Euroculture Groningen Class on a Mission: Exploring the Brussels Jungle

From 28-31 October 2012, the MA Euroculture Groningen class went on an excursion to Brussels. Armed with cameras, (digital) compasses, and semi-rested minds due to the previous week’s reading week (which was by most interpreted as a relaxing holiday), we set off for the six-hour train ride and waved goodbye to some of our teachers.

Floor Boele van Hensbroek | floorbvh@gmail.com

Wildest first impression

floor1After arrival, we dropped off our bags at the hotel and started exploring Europe’s political heart. Most of us had not seen Brussels before and we were surprised by its sparkling beauty. Secretly I had expected to see cold and stately buildings, people in suits with deadly-serious glances but, in reality, Brussels is a charming city with a rich history and a lively atmosphere. After having seen the Grande Place, Rue de Bouchers, Place Flagey and tons of chocolatiers showing off their chocolate in creative ways (chocolate hippos?) we stopped for some vlaamse friet. This gave us renewed strength and good soil for our next destination: Delirium Café. This bar is known for its lo(ooo)ng beer list and, of course, we wanted to grab this opportunity to extend our knowledge of this well-appreciated drink. Beer beyond your wildest dreams flowed from the taps, like cactus beer and spice beer which reminded us of Christmas. We enjoyed listening (and watching) a teenager brass band that had spontaneously dropped in and rocked the café with catchy tunes and a swarm of dancing fans. Brussels kept surprising me! Let’s say: we went to bed satisfied.

The coffee smell from Barroso’s desk: the European Commissionfloor5

The next day brought with it some serious business. After stuffing ourselves with pain au chocolats at the hotel breakfast, we visited the European Youth Forum: a platform for youth organisations throughout Europe. The forum represents and advocates for the rights, needs and interests of all young people in Europe by engaging and participating in both national and international initiatives. After the Youth Forum, and a quick lunch on the go, we visited the European Commission. I am not sure what we expected but probably some juicier insider information than the general information talk on the European Union that we got. The speaker was however intriguing and he was able to answer some questions. Also, I found it cool to be so close to where the magic happens, if you know what I mean. Secretly, I was quite impressed  by the EU’s political buildings, as if I could almost smell the coffee on Barroso’s desk, or as if I was just an instant away from important decision-making processes ready to determine my future (OK, let’s not exaggerate). For the first time, I started to think about a career with the EU. I have always neglected this option as I see myself as non-competitive, a bit weird, and overly chaotic, and for some reason this doesn’t rhyme with ‘EU career’. But well, who knows…? After the Commission we visited the Committee of the Regions, where we were warmly welcomed and informed extensively on the work of the CoR. In the evening we had a splendid dinner at a restaurant called Le Volle Gas, situated at Ixelles Elsene. We walked to most of our destinations, when we had the opportunity see lots of the city and, even better, to question each other about our future dreams, past experiences, opinions and knowledge of silly jokes.

Ceci, n’est pas une histoire: Lobby Planet EU

Early the next morning we visited Musée Magritte. Magritte, you must know from his famous “ceci n’est pas une pipe” written under a painting of a pipe. If you ever go to Brussels, don’t miss this one! Thereafter we had a meeting with Koen Roovers, a University Groningen alumnus and coordinator of an ALTER-EU project (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation) at CEO (Corporate Europe Observatory). Of this meeting I will tell you some more as it has opened my eyes to the reality of the EU decision-making processes in Brussels.floor

ALTER-EU consists of about 200 civil society groups, trade unions, academics and public affairs firms that campaign against the increasing influence of corporate lobbyists on the political agenda of Europe, the resulting loss of democracy in EU decision-making and the postponement, weakening, or blockage even, of urgently needed progress on social, environmental and consumer-protection reforms. One interesting phenomenon that ALTER-EU campaigns against is the ‘revolving door’, through which many EU officials go. This means that when they leave their EU job, they soon start working for corporations or lobby firms, often even in the same policy area. It also happens that lobbyists go through the revolving door and start working for the EU. As ALTER-EU itself states “When this happens, corporate groups gain inside-knowledge, vital contacts, and above all, powerful influence”’. An example of a fellow who took the revolving door is Mogens Peter Carl, who was Director-General at DG Environment until 2009 and, only six months later, became senior adviser to one of Brussels’ biggest lobby consultancies which, amongst others, represents a vehicle company. Well that just stinks! Don’t you think? ALTER-EU demands tough, new rules to block the revolving door, such as a ban of at least two years before EU staff can become lobbyists. ALTER-EU offered us a booklet called “Lobby Planet EU”, which shows a map of Brussels with all the lobby firms and large corporations marked on it. Just looking at it makes you think… Brussels really is a wasp’s nest!

Last minute surprise in El Parlamento Europeofloor3

On the same day we also visited the European Parliament. Unfortunately, the information talk was again not entirely adapted to the knowledge we already had on the EU and its Parliament, however we were pleasantly surprised when in the end a Dutch MEP’s personal assistant dropped in to give us some nice insider information on his job. After the visit I asked our supervisor (and ex-Euroculture student), James Leigh, whether he ever considered working for the EU. He answered by describing EU workers as ‘glorified slaves’. Enough said I guess.

At this point it was time to hurry to the train station, buy some last minute chocolates and get back to Groningen. I think we all felt tired, but satisfied. Indeed, we were much more knowledgeable about Brussels, the EU, and definitely each other.

Floor Boele van Hensbroek, Contributing writer

floorI am Floor, Dutch, and 25 years young/old. I studied interdisciplinary social sciences at Utrecht University before starting with Euroculture. I love travelling, dancing, art, theatre, documentaries, tasty food, classy wine and.. actually a lot of other things. I was born in the bush of Zambia with a bush of black curly hair, although now I’m blond as blond can be 🙂 I’m a cynical optimist, that looks for truth even though I believe that all truth is constructed.

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Olomouc – Olomouc is Something

Ludmila Vávrová | lidavavrova@gmail.com

Not many people know about the Czech Republic, except that the beer is cheap there and that Prague is a beautiful city. I spent my autumn semester 2011 (my first semester of the MA Euroculture programme) studying at Palacky University in Olomouc, a town in Moravia in the west of the country (approximately 250km from Prague). Although four decades of communism has left its mark on the Czech Republic, Olomouc remained as a lovely town with cobbled streets, magnificent buildings and rumbling trams all centred around two main squares which bring an amazing atmosphere.

One thing dominates the town: students!

Palacky University, the country’s second oldest only to Charles University in Prague, is a set of buildings just off the main street, the most impressive of which is the library set around a large courtyard.

The Euroculture staff are very friendly, helpful and always keen to teach their classes in the pub over a beer or in the café where the theme of Central Europe is explored from many points of view. The impressive thing about the timetable in Olomouc is that it leaves Monday and Friday free. The international students use the long weekends for frequent travels around the Czech Republic, but also to neighbouring countries such as Austria, Poland, Slovakia, or Hungary. These places offer so much of Europe’s still undiscovered history. Also, the chance to link many of the places that are relevant to your study plan during your stay is very exciting. Most travel can be done by train which is quite frequent and very cheap with a student rail pass. Additionally, the Euroculture classes bring with them excursions related to the study programme, such as a visit to the Hyundai car factory in Nošovice and a sightseeing tour around the Olomouc monuments with a detailed lecture about its history.

In Olomouc you are accommodated in halls of residence called “Neředín” (about 10 minutes from the university by tram). Students share an apartment with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen. The corridor that I lived in had people of many nationalities which gave me a cosmopolitan experience in my own country. Moreover, I could build up friendships all over the world. English is the language predominantly used among all international students.

There is more than enough to do in Olomouc. Every international student can sign up for membership of the local Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organisation, which is very active in organising student trips or special events like the international lunch, and they have many good deals with bars and nightclubs around Olomouc. The ESN team consists of Czech students of the Palacký University who have already done a study exchange abroad and are aware of the interests of incoming international students. Moreover, Olomouc is a town of cafés and student bars. The youth scene is frequently represented by the university students performing any kind of art.

It is interesting to compare my previous study experience in Prague, where I did my undergraduate studies. Even if I enjoyed my time in Prague a lot; in Olomouc I found more smiling people (a part of the Moravian character), higher attachment to Czech and Moravian culture, closer relationships between international students living all in the same place, and much lower-priced goods. In Olomouc you can easily feel at home.

Although I am Czech, I had a wonderful ”Erasmus experience” in Olomouc. It is hard to imagine anyone who would not enjoy a study exchange at Palacký University.

Useful tips

  • Olomouc-Prague return trip ticket costs just around €6 with a student rail pass;
  • “Belmondo” is the most popular Erasmus night club;
  • Olomoucké tvarůžky = a local speciality (extremely smelly cheese);
  • €1 = 25 Czech crowns;
  • Olomouc is good holiday option for your parents to visit you!

Ludmila Vávrová, Olomouc/Indiana Correspondent

Ludmila is from the Czech Republic, and studied Economics and Management for B.Sc. and European Diplomacy for M.Sc. She studied Euroculture in Palacky University, Olomouc and the University of Strasbourg. She is currently doing a research track in Indianapolis with an interest in finding image/word arguments during the 2012 presidential election campaigns in the US and in France. Ludmila is a girl with a dream, mostly involving Czech beer.