Politics and Policies of the EU: Internship Program in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reflections On Brussels

This program has been a great opportunity, full of learning experiences that took place in the classroom setting, internship setting, and even tours around other parts of Belgium. My internship was a very interesting experience.  It took me a long time to get over how it different it was from my perception of my own academic and professional interests, but I definitely learned a lot from working at the International Disability and Development Consortium. It was like an immersion course in the field of development.  I got to attend meetings and events where speakers included: MEPs, members of various directorates of the European Commission, the UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, development scholars, representatives from civil society organizations, and representatives from UNICEF, the World Bank, and the International Labour Organization. I feel that these experiences have given me a solid foundation for understanding the issues surrounding development and goals of development policy in the European Union. I am very grateful that I got to have these experiences and level of access to actors in the field of development. My internship also gave me clearer insight into the ways that NGOs operate. I observed the IDDC and its member organizations deal with challenges related to project management and cooperation among themselves in terms of establishing common goals.

I really enjoyed the chance to travel during this program. We got to see a lot of Belgium and we did some weekend travelling on our own as well. I wasn’t too crazy about Amsterdam and its overly touristy parts, I was intrigued by a brief trip to Luxembourg where we went to find out what exactly is in Luxembourg, and I fell completely in love with Germany. Berlin is the city that I can’t quite figure out and the place I promise to return to – and hopefully even live in one day. I shed my anti-tourist, jaded New Yorker persona in Germany, abandoning my initial discomfort with the prospect that I would be in a country where I don’t understand the language at all. I was perfectly glad to pose in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and buy people cologne in Cologne (Speaking of touristy things, I was so emotionally moved by the Beethoven Haus in Bonn that I don’t suspect it will be very pretty when I finally make my Austrian Mozart pilgrimage one day. Then again, I have no doubt I’ll be struggling to stifle a conniption fit the next time I unfortunately find myself on 34th Street or in SoHo). 

Riding on the tram and reflecting on the scenery of the route from Montgomery to Ixelles, I came to realize how strange a city Brussels is. On one side of a tram stop sign, I saw a Dutch name, on the other side, a totally different French name. It made me wonder whether there are two (or more) completely different experiences of living in Brussels. A Dutch-speaking person would have a different perspectives and different landmarks than the Francophone world I’ve been somewhat immersed in. Immigrants and other residents of Brussels might also have a different insight into the way this city works. Given my time living here in Brussels and the affectionately termed “Beek” (a.k.a. Wezembeek-Oppem), I don’t understand this place at all.

I can’t definitively say that there is a Bruxellois way of life – even my use of the French adjective somewhat excludes the Dutch and non-Belgian residents of this city. Brussels is an enigma. It’s complicated and it’s confusing. Every time I came back from a weekend in Germany, I felt an increasing sense of discomfort, even distaste, within the maze-like streets of Brussels. There are so many facets of this city – so many neighborhoods that we’ve never explored – and that’s slightly disorienting to me. I don’t feel the desire to come back to Brussels the way I feel the compulsion to go back to Berlin. I’m just left to wonder: if I saw more of Brussels, would I understand it even less?

Monday, June 25, 2012

A General Overview

Ever since I arrived in Brussels on the morning of May 11, I have been both perplexed and fascinated by the city. In other words, I have not been able to get a feel for it and there is something that is going to drive me to come back, a puzzle in my mind if you will. I am not sure whether I like the city or not because I have not gone far outside of EU and tourist Brussels. I therefore feel that I should have seen more of the city outside of the Schuman, Merode and Maalbeek areas. To me, Brussels possesses a distinct and strange feel to it that no other city in Europe or the US that I have visited has. It is quite modern and elegant in some parts, while looking quite unattractive in others, i.e. the area around Gare du Midi (Zuidstation). This is more than likely due to its status as an international city in a divided country. Thus, it is hard to get a feel for what is truly "Bruxellois" or "Belgian" because it is questionable as to whether such an identity has ever existed. Another reason why I have not been able to explore Brussels as much as I would like to is because I, like most in the program, live outside of the city in Wezembeek-Oppem.

Wezembeek-Oppem has pleased me a lot. It has a green, quiet, friendly and suburban feel to it that reminds me of the subdivisions in my small Midwestern hometown. The neighborhood and town look especially nice when the sun is shining. The trees are beautiful when the sun shines on them. My host was also great. He was always patient with me in helping me get to know the area and showing me how to use appliances such as the washing machine correctly. The meals were also good. I found a new favorite dish in Spaghetti Bolognese combined with hot sauce and soy sauce ( a strange combination I know). In short, the scenery in Wezembeek-Oppem and the hospitality of my host made me feel enthused about being in Belgium and adapting to the Belgian way of life.

I have been lucky to have had the experience with my internship that I have had so far. I am interning for Czech MEP Zuzana Roithova in the European Parliament. Ms. Roithova is a member of the European People's Party political group (center-right) and the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee. I have gone to public debates, voting sessions and done research on matters ranging from ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), the Alignment Package, EU-China trade relations and Spain's sovereign debt crisis. There has been a lot of data poured on me over the past six weeks and I believe that I will know how much I learned a few weeks after returning and allowing that data to soak in. As with my host, my supervisors have been patient with me and always take the time to explain things to me so that I can understand them. For that I am grateful. In addition to being surrounded by understanding supervisors, I opine that I have used my time wisely throughout the course of the internship and gotten every thing out of it that I could have. Interning at the EP has made me feel like I am a part of Europe and  has given me the desire to follow what is happening in the EP and EU more.

Living in Europe has allowed me to become a better consumer and feel motivated to take care of things, i.e. the environment and keeping my apartment back home clean. I have had the desire to do things such as buy what i need for a week or so from the supermarket since studying abroad in Germany two years ago. I have therefore become rather inspired by the Green Parties. Their policies are progressive and have the attractiveness of Europe in mind. Concerning my green practices, I take 5 minute showers, only turn on the lights if I am going to use them and unplug my cell phone charger as soon as it is done charging. The environment needs to be protected in American and European cities and no city, town or village should be dirty or neglected.

The above has served as a general overview of how my time in Brussels and Europe has been. I will post my final thoughts on leaving and the final week in a couple of days.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Go Green, All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

Being Green. I remember a time when that meant you had taken one too many rides on the tilt-a-wheel at the local county fair after eating your third funnel cake. Nowadays it’s a state of being to strive for. How times have changed. Someday I look forward to shocking my grandchildren with stories about a time when we threw our plastic bottles away. I can even remember when the county issued us our first recycling bin. It was the attractive color of mustard yellow. However, today the practice of conservation, going ‘green’ and recycling have become almost second nature to many of us.
Before heading out on our gas guzzling, C02 emitting, and ozone destroying 7 hour transatlantic flight we were asked as part of the program to look for ways in which we could reduce our carbon footprint during the program as well as look for ‘green’ practices used in Europe that perhaps are not used in the States. I was immediately ready to take a row boat across the Atlantic, but as happens with many green initiatives, it was simply not time or cost effective, and so it was decided that we would take the fossil fuel burning, multi-ton aircraft instead. Darned if convenience doesn’t always win out in the end.
                When asked to write the class ‘green’ blog I felt there was a strong sense of irony in the request. I am probably the most conservative Republican in the group and might be fairly labeled a ‘doubting Thomas’ when it comes to the panic over Global Warming. However, I’m not a complete crazy. While I am fairly dubious about the legitimacy of global warming, as far as the realm of government conspiracies go, I draw the line at little green men and tinfoil hats. While that little fact did surprising little to reassure the powers that be of my qualifications for writing this blog, I also noted that I am an avid outdoor enthusiast and think the trees and alpine lakes along my favorite hiking trails look good just as they are and I would like them to stay put. Therefore, while I may be less than concerned about the ozone layer and whether or not it may soon come to resemble Swiss cheese because I drove my car to school rather than taking bus, I am rather perturbed when someone wants to bulldoze my favorite hiking spot and put in a minimart. Hence, I am fully onboard with the ‘save the earth’ initiative. That being said, many of us noted conservation efforts in Europe that are not used, or only used in limited areas, in the U.S. Some of these include:
-          -Metro doors that you have to manually open rather than having them automatically open at every stop
-         - Escalators that only run when someone steps on them rather than moving continually
-         -  Lights that are on a motion sensor and only turn on when someone is walking in the hallway
-        -  Grocery bags are not given out when you go shopping. Not only do you have to request a bag, but you must also pay for it, as well as endure the looks of disapproval by other shoppers in line because you did not bring a reusable bag. The shame if nothing else will turn you green.
-         - Smaller washing machines that use less water per load, plus many families use a clothes line rather a dryer. I’ve also noticed that my family appears to wash colors and whites all in one load, reducing the amount of loads done. This has also done wonders for turning my white shirts into slightly blue shirts. Personally, I think the ozone could stand separate loads for colors and whites. But again, I’m the crazy Republican, what do I know.
-          -Houses and business are not heated/cooled to the same level as many are in the States
As for personal practices, many of us have enacted similar ‘green’ practices. Though whether this has been the result of a noble desire to try and keep the polar ice caps from melting or simply because it was more convenient remains the realm of personal conviction. Either way the result is the same. Some of these practices are:
-Taking shorter showers – save the polar bears or the natural result of having one shower shared among 6 people who all need to use it before work in the morning? You decide.  
-Using public transportation rather than driving. But let’s face it, we’re here for 7 weeks, we aren’t going to buy a car. However, many of the students also choose to walk rather than take public transportation - so long as the Belgium weather will at least compromise on its severity and settle for a simple rain shower rather than sending down nickel sized hail.
-Many of the students reuse the plastic water bottle they buy rather than throwing it away and buying a new one when they have finished it
-Wearing clothes several times between washes to reduce the number of loads required
-Buying food from local markets when possible rather than at the store where food has been transported from greater distances
While many of these practices have been taken on simply because of convenience or because there is no other choice (as in the case of using public transportation), the motivation of the act does not lessen the benefits of the result. People are always looking for ways to make daily acts of life more convenient or to spend less money, and if there are practices that can do this for them at the same time as reducing waste and cutting C02 emissions then they will use them. The cheaper and more convenient being ‘green’ becomes the more likely it is that people will take up the practices of conserving and recycling that the more noble minded of the ‘green’ movement have already instigated.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Well here I am, about to embark on my final week here in Brussels and wondering if I’ve checked everything off of not only my ‘to-do’ list, but also my ‘must-see/do’ list. And if I haven’t, what the repercussions might be for playing hooky from my internship to go finish said list? After all, I believe it to be a vital part of my European education to have some hands on experience before giving a final opinion in the great Belgium vs. Swiss chocolate debate. Others disagree - mainly my supervisor and academic superiors. And thanks to always needing to be “the responsible one in the group”, a fatal flaw I’ve suffered from since I was a young child, I’ve allowed myself to be conformed to expectations. A rebel I am not. In this vein I decided to make a list of the ‘good, bad and ugly’ that I’ve experienced since I’ve been here – so others will know what to look forward to or to avoid. First, the good:
-          - Ease of public transportation. The buses don’t really follow any type of schedule, but at least they are available. The metro runs smoothly though.
-         -  Ability to walk nearly anywhere you need to go – an even bigger plus if public transportation goes on strike
-       -   Being treated like an equal at my internship rather than as free labor. This means being asked for my opinion, being given projects to work on etc…Basically, doing real work vs. making coffee and copies
-        -  The opportunity to experience various types of work, such as research, writing, interacting with MEPs, attending meetings, conferences etc..
-      -    The food – warm waffles, chocolate, speculoos, ok, pretty much all of it
-         - Brussels is well located for seeing other areas of Europe, just a few hrs by train and you can be in a number of different countries
The Bad:
-The weather. Rain isn’t so bad when you are just running between your car and a building, but you get sick of it pretty quickly when you have to walk a total of 3 miles in it between home, the metro and work every day. Throw in the fact that we’ve had about one week of sun total and 5 weeks of rain and you quickly get sick, quite literally in some of our cases, of being wet.
- Being cold. I am told this year is not normal, but I don’t see why that prevents the heat in the house from being turned on. My first two weeks here I was wearing two shirts, two jackets and wrapping up in a blanket while in the house and still couldn’t get warm, I thought that was a little bit unreasonable. But perhaps I am simply the privileged American feeling entitled to certain types of comfort.
-The inability to find a decent salad anywhere. While not a big deal for other people, when you’re a vegetarian it takes on a certain level of significance
The Ugly:
-High winds, marble sized hail, rain, and being completely lost in a city where I can’t speak the language
-The practice of going 7-11 days between laundry days. This was mainly a problem when it was attached to my running clothes. One 45 minute run was about all they could take, even if I did wring the sweat out afterwards, they tended to remain smelly and damp for a few days. It was not something that invited itself to be re-worn. Contrary to what one might think, running in the rain did not improve the situation.
While reviewing my experiences here, I was happy to see that most of what I experienced fell into the ‘good’ column. And that which fell into the ‘bad’ was strongly mitigated by the application of warm waffles and chocolate truffles. So while I may be happy to say goodbye to Belgium’s rain, I will also miss the people and projects I was given the opportunity to work with. In 6 weeks you are just beginning to settle in, figure out what you are supposed to be doing (and how to do it right), and learn all the names of your co-workers when you have to say goodbye. However, I will definitely be collecting email addresses before I go in order to keep in touch with all the wonderful people I have met while over here!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Three Weeks Down, Three to Go!

I can't believe how quickly time is passing here in Brussels! On the one hand, it seems as if our stressful week of running back and forth to interviews in a strange city with very little street signage and a lot of rain and hail was an eternity ago, but on the other hand it's hard to believe that I will be on a plane headed stateside in two and a half weeks. I suppose now that everyone is settled in their internships, the time passes more quickly!

As far as the internship was concerned, I really had no idea what to expect. At home, the word "internship" carries with it a stigma of, as Amy pointed out, coffeemaking and photocopying. Here, even though we are only at our internships for six weeks, it seems that everyone has been entrusted with actual responsibilities, whether they be attending events or conducting research and writing briefs or memos. Because I am a U.S. Foreign Policy student and have not taken any classes on EU politics at the grad school level, I wasn't sure how much I would be able to offer at my internship at Agoria, a trade federation that represents many different companies in various technology industries. I have been assigned to the "Security and Defence" sector, which complements my studies in my academic program at SIS very well. So far, I have gotten to attend several interesting events, including one at U.S. Ambassador Howard Gutman's residence, at which I met the ambassador and senior officers from Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, and other companies in the defense industry. Additionally, two weeks ago I attended a meeting at the European Defence Agency (EDA) in which representatives from Norway, Germany, Austria, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Spain, Hungary, and Romania were present. The meeting was essentially an overview of the EDA's mission and a discussion of the new "pooling and sharing" strategy toward which the EU is working to foster greater integration in the areas of defense and security, which has resulted in a great deal of tension between member states, particularly Britain and France (neither of which were represented at the meeting).

Interestingly, both of these events were conducted entirely in English. I have been told that this is fairly common at events regarding defense and security issues, although I was not told why. I have several theories; one explanation is that  English is one of the more widely spoken languages in the EU and thus provides "common ground" for member states. Another explanation is, because the defense industry is so dominated by U.S. firms, in order to cooperate and/or compete in the field operating in English is a necessity. Hopefully I will find out the answer before I leave!

I have one more event to attend this week...in Paris! It is an exposition on the European defense industry, and Belgium's day at the expo is Wednesday. I'm looking forward to learning more about the future of the industry here in Europe and hearing ideas for new ways to cooperate with the United States in international security efforts.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My First Weeks in Brussels

I can still vividly remember my first impression of the city of Brussels. I was taking a cab from the airport, thoroughly exhausted from my trips from JFK - Heathrow - Brussels, and was sitting back as the cab driver navigated to the hotel. The buildings and parks we drove by were beautiful, but all I could think was "How on earth does he know where he's going?!? The streets have no signs!"

Yes, in Brussels most streets don't have clear and obvious signs.

It is so hard to imagine that we've been here for almost a month already; at certain times it feels like we've just arrived, and at other times it feels like we've been here forever. I honestly did not know what to expect from Brussels itself but I have been pleasantly surprised. One completely new experience for me was living with a host family. I was a little worried at first, but my host family is very friendly. They gave us (I'm living there with another student from the program) a lot of information we needed to adjust to life in/around Brussels. Most of us live outside the main center of the city, which really concerned this native New Yorker, but it's a nice, refreshing change of pace. I have no complaints, aside from the mild discomfort I get when my simple-carbohydrate-obsessed host dog stares at me as I eat breakfast every morning in the hopes that my clumsy self will drop the bag of bread or something.

Speaking of breakfast, speculoos. Speculoos. If you leave Brussels without trying speculoos in one of its myriad forms (spread, cookie, cake, ice cream, etc.), you have not really experienced all that Belgian cuisine has to offer.

The internship experience is the main component of this program, of course. The interview process, as Amy described in an earlier post, was pretty stressful. I only had four interviews but we had a very limited amount of time to do background research on all our organizations and figure out how to find our interview locations. Due to the aforementioned lack of street signs, the directions I got off Google weren't particularly useful to me and I always got lost. For instance, I had an interview near the Schuman metro, and the building I was going to was clearly mentioned on one of the exits, but since I didn't know that and got out of another exit, I spent 45 minutes wandering around looking for the Residential Palace. Smart.

The interview process itself was not dramatically different from the interview process back home, but it had its quirks. I interviewed at three NGOs and a think tank. I was not used to being offered coffee or tea at interviews, so I was a bit taken aback at first. The interviews were much less focused on exploring my own work experience and qualifications than they were focused on explaining the goals of each organization and their main projects.

My internship is with the International Disability and Development Consortium. It coordinates the efforts of twenty-three different NGOs that all work on disability and/or development, so it is exposing me to a different side of NGO operations that I was not previously familiar with. I am learning a lot about disability issues, inclusive development challenges, and especially the role that the EU plays in supporting development programs. Since my academic coursework has not focused on development, a lot that I learn here is very new to me, but I feel like I can draw parallels with a lot of the concepts that I am learning here and my own academic interests. Working here, I have learned broad lessons about NGO networks and coalitions, advocacy for marginalized populations, and the challenges of EU advocacy.

Another key aspect of this program is the policy workshop that we participated in this past weekend. I really learned a lot from our visits to the European Parliament, the guest speaker that spoke to us about foreign policy, and the discussions that we had in class. I definitely got a lot out of the workshop and feel confident that I can capably write the policy analysis paper due after the end of the program.

Last but not least, travel! We spent the first full weekend of the program traveling around Belgium, taking trips to Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, and various WWI cemeteries and memorials. With Jerry's encyclopedic knowledge of all things historical and Belgian, I really developed an understanding of the country we're spending seven weeks in!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Visiting Parliament

        Having come to the end of my third week of interning I have been able to experience a variety of different tasks to work on – none of which I was surprised to discover involved making coffee or working the photocopy machine. This worked to my advantage as I was fairly certain that any attempt by me to make a cup of coffee worthy of (or perhaps safe for) consumption would get me fired. So instead of being assigned the typical tasks that could otherwise be completed by a fairly bright hamster, I was asked to research a variety of hate crime examples which were to be included in a training manual, find proper contact info for NGOs who track hate crimes across the spectrum and call the offices of a number of Members of the European Parliament (MEP) to convince them to meet with us about our upcoming Conference on Antisemitism.
         After two and a half weeks of these types of tasks, in addition to attending a two day partner organization meeting, I was deemed safe enough to release out into the world. Meeting with two others at the European Parliament I was handed a large stack of invitations to our Conference and three pages of room numbers and MEP names. Armed with this, the three of us split up and began our siege of Parliament, wandering hallways, knocking on doors and inviting MEPs to come to the conference. After having spent two hours wandering the floors and halls Parliament, including a nearly ten minute elevator ride, I began to wonder who had designed the building. While very impressive with its sheer size and architecture, the layout seemed to defy comprehension – not even a map and compass were going to help here. Informed at our weekend seminar that we needed to find a puzzle concerning issues concerning Europe I wondered if the thought process behind the design of the Parliament would be acceptable. However, I was later told (though have not verified) that the building had been designed by committee. Puzzle solved. Darn. Guess it’s back to the drawing board for a paper topic.  However, after five hours of knocking on 60+ MEP doors spread out over three “buildings” and nine floors I thought I was getting the hang of the layout. Not that it made any better sense, only that figuring out that some elevators went to some floors and not others and that there could be multiple floor “8’s” but you had to use the appropriate elevator to be in the section you wanted to be, helped me get to the right place. While this could easily become an irritating task, the bar located in the middle of the whole rat warren kept me loaded with caffeine and able to keep a sense of humor about myself. Additionally, it was a great opportunity to get a good, self-guided tour of the Parliament that not a lot of others will have the chance to do as well as meet a lot of interesting people. That being said, I’m perfectly happy to return to my office which does not require a security check to enter and has a very reasonable set of stairs that I feel confident will always deposit me on my desired floor, rather than feeling a bit like I was playing Russian Roulette, as on the elevators at Parliament, and might instead end up some where’s east of Mars.