MA students’ study trip to Brussels

This is a guest post from our students on the EU and the World Masters programme.

Brussels, Commissionn, European institutions, policymaking…we had heard about these topics non-stop since we started our MAs last September, some of us studying the European Union and International Relations, others on a Double MA in Europe and the World with Institut d’Etudes Politiques Lille. Going to Brussels to visit the main institutions was therefore very useful as it enabled us to gain first-hand experience of the venues and processes we learn about in the classroom, and to get a taster for the environment where some of us might want to work in the future.

Our five-day trip was structured around meetings with officials who work on policymaking or the provision of services in institutions such as the Commission, the Council of Ministers, the Committee of the Regions, and others. We had been encouraged to prepare questions for each meeting, where we also had the opportunity to learn about how these people have made it to Brussels and what their daily jobs are like. While we might have been a bit intimidated at the beginning, we found that our speakers were all very friendly, and sometimes there was not enough time to ask our questions and provide our comments!

The trip was arranged for the beginning of the second Teaching Period, so that we would have gained sufficient knowledge about what we were going to see and developed questions and interests. Moreover, it gave us an opportunity to strengthen our friendships and spend time together in a lovely city beyond lectures, presentations and group assignments.

“Overall, I found the study trip to Brussels very impressive and based on my personal experience it is an excellent opportunity for master students to complement their theory based learning of the EU and its key institutions, with an interesting and informative insight into day-to-day EU policy making, right at the heart of the EU” (Eyerin Jesuthasan, MA in the European Union and International Relations).

Want to find out more about our trip? Here is our travel journal.

Monday 31st January

In order to arrive in Brussels we took a Eurostar train from London. We checked in at the Bedford Hotel, not very far from the city centre and after a small nap we all headed off to explore the city. Some of us ended up eating the Belgian national dish, moules frites. We were very excited to see the most famous Grande Place and Manneken Pis. Even though it was late evening all of us were amazed at how marvellous the Grande Place is!

Luckily our hotel was in a great location as we were able to admire the Grande Place and the old town every morning.

Traditionally, the Manneken Pis is dressed in different costumes several times each week. However, this time he decided to wear no clothes, even though it was a cold winter evening!

But, unlike the Manneken Pis, we were cold and hungry. Our next destination to experience Brussels was the most delicious waffles in the whole world –Gaufres de Bruxelles! Yummy!

We could not have left Brussels without trying Belgian beer. The Delerium Tremens bar has the ‘’biggest beer list in the world’’, as you can find 2000 different types of beer! Of course we tried the most popular one called Kriek (cherry flavour). Even people who do not like beer liked it a lot. People in there are so relaxed and friendly and it made us feel comfortable and have fun!

Tuesday 1st February

The first visit we had during our study trip was at the Visitor’s Centre of the Commission. We had a lecture from Jo Vandercappellen, from DG Education and Culture, followed by a question and answers session. He spoke about the functions of the EU institutions, in particular the functioning of the European Commission post-Lisbon Treaty.

Despite the fact that the main institutions of the EU are the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers, there are so many other institutions that are crucially important for the EU to function. After visiting the Commission we were able to visit one of these; the European External Action Service (EEAS). This is an independent department and its main purpose is to manage the responses of the EU to different crises. It is like a foreign ministry for the EU. The first speaker, Alar Olljum, told us in detail about the mission and objectives of the EEAS and about his long experience in the field of external relations. The second speaker, Tereza Novtona, told us about her experience as an intern at the EEAS and about the application process, which we found particularly interesting.

On Tuesday afternoon we met Helen Bower, Diplomatic Civil Servant at UKREP, the UK Permanent Representation in Brussels. She explained that the main aim of UKREP is to represent the UK in all policy areas in Brussels. Within UKREP, there are permanent representatives known as Ambassadors. These Ambassadors attend COREPER meetings (Committee of Permanent Representatives) and present the UK’s views on EU policies and legislation. Under the Ambassadors are the “Secretaries” or Policy Makers who draw up and negotiate policies with the other member states’ representatives.

Ms Bower told us that the UK’s current interests lie in the internal market and economy. Therefore, the UK attaches most importance to policies such as the issue of internal energy infrastructures, the implementation of the Services Directive, the protection of consumer rights (particularly online), the emergence of trade partners such as India and China and finally the enlargement of the EU with respect to the Western Balkans and Turkey.

Wednesday 2nd February

In the morning, we walked to the European Economic and Social Committee. It is one of these not very well-known European institutions, which made this visit all the most interesting.

We were invited to have a seat in a small circular room, a very ceremonial room with computers and microphones on everyone’s desk. Then, Jean-Pierre Faure, director of the Single Market Observatory, welcomed us. He talked to us very simply about his job, making numerous digressions and delivering several funny anecdotes. Thanks to him, a very formal environment became friendly and when he finally spoke about the possible internships at the EESC, all of us were very interested in doing one!

In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to visit the Council of the European Union. The information visit consisted of a talk given to us by a Council Official, Mr. Jeremy Rand, the General Secretary of the Council in the Directorate-General responsible for Agriculture and Fisheries. The talk consisted of a general introduction to the Council, during which we were informed about its structure and key functions as well as the institutional framework within which the Council operates as the EU’s main decision-making body. In addition, the talk was followed by a question and answer session in which we were given the chance to ask questions relating to more specific topics. Overall, the information visit to the Council was very interesting and informative.

And in the evening…Moules Frites, waffles, and lots of beer; hardly imaginative and not enough to excite this particular palate. It is however much more than that. The steaming bucket of moules (mussels) is a sensation to any seafood lover, though the frites (fries) on the side are rather dull. Which is every reason why you must dash over to one of the city’s countless friteries and gawp at the vast array of condiments. A quick peruse of the supermarket shelves and I deftly grab the cured horse meat and the baby octopuses. Delicious, washed down with beer bought from the ‘250 Beers’ store. I kid you not- 250 varieties. The apple beer was remarkably exquisite. The highlight? Chez Leon on the famous Rue de Bouchers, pricey but settled at the behest and invitation of our dear School. Despite trying to locate the lobster, I was drawn to two enticing words that (quite literally) evoked a raw urge- steak tartar (forgive the cliche). So eat the moules, eat the frites, and by god lose your conscience at the chocolate store. But let Brussels bring out the adventurer in you too.

Thursday 3rd February

In the morning we went back to the shiny Bâtiment Jacques Delors on Rue Belliard to attend a briefing at the Committee of the Regions (CoR), where we were welcomed by Chris, a British official working in the Communications and Press Unit. Chris gave us a clear presentation of the structure and main functions of the CoR, which provides a platform for regional and local authorities of the member states to express their views on policy developments and EU proposals in areas that affect the regional or local level. We found out that Chris is one of the only three British citizens supporting the work of the Committee members, and that the relative number of UK nationals working for the EU is low, one reason being perhaps that Britons are likely to be less proficient in foreign languages than their colleagues from other European countries.

In the afternoon we got the chance to attend a conference at the European Parliament about Integrating the Wider Europe after the Lisbon Treaty’ organised by the Wider Europe Network. The opening speech was made by the President of the EP, Jerzy Buzek, who talked about the relationship between the EU and its neighbours. The following speakers, specialists from different countries, focused on enlargement issues, on the prospects and difficulties of the European Neighbourhood Policy and also on the new External Action Service that we visited on Tuesday morning. We even got the chance to try the tea and coffee like real MEPs!

Friday 4th February
In the morning we went back to the European Parliament for the second day of the conference. The third session was entitled ‘Widening the Union’. The first speaker Christophe Hillion in his presentation ‘the Policy of the Union’ gave an overview of the accession policies and its issues, the second speaker gave a statement about the ‘nationalisation of the EU Enlargement Policy’, and eventually Nathaniel Copsey gave a talk on ‘What do Europe’s citizens think about enlargement?’ We attended the fourth session as well concerning the ‘Association Agreements and DCFTAs as tools of integration’ where Philippe Cuisson talked about the ‘Deep and comprehensive integration with the EU’ and Professor Alan Mayhew gave us a presentation on ‘the economics of integration’.

In the afternoon we walked one last time through the streets of Brussels to catch our Eurostar train at the Gare du Midi station. What an unforgettable trip! We hope you enjoyed reading our blog.

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