As I sit here in a Brussels café, enjoying a cup of coffee and a great pastry while waiting for the rain to pass, I’m struck by how much our SIS Brussels group accomplished in what amounted to a whirlwind weekend: site visits and discussions at the European Parliament, classroom discussions (including a visit from European foreign policy expert Tom Casier of the University of Kent/Brussels), and some fantastic culinary experiences at some of my favorite Brussels restaurants!
This was the first year that the SIS Abroad Brussels program incorporated a site visit from the Academic Director (me), and the weekend workshop on European Policy Analysis was both an exciting opportunity for me and for the students to shape and develop the program…but being the first time we’ve done something like this, there was also a bit of trepidation (at least on my part) as I flew to Brussels last week. Would all of our speakers come through? Would our site visits work out as planned? Would we have productive discussions?
As it turned out, things went very well! I stopped by the AU Brussels Center on Thursday to meet Jerry, get the tour of the campus, and begin preparations for the workshop. What a fantastic setup we have—a “mini-AU” right in Brussels!
On Friday morning, I met our program participants outside of the European Parliament…not at the visitor’s entrance, mind you, but at the “side door” Press Entrance, normally reserved for journalists. Thanks to a contact inside of the EP Press Service (well, my colleague Lorinc Redei, who works in the EP Press Service and who I first met when we were roommates in grad school) we had secured a “behind the scenes” visit to the Parliament. We were granted both visitor access and photography access, which resulted in a plethora of special badges affixed to each of our shirts and jackets!
Our first contact, John Schranz (EP Press Officer for Economic and Monetary Affairs), guided us through security and then into the “Press Bar” where we gathered for a discussion of the role of the EP Press Service in general as well as a discussion of the current economic and fiscal crisis facing Europe. As an interesting aside, no photographs are allowed in the Press Bar (a café/cafeteria/bar depending upon the time of day), just as is the case in the cafeterias in the House and Senate, because it is one of the private, or off-the-record, spots for members of Parliament.
Prompted by some excellent questions from the students, John guided us through a fantastic discussion of the broad issues and challenges that Europe faces in the economic and financial policy areas and also filled us in on the steps that the European Parliament is taking, in conjunction with other EU institutions, to manage the crisis. After about 45 minutes of discussion John then led us through a tour of the Parliament building, including views into the briefing rooms where press conferences are held, a glimpse into the “hemicycle” (the massive, semi-circular room where Parliament meets in plenary session), and a walk down the “blue carpet” – the VIP entrance for dignitaries, complete with a “briefing pad” -- a fancy carpeted area with all of the flags and the EU backdrop designed for dignitaries to stop, face the press, and deliver comments. You can see our program participants on the briefing pad in the photos below!
After our discussion and tour with John, we returned to the Press Bar to meet Mary Brazier, EP Press Officer for Foreign Affairs. Once again, a great discussion ensued covering not just the EPs engagement in world affairs but also Mary’s prior experience working in the European Commission as well as her time working under Javier Solana, the former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. We were so engrossed in discussion that we went well beyond the planned 45 minutes meaning that, after a somewhat hurried lunch on Place Luxembourg, we barely made up to the AU Center to meet our next speaker!
The academic component of the day concluded with a talk from Dr. Tom Casier (University of Kent, Brussels campus) on European foreign policy, energy policy, and the European relationship to Russia. In a thorough and engaging presentation Dr. Casier provided a wealth of information that challenged the idea of “European energy dependence” and helped us all move into the mindset of systematic, empirical analysis that would characterize the rest of the weekend’s work.
With a long day of thinking and discussion behind us, we retired to one of my favorite Brussels restaurants, Volle Gas, for an evening of traditional Belgium fare. Over dinner the program participants shared their various experiences in Brussels and Europe so far, and it was great to hear that everybody was not only having a great time in general but that they were also doing good, substantive work in their internships! Jerry also received high praise as an excellent tour guide and resource on all things Belgian!
I would be amiss, though, if I didn’t mention the food at all. Oh, the food! We had the full range of Belgian specialities at dinner – ranging from Steak Frites to Carbonnade de Boeuf Flamande. The only thin missing were mussels, which are not yet in season (and kudos to Volle Gas for not serving them, unlike the tourist traps where you can get “Belgian” mussels year round!). The most memorable quote of the evening goes to Cristina, though. Upon taking the first bite of her dessert (a chocolate and cream dish with chocolate covered spéculoos), she smiled and simply said “Wow. I have no adjectives for this. It is amazing!”
- Prof. Boesenecker