Brussels Study Trip: Blog 2

**Note: If you missed “Blog 1”, click here.

After months of planning and reading, we’re finally here.  The weather was perfect today, and since we had no institutional visits scheduled, we did typical tourist activities- Grand Place, Manneken-Pis, double-decker bus tour of Brussels, and of course, waffles.

I am very excited to see how my students grow on this trip.  All of them are in Model UN and are interested in international relations and global issues, but I really want to increase their understanding of and appreciation for the EU and transatlantic relations.

For this post, I asked them to write a few words about their initial observations of Brussels.  Stay tuned for more throughout the week.

Ali B.
After completing our first day in Brussels, we managed to see a whole array of different things within the city. My favorite thing we did today was go on a bus tour to many significant landmarks throughout Brussels. Although I was at first wary of the tour being overly “tourist- based”, it was a terrific way to learn and experience many sites we otherwise wouldn’t go to. As the bus drove up to the Atomium I was immediately shocked at the stature of the building. Pictures could never prepare a person for how large it truly was. Also on this tour we were taken past gardens, cathedrals, and homes of past influential people of the city. After the tour we walked around Grand Place, where the surrounding buildings were unique with details along the sides. I expected Brussels to be much smaller overall. Although there are tourist based spots, a majority of the city is maintained as it’s initial state. I’m excited to learn more about Brussels history as the trip continues.

Andy K.
Throughout my entire life I have wanted to visit Europe and finally this gave me a chance, and it hasn’t disappointed. From the narrow winding streets to the prestigious churches towering over the city, this place is truly a unique one. Since the minute I have gotten here, I have been surprised by a number of different aspects of the city. For instance the massive emphasis on multilingualism is something I have never witnessed in the United States. Yes we have many different languages, but it is new to me for so many citizens to speak a variety of languages. More than anything though, the clash of historical and modern architecture gives the city a look that is very new to me. You can notice it anywhere, with modern day company buildings set right next to buildings built over 500 years ago. Today was only the start of the comparison of the many similarities and differences between the US and Brussels. However due to the longevity of buildings, cobblestone roads, and slight differences in how nearly everything is run, Brussels is clearly a city unlike any I have witnessed in my life.

Bailey A.
Today we arrived! Right off the bat I was impressed by customs, the lines were very short and the questions reasonable. This was very exciting because we were able to get out of the airport in under an hour to start our day. Once we started exploring I was very impressed with everyone’s mastery of languages, I didn’t get to use my French at all. I’m very glad we arrived on a quiet day, so we could get oriented without traffic adding new stress. We took a very interesting tour bus to the Atomium, and were able to see a lot of the major attractions without all the hassle. On that note, I was expecting the Mannekin Pis to be bigger! It was very cool nonetheless and I can’t wait to see more of the city while learning more about the EU.

Cat G.
Currently I’m running on very little sleep, but Brussels is absolutely gorgeous.  I love the architecture of all the buildings, and it’s so cool hear so many different languages when walking around the city.  We went to the Grand Plaza and it was absolutely astounding, I also really liked the tourbus ride we took of the Brussels, it was really cool to see all the different parts of the city.  So far I have had two Belgian waffles and one Gelato Cone and I couldn’t be happier.  I’m really excited to talk to the Sweden Representative to the EU tomorrow because I really admire their feminist foreign policy and I want to know more about how they use it when interacting with other countries, especially those with differing societal values.  I’m also really looking forward to sitting in on the EU council, and see how it actually operates from a first person perspective instead of just reading about it.  Today (and yesterday) has been a really wild, really phenomenal day and I’m really excited to see what tomorrow and the rest of this week has in store.  Bonsoir from Brussels!

Greta S.
Before coming, I was expecting to be most shocked by not being around only English, but I was actually way more surprised at how European everything is. Seeing the old buildings and statues and the stone streets is something I never really get to see in the United States, and seeing such a stark difference from the moment of walking on the streets was amazing. The bus tour was fascinating and showed me places I would have otherwise never known about, and walking around the Grand Place was beautiful. Even the hotel room feels new and makes it that much more special. It’s surreal to think that I’ve actually left the country and that I’m actually in Brussels, but it’s so incredible and I am so happy I’m here.

Joe G.
Today we arrived in Brussels, and promptly walked from our hotel to the Grand Place where we had lunch. I was immediately taken by the beautiful architecture and scenery surrounding us on all sides; the narrow streets, old buildings, and cobblestone sidewalks created a feeling of intimacy, a closeness shared between the city and I. We continued exploring the city on a bus tour, stopping at major landmarks, and niche neighborhoods along the way. The rich social and cultural history and influence held by this city is as far-reaching as it is intriguing. The Belgian people I have encountered have been open, friendly and helpful. There is much more of a feeling of connectedness, of respect, and of empathy here than in the U.S. It has already become very clear in the short time that i’ve been here that Belgians are proud of themselves and of their city, and I think justly so.

Julia P.
Whew! What a crazy, fantastic, awe-inspiring 24 hours – at this time yesterday our plane was taxing to the runway. After an 8 hr flight with movies & meals, we got into Brussels Airport around 9am Belgium time- 2am Wisconsin time!! But even though we were running on four hours of sleep (or less), there’s just something about this city that’s so energizing (well…except for dragging our suitcases up cobblestone hills). I loved the way old and new blend in this city- red roofs and intricate carvings mingle with glass and steel in the most interesting and amazing way possible. I also enjoyed the Grand Plaza, with the gilded buildings and little cafes hinting at a Parisian background it was just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. But there’s no way one can see all of Brussels on foot as well as the double decker bus we took around Northern Brussels- which was fantastic, and featured the Atomium and gelato cones as well as many beautiful basilicas and churches. After that though, we all very much appreciated a nap before heading out to get the famed Belgian Waffles which were all they are hyped up to be. I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep in a bed (!!) before heading to the EU Council  and the Sweden Representative to the EU tomorrow. I’m excited to observe the inner workings of the council! Additionally, I’m interested to see how Sweden got their foreign policy up and going in the first place (from idea to reality) and how this policy has effected their relations with other countries- especially those in the middle east who tend towards the opposite side of the gender equality spectrum. All in all, with the birds chirping and live music strumming outside my window, and a view of intricate marble carvings sheltered by a classic European style tiled roof, I’m amazed by the crazy, fantastic-ness of this day and can’t wait for tomorrow! Au revoir!

Katie B.
During our first day in Brussels we did a lot of sightseeing and walking around the city. A few things that I found especially interesting were l’Atomium, le Mannequin Pis, and the unique balance seen with the abundance of tourist attractions in a beautiful, historical city. Finally getting to see l’Atomium in person was amazing because it is just so much larger than expected. It was really astonishing to stand underneath it and appreciate that it’s not just a sculpture but a functioning museum. I loved getting the chance to see le Mannequin Pis as well because it is such an infamous fountain head that has such a cool history and tradition behind it. It’s always amazing to see art in person that you’ve only seen in pictures. Lastly, I thought the fact that the city is equal parts waffle shops, souvenir stores, and bus tours, and beautiful statues, homes and parks, is really wonderful and makes Brussels unique.

Thanks for reading.

 

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Brussels Study Trip: Blog 1

I’ve written before about the role teachers play in transatlantic relations (see, for example, this post and this one), and I teach about the EU in my classes, but this year I wanted to take it a step further- I decided to take my students to Brussels. For one week (July 8-15), I’ll be taking eight students on a study trip to learn about the EU and transatlantic relations.  During that time, we’ll be visiting the following places:

  • The EU Council (thanks to Alexandra Ekkelenkamp and Dominique Bryan for helping to coordinate this visit)
  • The Permanent Representation of Sweden to the EU (thanks to Anna-Charlotta Erikson for helping to coordinate this visit)
  • The European External Action Service (thanks to Nicole Meijer for helping to coordinate this visit)
  • The European Parliament (thanks to Kirsten Jongberg for helping to coordinate this visit)
  • The European Committee of the Regions (thanks to Katie Owens and Francoise Dumont for helping to coordinate this visit)
  • Sweden’s Social Democrats in the European Parliament (thanks to Helena Strandberg-Luthi and Elisabeth Gehrke for helping to coordinate this visit, and thanks to MEP Jytte Guteland for agreeing to meet with us)
  • Deutsche Welle (thanks to Steffi Rosenbusch and Maximilian Hofmann for helping to coordinate this visit)
  • US Mission to the EU (unfortunately, they had to cancel our visit due to last-minute obligations)
  • #EUTweetUp (thanks to Jon Worth and Katie Owens for helping to coordinate this)
  • The House of European History
  • Bruges

To help them prepare, we met once a month, read a number of articles/papers, and visited the websites of each of the places.  I also created a Twitter list of the places we’ll be visiting and some of the people we’ll be meeting.

During our time there, my students and I will be sharing our experiences via social media and this blog.  To begin with, I had them write a paragraph about what they hoped to gain out of the trip.  Here are six of the responses:

Katie B.
I am so excited that my first time traveling to another country is to Brussels for this EU study trip! This trip is so full of wonderful opportunities and I’m so grateful I am able to participate. One thing I am especially looking forward to is our meeting with Sweden’s representative to the EU. I admire Sweden’s feminist approach to foreign policy, it is so comprehensive and well thought out and their execution is incredibly effective. I really think it is one of the main reasons they are such a successful, democratic, and advanced nation, so I hope to ask a lot of questions and gain a lot of information from that meeting. I am also really excited for our day trip to Bruges! The history behind art and architecture fascinates me, so Bruges, with its rich history and and gorgeous architecture, has been a dream destination of mine. There are so many wonderful things planned for the trip, and I can’t wait to go and experience it all next month!

Andy K.
In my entire life I have never been more excited about a trip and the prospects that it holds. As someone who is deeply passionate about politics, I relish at this amazing opportunity that this trip will give me to explore international relations.  I may not always agree on everything that the European Union does, however I must grasp a deeper knowledge on how it functions productively while balancing the wants of sovereign nations. Within this, I am specifically curious on economic policy and trade. For instance how does the EU ensure that trade agreements are beneficial to all member states with each individual state having diversified economies? Questions like this fascinate me and I hope I can get answers about them. On a different note I am looking forward to immersing myself in the culture of Brussels. For many years I have wanted to go to Europe and finally this trip gives me the chance to personally experience it. In conclusion I can’t wait for the knowledge that this trip will equip me with and the lifelong memories that I will make.

Julia P.
I’m super excited to not only see the past- the beautiful buildings and streets of the city- but also the future. I look forward to meeting with representatives from Sweden and the US missions to the EU and NATO to talk with them about what is happening now and their plans to change the world. I’d love to ask them how the Trump presidency has changed their personal experiences and/or altered their jobs. As this is a field I am considering for a career, I’d also like to ask them what their job entails on a day to day basis. Additionally, I hope to gain a broader, more internationally based knowledge on US issues. Living in the US can make a sheltered view on these topics, and I’m very interested to see how the international community views things such as border control, refugees, and healthcare. Lastly, I hope to also get to know the city of Brussels itself, and really experience the culture and pulse of this beautiful city. I’m looking forward to the trip!!

Bailey A.
You are not often given the chance to widen your worldview when living in a small town, inside a liberal bubble, in a state people in the rest of the country can’t even point out on a map. These exact reasons are why I jumped at the chance to visit a place with a nearly continental government, an institution the likes of which have never been seen before. Traveling abroad is a wonderful opportunity and learning experience, especially when combined with in-depth learning about world politics in the current political climate. It deeply interests me to learn about how everything is juggled between institutions, getting regional support, working on better trade, cooperating with volatile neighbor countries, countries making unpopular decisions, and foreign policy, while still managing to agree and be a leading world power. These are ambitious goals that are completely achievable with a strong system like this, and I can’t wait to see how they all fit together. I am also looking forward to speaking with Sweden’s Representative to the EU. Next year one of the three countries our Model UN team is representing is Sweden, and I can’t think of any better way to learn about Sweden than from one of the people who knows it best. I am really looking forward to meeting some of the people who make this whole operation work, while visiting such an amazing and historic country.

Catalina G.
I am really looking forward to this trip.  It will be really interesting to gain some more insight on transatlantic relations between the EU and the US.  I would especially like to gain some insight from government members in Brussels, both a UN and EU hotspot on their reactions to the US backing out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.  It will also be fascinating to learn more about the EU in general, and to learn about how it’s going to have to function differently after Brexit because I know the EU hit some bumps in November after the Brexit outcome.  I would also like to hear more about what that’s going to mean for the EU economy and the UK’s economy.  Another huge point of interest for me is Swedens feminist foreign policy and I would really like to know more about the impact it has in the EU.

Greta S.
If I’m honest, my initial reason for wanting to go to Brussels was because I had never left the country before and I knew my parents would say yes to this. However, my reasons for wanting to go were not all superficial. I knew my parents would say yes because they never say no to an opportunity to learn, and they knew that I would learn infinitely more going to Brussels than I would from any textbook or class. By going I am going to Brussels, I can see how what I learn is applied and how it is really played out. I can also ask questions that I want to know, and can find the answer to the question I want answered, and not ones that other people want answered. I also wanted to go because I wanted to see something different, and Brussels will be very different for me. I’ve had really similar experiences to all of my friends at school and just by being surrounded by people who aren’t exactly like me will teach me about who I am. I really love learning, and by going to Brussels I will gain factual, cultural, and personal knowledge, and I’m really excited for it.

Thanks for reading.

Help Us, Europe- You’re Our Only Hope

Since his inauguration, President Trump has made it clear that American foreign policy will be based on the idea of “America first.”  What that looks like exactly is unclear, given the sometimes contradictory messages from various administration officials.  What we do know, however, is that America’s role as a global leader has now diminished so much that US foreign policy is an example of how NOT to approach global issues.  This is especially evident in a number of areas, including the UN and development assistance, NATO, and climate change.

The UN and Development Assistance
President Trump’s FY2018 budget “proposes that the Department of State examine options to: (a) reduce the levels of international organizations’ budgets, (b) reduce U.S. assessment rates, and/or (c) not pay U.S. assessments in full.” (p. 71 of Major Savings and Reforms: Budget of the U.S. Government“)  This would lead to an overall reduction of $786 million for international organizations contributions.

Additionally, in January 2017, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), introduced H.R. 193- American Sovereignty Restoration Act, which called for the US to withdraw from the UN.  While the bill most likely will not become a law, it does illustrate that some members of Congress are taking the “America first” mentality to a whole new level.

If the US does not fulfill its responsibilities with the UN, then it falls upon Europe to fill the void.  On May 17, 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke at the European Parliament and said that “A strong and united Europe is an absolutely fundamental pillar of a strong and effective United Nations.”  This is especially important given the White House’s current attitude.

When it comes to official development assistance (ODA), the US has consistently fallen short of the target of .7% of GNI.  In 2016, the US spent .18% of GNI on ODA, placing it eighth worst among OECD countries; however, it was number one in overall spending with $33.59 billion.  Imagine how much good could have been done had the US met the .7% target.  Unfortunately, the outlook is not promising, as President Trump’s budget would eliminate $2.5 billion in ODA (p. 67 of Major Savings and Reforms).

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 10.41.18 AM

Even though the US fell short, six of our European allies met or exceeded the .7% target, with Norway leading the way at 1.11%.  For those six countries, the total amount adds up to $54.65 billion, well above the US amount.  The irony here is that while President Trump has chastised our NATO allies for not spending 2% of GDP on defense, the US has not met the target for ODA.

NATO
As for NATO, President Trump spoke in Brussels on May 25, 2017, at the unveiling of the Article 5 and Berlin Wall memorials.  In his remarks, the President pretty much scolded our NATO allies:

“The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders.  These grave security concerns are the same reason that I have been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenberg and members of the Alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations, for 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense.

This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.  And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.  Over the last eight years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined.  If all NATO members had spent just 2 percent of their GDP on defense last year, we would have had another $119 billion for our collective defense and for the financing of additional NATO reserves.

We should recognize that with these chronic underpayments and growing threats, even 2 percent of GDP is insufficient to close the gaps in modernizing, readiness, and the size of forces.  We have to make up for the many years lost.  Two percent is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats.  If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions, then NATO would be even stronger than it is today, especially from the threat of terrorism.” 

The picture below sums up the response by the other NATO leaders in attendance.

NATO Leaders Smirk
Photo from Deutsche Welle. http://www.dw.com/en/some-nato-leaders-smirk-others-support-trumps-tough-nato-message/a-38999984

If that wasn’t enough, Trump also pushed the prime minister of Montengro out of the way during the meeting.

A few days after the meeting, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said, “The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent. That is what I experienced in the last few days… That is why I can only say: We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

After the trip, Press Secretary Sean Spicer remarked that “the President is acting to strengthen alliances, to form new partnerships, and to rebuild America’s standing in the world.”  The reality, of course, is that threatening to cut funds to the UN and alienating allies weakens alliances and demolishes America’s standing in the world.

Climate Change
President Trump and the White House also have an abysmal record on climate change.  According to the White House website, “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”  His budget calls “to eliminate funding in 2018 related to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds (CIFs)” (p. 75 of Major Savings and Reforms).  Furthermore, the budget reduces funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31.4% down to $5.7 billion (p. 42 of Budget of the U.S. Government: A New Foundation for American Greatness).  Additionally, the President has made it clear he is no fan of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate.  As this piece is being written, it is expected Trump will announce the U.S. is withdrawing from the deal.

Across the Atlantic, however, our European allies are committed to fighting climate change.  At a recent UNFCCC conferenceMiguel Arias Cañete, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, said, “We came here to Bonn to advance our work on the rules and instruments to implement the Paris Agreement. We leave Bonn with steadfast progress in many areas. And while much work still lies ahead of us, the cooperative talks and the tangible results show once again the unwavering determination of all of us to turn our commitments into real action.”  Quite the opposite from President Trump.  The EU has also adopted a 2020 Climate & Energy Package and a 2030 Climate & Energy Framework.

Conclusion
President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has left a vacuum of global leadership that could potentially be filled by the EU.  This is a perfect opportunity for bodies like the European External Action Service and EuropeAid to step up and show the world what European cooperation and coordination can accomplish.  For the UN to succeed, and for progress to be made on the Sustainable Development Goals (one of which is climate action), Europe is our only hope.

Thanks for reading.

Ways for Embassies to Engage America’s Youth

I recently saw a job posted by an embassy in Washington, DC, looking for someone to help with youth engagement across the United States.  Since this is an area I am passionate about, I immediately began brainstorming.  The three ideas that I think have the most potential utilize social media, Model UN, and teacher materials.

Most embassies already use social media as a tool for digital diplomacy.  Personnel could use that to engage with both students and teachers across the United States.  For example, I was able to have somebody from the Italian Embassy speak to my students via Skype (not exactly social media, but still a form of engagement via the internet).  Additionally, embassies, or their consulates, could hold Twitter chats.  If they have exchange programs, they could encourage students to post photos to Instagram or Flickr.

Model UN is an opportunity for students to be engaged in international politics, diplomacy, and global issues in an academic setting.  There are a number of conferences held across the country each year from coast to coast, including at least two in Washington, DC.  These would be great opportunities for embassies to hold sessions on their role in the world and international organizations.  As our school’s Model UN advisor, I try to set up trips to the consulates in Chicago when we attend the conferences there.  In the past, we’ve visited the consulates for Greece, Canada, and Mexico.  All of the trips were 1-2 hours long and provided students an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the respective countries.

Finally, one of the most effective ways to reach students is through their teachers.  Reaching one high school teacher, for example, means reaching approximately one hundred students.  If embassies had lesson plans on their country, relations with the US, or more, it would exponentially increase its reach among American youth.  For example, the UK embassy could create lesson plans for AP Comparative Government and Politics (as it is one of the six countries teachers are mandated to teach), AP US History, AP European History, AP English Lit, and so on.  When I taught my students about the UK under Thatcher, I used videos from The Specials and Madness.

These are just three ideas that embassies in Washington, DC, could use to engage American students.  If you’ve got any other ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for reading.

Takeaways from the Marshall Seminar on Transatlantic Security

I had the honor of attending the German Marshall Fund’s Marshall Seminar on Transatlantic Security from April 22-24, 2015.  For three days, participants listened to experts discuss the challenges and possibilities in a variety of areas of transatlantic relations.  On the last day, we were asked three questions: 1) What was the most important thing we learned? 2) What will we do with the knowledge? 3) Where is the greatest potential for transatlantic cooperation?  Here are my thoughts on them.

What was the most important thing we learned?
While there were many, many interesting and important points made by the speakers, two ideas really stuck with me.

During the panel on Russia and the Middle East, Ian Lesser said that one of the most important issues in maintaining and strengthening transatlantic relations today is getting the U.S. to see issues/problems through a European lens.  While I agree with his assessment, I think getting both U.S. policymakers and the public to do so will be an uphill battle.  Europe does not receive as much attention in the media as say, Asia (i.e. China) or the Middle East (given our involvement there for over a decade).  A good example of this is the debate surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  The U.S. government is not doing a great job explaining and promoting TTIP.  As Rep. Sandy Levin explained recently at the Bertelsmann Foundation, “TTIP is essentially unknown in the US Congress.”  If Congress doesn’t know much about TTIP, what does that say about the public’s knowledge of it?  So, the question we should ask ourselves is how do we get the public and our elected officials to care about Europe?  How should the government (e.g. the State Department, NATO, the US Trade Rep,  etc.) convince the American public that Europe still matters?

The panel on challenges to democracy was informative and gave me a lot to think about.  In his introductory remarks, Ivan Vejvoda brought up the point that democracy is an ongoing process.  Of course, if that is the case (which I believe it is), then is democracy truly attainable?  Brenda Carter, of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, shared some enlightening data concerning political representation and demographics of power here in the U.S.  Here argument that we should apply the same scrutiny to the U.S. as we do other countries when it comes to democracy was certainly thought-provoking.  Finally, Mohamed-Ali Adraoui asked the question, “If some people don’t matter, then what happens to democracy?”  His discussion of identity and exclusion in democracy was certainly relevant in both Europe and the U.S.

What will we do with the knowledge?
As a teacher, I plan on taking the information and turning it into lesson plans.  The panels on climate change and migration, global health, democracy were all very useful and provided ideas for the classroom.  They will be especially useful during my units on the Sustainable Development Goals.  The panel on democracy, as discussed above, is also relevant for my classes on government and politics.

Where is the greatest potential for transatlantic cooperation?
As far as the topics of the panels go, the U.S. and Europe can cooperate on a number of areas.  All of the issues covered were global issues, necessitating global solutions.  No one country can tackle them alone.  While a certain degree of competition among countries will always exist, the U.S. and its European allies must cooperate and work towards multilateral solutions.  Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic can learn from each other; however, that requires a greater degree of flexibility and innovation than currently exists.

I also believe, as I have written before, that teachers need to be more involved to promote transatlantic relations.  I am developing the rough outline of a possible teacher program that I hope to share with relevant parties (and perhaps on this blog) in the near future.  If we want the public to understand why Europe still matters to the U.S. and to see global issues/problems through a European lens, teachers must be involved.

Attending this seminar was the best professional development I have had in my thirteen years as a teacher.  I would love to attend more like it and even apply for fellowships or programs whose goals are to maintain and strengthen transatlantic relations.  Ideally, I would prefer to leave teaching and work full time on such matters.  Unfortunately, as I look for such opportunities, I realize that as I fast approach 40 years old, my chances are limited.

Thanks for reading.