experience this year. It was interesting because the Roma rights movement is relatively new and relatively underdeveloped. They are just beginning to push for some of the things that First Nations peoples in Canada have been asking for for years. If you click the following link you will be taken to a short youtube clip produced by the Romani movement that features one of our presenters, Violeta as a success story from the Roma community  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mI_RWXwbFqI. This session was extremely interesting and a definite change of pace for our relatively academic group. The spectrum of reactions to this talk was wide. Some people found it to be too ’emotional’ and not ‘academic enough’ while others found the emotion and personal nature of the talk to be inspiring. I was in the inspiring camp, but also felt a certain amount of frustration because the EU, much like our own government shows little political will to concretely help the groups like the Roma and the First Nations Peoples. On the positive side, I felt like there were a number of areas where collaboration between the Roma and First Nations could occur and that it might be a really interesting connection for the two groups. Both have difficulty consolidating their many different voices into one voice, but perhaps together they could be a strong minority force on the world stage. I think that this exposure to the Roma experience really gave us a window into a new and developing movement for rights. It will be interesting to see how the Roma movement develops and whether it follows a similar path to other minority groups around the world.

After returning to the Irish College I spent a little time catching up on my blog and grabbed a nice light dinner. I had some great Belgian produced cheese (although its origins are in Lille, France) called Mimolette and a baguette. Later that evening we headed for a drink in the square. It wasn’t the best night to show off the Leuven square atmosphere, so I will try to take some pictures another night.

Today is kind of a relaxing day. There is an open air market in Leuven today as well as a celebration of the longest day of the year. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it yet, but it’s light outside until about 10:45pm. Anyway, I’m going to stop writing and head out for another run. We’re going on a walk through Grand Benguinage in Leuven with Dr. Brooks this afternoon at 3pm. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and should be relatively interesting. I will remember my camera, I promise. It also occurs to me that I haven’t really given you any information on Leuven itself. Click on the wikipedia link here and do a google search of the name and I’m sure that you will come across a bit of useful information.

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