By Kate Long, Upper Sixth
Home to principal European Union institutions including the Council of the European Union, European Commission and European Parliament, Brussels is a central hub for international politics. For two days in half term, it was also home to me.
My purpose for visiting Brussels was to explore the European Parliament and its response to humanitarian issues such as the current refugee crisis. This was made possible by the Mary Greaves Hamilton Legacy prize fund.
With a 6am start and a two hour train journey, I arrived in Brussels ready for a day immersing myself in the world of European politics. After the old-world style of Brussels with its gabled houses and cobbled stones, reaching the contemporary architecture of the Parliament zone physically signalled the move into modern integrated Europe.
The centrepiece of the Parliament buildings is an outside Agora based on the Greek marketplace – although being a cold wet October morning, there was no hustle and bustle! Around the Agora are the words and pictures of the European Year of Development campaign – a very inspiring visual welcome.
I started at the Parliamentarium – a state of the art visitor centre – to gain a foundation for my knowledge on European integration. After going through the airport style security and receiving an audio-guide (which was of course available in all 24 official languages of the EU – I boringly rejected Finnish and Greek in favour of English!) I began exploring the two-story exhibition space. The tour started with 3D models of the three locations of the European Parliament – Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. Slides and old photos led me through Europe’s long and often troubled modern history and the beginnings of the European community, with audio quotes from the EU’s early visionaries such as Robert Schuman.
Next, a tunnel of voices immersed me in the multilingual heritage of the EU, and moveable information pods rolled me across a map of Europe and allowed me to explore the European Parliament’s broad reach across all its 28 member states, including the space station in French Guiana and the Department of Justice and Equality in Dublin.
A 360-degree digital surround screen took me into the heart of European Parliament action. Sitting in seats in a semi-circle, it felt like I was participating in the debate. There across multi mega-screens I learnt about the members of parliament, and how the legislative process works in practice. To be honest, for me the process of arriving at consensus seemed extremely laborious, and bureaucratic, with endless to-ing and fro-ing between the various political alliances, arguing over words and phrases.
The Parliamentarium ended with the fun opportunity to write a personal message or wish to the Parliament which then appeared on the screens with your name and in your language. It felt very empowering to see “Engage and celebrate the youth! – Kate, England” scrolling round the room in very large letters.
I hen headed over into the actual Parliament building where I particularly liked the sculpture called Confluence symbolising the intertwining of different strands from different origins coming together for a common goal reflecting the integration the European Parliament provides.
Then on to the Hemicycle where the MEPS sit to debate EU law. One aspect which particularly intrigued (and surprised me) was that the MEPs are not grouped by country but by political affiliations. Thus my own MEP sits (and votes)with the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group, alongside fellow left leaning politicians from France, Malta and Czech Republic, and not next to his fellow Brit from the Tory party. This for me was a powerful symbol of commitment to the de-emphasing of national loyalty in favour of an overriding common purpose for Europe.
I then made the short walk (in the rain!) to the Brussels offices of World Vision International, the world’s largest aid and development charity focused on children. Here I interviewed two Advocacy Policy Officers, Alexandra and Ludo, on the role of charities in Advocacy within the European Union. Their passion and energy for their work meant we covered a vast array of topics, including the effectiveness of the parliament’s party system – they too recognised the slowness of the process but felt this ensured real consensus – the effect of the migrant crisis on the reputation of the EU, methods of advocacy, and whether the concept of integration is compatible with the current European identity. What was interesting here was how important agendas can be influenced by lobby groups, especially given the wide range of topics MEPs have to have a view on. It was also great to gain insights into working in the NGO field as a career.
After all that talking and thinking, I explored (still in the rain!) the rest of the city, including the Grand Palace, the city’s famous market square which dates back to the Middle Ages, and its spectacular Gothic and Baroque buildings and quant guildhalls. Waffles, chocolate and the famous Belgian frites rounded off a genuinely fascinating.