Brussels Study Trip: Blog 3

**Note: Previous posts from our trip- 1) Blog 1; 2) Blog 2.

I could not have asked for a better start for the first day of visits here in Brussels. We started with a tour and presentation at Europa- the home of the European Council and the Council of the EU.  We were lucky with our timing because the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU unveiled a digital project called “Unity.”

After Europa, we stopped by a small market to grab a quick lunch and then headed off to the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU.  Here we got to talk about the role of the PermRep, Sweden and the European Parliament, some of Sweden’s education policies and how they fit in the Council of the EU, and then how the staff of the PermRep work within Coreper I.  (To see my previous posts on Sweden and Scandinavia, click here and here.)

Huge thanks to the following people who made this day memorable for my students and me: 1) Europa- Alexandra Ekkelenkamp and Mojca Erjavec; 2) Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU- Charlotta Erikson, Arvid Palmkvist, Åsa Petri, and Natasa Boskovic.

Ali B.
We began our day today by waking up to a delicious breakfast provided to us by the hotel. After finishing that, we headed over to the European Union Council. Once we got inside the first thing I noticed was the impressive initiator of the building. To my surprise, the building I was looking at was considered the “old” part of the building. We were then taken on a tour of the impressive new building that recently opened earlier this year. Throughout the whole building the unity of each member state of the EU was well represented through the flags or color scheme through the whole building. After the tour was over we were given the opportunity to speak with Alexandra Ekkelenkamp. This was especially interesting because she was able to give us a unique view inside of the European Union. There we were able to highlight a large array of issues pertaining to the EU, a lot of these issues focusing on social media and how the internet has shaped modern day politics and policy making. We were very lucky to visit the Council on this specific day due to the opening of a new virtual reality, designed by Estonia, who recently took presidency of the council beginning in July.

Our next meeting was with Sweden’s representative to the European Union. I was very excited for this meeting because in December, I will take on the role of pretending to be Sweden’s representative to the EU for a Model United Nations conference. I believe that there is no better way to learn information than to complete immerse yourself in it, so this meeting was nothing but beneficial to my learning. The meeting began with an overview of Swedish representation to the EU and the EU system. Then we covered the EU parliament and the specific political parties that consist of it. After, we dove into the educational system of Sweden and current policy decisions being made. A very interesting aspect of this policy was the freedom of university students to obtain schooling somewhere away from their home country, as long as it is still in Europe. It was made very clear from the many, detailed policy points that the Swedish government wants its students to succeed and supports them in doing so. Overall, today was an exceptional day of learning new things and visiting admirable, unique places.

Andy K.
The second day of the trip was full of fascinating experiences both politically and culturally. Right off the bat we took a trip to the Council to the EU, an organization invested in many important decisions made in the EU. As soon as I walked in the actual building, my breath was taken away by the massive size and official image that was projected with colors of the 28 member states placed everywhere. I felt my very tired brain activate in a way only politics can activate it, and I knew immediately this wasn’t going to disappoint. This was confirmed after a 40 minute tour of the building that involved traveling to circular conference rooms dominated by themes of diversity, progress, and mostly of unity, VIP entrances, and just seeing how the day to day lives and jobs of workers are. After this we sat and and listened to a fascinating presentation involving the EU and general communications that focused on social media. This was strewn with surprising facts about how the EU decides what is the most important social media platforms and how they help push out the facts of what they actually do while combating fake news present on the internet. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at this institution and marveled at the artwork and ideas that make the EU unique.

Next we attended a presentation/Q&A at the Swedish Permanent Mission to the EU. At first I wasn’t sure what to think about it, but soon I found myself in even more enjoyment than before! The policy talks centered around core Swedish values like climate change, along with education and the general ideas behind Sweden’s policy. Never have I found myself more engaged in a presentation this entire year. Not only were those speaking interesting, but they were clear experts which presented a view on topics I had never encountered before. For instance the educational values behind Sweden’s system I found extremely applicable to Verona’s schools, which often struggle with policies that Sweden has combatted such as how to ensure technology is used appropriately. In addition to this I enjoyed the fact they explained why the opposed creation of things that sound really good like “Student Loans For All EU Civilians,” but in reality ripped off Swedish tax payers and was actually destructive for everyone as a whole. I was completely invested for the entire two hours and I loved it all. This entire day revolved around subjects I feel extremely passionate about this and want to do the rest of my life. Politics in Europe may be in much different forms and institutions than in the United States, but the passion and issues remain the exact same. I can’t wait to have more days like this to continue to shape my perspective on the European Union and politics In general.

Bailey A.
Today we got a tour of the EU council and met with the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU. On our tour of the council we got to see both the old building and the new building. It was very interesting to see how they blended together and the symbolism of the different aspects of the building. We met with Alexandra Ekkelenkamp and learned about media and communication in the EU. It was really interesting to learn about how Brexit affected communications with the EU citizens on a subconscious level. It was also really interesting to learn about filter bubbles and how companies exploit the fact that people only like to look at what they agree with, and how that might have influenced the UK’s decision to leave. It was refreshing to hear about the different ways that the EU works to be transparent and open with the media and their citizens instead of making it into a mystical place nobody can understand. I think the most important thing to take away was that news is not what matters, we focus so much on what is going on all around us that we never focus on the big issues, which is why the EU tweets (and other social media) about the big issues and what they are doing.

In the afternoon we visited Sweden’s permanent representation and learned all about their involvement in the EU and the big topics they try to bring up. Most of the time when I think of Sweden, I think of how great they are doing to combat climate change and how vocal they are about it, so it was really interesting to learn that they really work hard to bring forests into the conversation. It was really interesting to hear about the different obstacles they face when trying to get other countries to agree with their point of view and the different reasons behind it, like other countries’s lack of trees. One of my favorite topics while we were there was Sweden’s work in the education field with refugees. Because Sweden takes in one of the highest percentages of refugees, integration especially with learning Swedish is important so that all of the young men and women can continue and have better lives than they would have had in their home countries. The language program for non native speakers makes so much sense and I feel like it makes a lot more sense than the ones we have in the states. They teach both the subjects and the language at the same time to keep it more engaging and successful than only teaching the language for two years. I feel like I could go on and on about all the things I have learned just in one day. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

Cat G.
Today was a very, very amazing day.  Breakfast was wonderful and I have come to the easy conclusion that I am most definitely a pastry enthusiast.  After breakfast we made the short jaunt over to the European Council, which may have felt a little bit longer with heels, but it was really cool seeing more of the city so I didn’t really mind.  The EU council itself was architecturally astounding.  I loved the colorful design that decorated much of the ceiling and floor, and the room with the giant lantern was absolutely magnificent.  My favorite detail however would have to be the fact that the outside of the building was decorated with windows from all twenty eight of the member countries.  Each window was a different design and they were all made out of oak, which is the only tree that grows in all twenty eight member countries.  There is just something so pure about that and it made my heart really happy.  The rest of the tour was really cool and we even got to walk down the red carpet that all the super important government officials got to walk down, and not going to lie, it felt pretty good.  I really liked meeting Ms. Alexandra Ekkelenkamp and hearing her talk about her job and what she does and how she got to her current position.  I was also really awed about how she can speak six different languages?!  

We grabbed a bite to eat from a local grocery store and then moved on to the Sweden Representatives to the EU.  This was so super awesome.  Like, I already knew that Sweden was a really progressive country, but this was absolutely mind blowing.  The way they handle education in their country is just really admirable and to be honest I’m a little jealous.  

After we stopped by the hotel (au revoir heels) we walked to a Bulgarian restaurant for dinner, which was delicious.  All in all today has been a wonderful day and I’m excited to see what tomorrow has in store.  Bonsoir from Brussels! -Cat

Greta S.
Waking up to the fantastic hotel breakfast was the best way to start the day. The espresso drink machine made me so happy, as did the pastries and raw eggs that had to be cooked. At the EU Council, Europa was one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen because it was so intellectually designed and I loved how colorful it was. I thought it was really special that the EU translates all the speeches into all EU languages, and hearing how many languages everyone who worked there spoke was inspiring. I very much enjoyed hearing about how people get news and how it is catered to them because it’s such an annoying problem. I also loved learning about Twiplomacy because I usually don’t hear very much about how social media affects politics outside of Trump tweeting his conscience.

When we went to the permanent representation of Sweden to the EU, I liked hearing true thoughts on the proceedings of the EU Parliament rather than a filtered statement. I also was particularly interested in the Erasmus Program because it was interesting to hear how Sweden didn’t want the original version because they have a similar system, and that France didn’t want it because it would create social inequality. I like to hear about the politics that go on behind the legislation and that made it really fascinating. Then at dinner tonight, the people who worked at the restaurant didn’t speak very much English and it was exhilarating to hear more French, and I finally got to use my French phrasebook to decode the menu. Today I learned a lot, and I’m hyped for the rest of the week.

Joe G.
We started off the day by visiting The Council of the European Union, where we got a tour of both the old and new buildings. The architecture is very beautiful, well thought out and rich with symbolism. From the color scheme to the lantern shaped structure to the window panes, the entire design was created with the intent to convey the EU’s ideals of diversity, non-partisanship, and being forward looking. It was very surreal to walk around a conference room knowing that diplomats from countries all across Europe, have sat in those seats making decisions that impacted the lives of around 500 million people. We sat down and had a great presentation put on by Alexandra Ekkelenkamp about the structure of the EU and digital diplomacy. We discussed filter bubbles, which I have always found very interesting as the internet is always talked of as being a place to discover new ideas and values, but instead because of filter algorithms has become a reinforcer for already held beliefs and interests, never showing you anything that may contradict what you think to be true or right. This is damaging as it makes it much harder for people to feel empathy and creates political anger and fear. We also talked a lot about Brexit and the initial reaction to it, along with the fear that it, along with the U.S. election, brought that right-wing populism may gain support in many countries. However, more recently the French and Austrian elections vanquished that fear as it was proof that citizens have been watching the effects of populism and have heeded its overwhelming negative effects. I also learned about Glocalities, which is one approach that the EU is using to increase the distance of their reach and convince people of the necessity of the EU. This approach is value-based communication, meaning using very specific value of people in a place or region to convince them of your argument’s merit.

After a great visit at the Council, we walked to the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the European Union, where we got talk to a number of people about their roles within Sweden’s representation. We also discussed the structure of the EU again. I was a little disappointed as I thought the talk would be more policy based but it was informative nonetheless and the people who worked there were knowledgeable and friendly.

Julia P.
Today was such an adventure- both for my mind and for my feet (guess who brought heels!). I started off the day with a classic, delicious European breakfast that left me feeling ready and more excited for the day than I already was. The first place we went was the EU Council, which was just…superb. The halls were ingeniously designed, with wood that was found in all EU countries with sustainable architecture and so much glass and light it felt more like being outside than inside. The other thing I loved about the EU Council building was the color- the backdrop of the elevators, random door, the meeting room floors & ceilings were all decorated with blocks of colors which made the spaces seem to generate creativity on their own. Additionally, I really enjoyed talking with Ms. Alexandra Ekkelenkamp and her experience in the media and communications within the Council.

After that visit, we grabbed lunch from a quaint grocery store- I got a baguette, cheese, and salami and tomatoes for a little but filling lunch. Then we visited the Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU which I think has been the most fascinating part of the trip. We were all captivated by the inner workings of Swedish Government, and especially that if you’ve lived in Sweden for two years and you go to college there you can apply for a grant to study abroad for up to 6 years (hey, mom…?). Additionally, learning about education systems in the EU and the system of European Parliament was absolutely fascinating.

Following that, we went to hotel and changed (into flats!!) and walked to dinner (a little Bulgarian restaurant). I got Tatarskokofte (I’m still not totally sure what it is either, but it tasted amazing) and Ayran (salty, watered down greek yogurt…which tastes how you’d imagine). Today has been so cool and I can’t wait for tomorrow! Bon soir 🙂

Katie B.
Today we got the opportunity to tour the Council to the European Union, both the older building and the newer Europa were incredibly beautiful. I loved the way the buildings connected the rich history of the EU with the innovation of today. I especially enjoyed that the exterior of Europa is comprised of window panes from all EU member states, and that there is color incorporated throughout the building to liven up the space, as well as symbolize the ingenuity and inspiration in the EU and the colorful heritage of every country. We then had a meeting with Angela Ekkelenkamp, where we talked about a variety of interesting topics, including social media, improving communications among member states and the council, digital diplomacy, and Brexit. I really liked talking with her about how useful of a tool social media is in life and how much one can use it to their advantage. I use social media every day but I never fully realized how much use I could get out of it until now. It was also great to hear from a person that actually has been at the EU during and after the Brexit vote. Her focal point is one that I’ve never gotten to understand before and it was a really unique and beneficial point of view to get a better understanding of what’s going to happen with the UK and the EU.

After the visit to the Council we got to go to the Permanent Representative of Sweden to the EU. Our meeting there was really fascinating because we got the chance to hear from various members that actually work with the council or EU Parliament. I really enjoyed hearing about parliament and the different political parties and how they typically would form coalitions. I also really loved hearing about the education strategies of Sweden. I’ve always admired Sweden’s way of doing things and I think their various plans to tackle issues such as migrants needing an education but not knowing the language, to lessening the amount of people leaving school early is really interesting and is definitely having a positive impact on their community.

Thanks for reading.

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