A complete guide to a Keele University SPIRE trip to Brussels
By Eleanor Fisher
18 students, two lecturers, one SPIRE trip to Brussels to learn about the EU institutions…Right after the UK voted to leave the EU. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer? Nothing. All went to plan…(mostly)! Although, with politics and law students you can’t go four days without a conversation about Brexit and the single market along with its relation to freedom of movement.
Sleepy-eyed students met between 9:00 and 9:30am at ‘The Lovers’ statue in St Pancras International. Not recognising many faces, we were all a little nervous about the days ahead, however you wouldn’t know why now! Chris handed out our tickets, and told us three rules for the trip:
Rule 1: Be punctual.
Rule 2: Chris and Liz are serious about rule 1.
Rule 3: This is an educational trip as much as it is a fun trip.
I don’t think any of us fully understood the third rule until we were handed a quiz once we boarded the Eurostar, with prizes for the highest score…Thanks Chris! With very limited knowledge of the EU, I attempted the quiz of the EU institutions, which included questions such as ‘Who is the President of the EU Commission?’ and ‘How many MEPs sit in the European Parliament?’. With some educated guessing and knowledge from the preliminary reading, Louise and I managed to gain a score of 18.5 out of 24. Good, but not enough to win the prize. However, we knew that after the trip, we would pass with flying colours!
Once we arrived at Brussels Midi/Zuid station, we took a fifteen minute walk to our accommodation and had a group meeting about the itinerary for the next few days, jam packed with visits to all the EU institutions. Then, we were loose to sightsee around Brussels.
It was quite clear that the girls and boys held different opinions on the meaning of the word ‘sightseeing’…
All joking aside though, once 8:15am hit on Tuesday
- morning, we were ready for business, visiting the Committee of the Regions promptly at 9:30am. Here we learned all about the functions of the Committee in representing local and regional governments, how often they meet, and how they influence the European Commission and European Parliament. Our visit here was followed by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) which is based in the same building and represents wider civil society interests in EU policy. We spoke to a member of the committee who told us about her role and answered our questions about Brexit and the impact the result of the referendum will have on the committees and the UK’s place in the EU institutions. After lunch, we visited the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (which acts as the British embassy to the EU). We were privileged enough to speak to a senior representative who told us about his role in the institution, the EU’s legislative process, how the UK influences the EU, and again, answered our questions about Brexit and the single market.
That evening, we had the chance to properly get to know one another, with a group social event, including dinner and drinks (after all, you can’t go to Brussels and try the beer!).
Trying to get a table for 20 was a bit of a struggle, but after speaking bad French, and negotiating with the waiters to have two tables of nine, we managed to all get together!
Wednesday was more relaxed, with the morning to ourselves to do more ‘sightseeing’ and waffle-consuming. This left the afternoon for us to visit the European Commission, the most (in)famous EU institutions which proposes EU legislation and implement EU policies. We received multiple freebies such as stylish European Commission bags,(which worked as a helpful substitute for my broken backpack), notepads, pens… and, saving the best for last, EU badges! More importantly, though, we had a very informative talk from a Commission official about the citizen knowledge and engagement with the EU. We learnt about the history of the Commission with the aid of an interactive timeline. Our briefing on the EU citizens initiative was held in a formal meeting room fully equipped with translation facilities.
Here we learnt about future plans for EU citizenship and the various schemes the Commission are discussing to improve issues such as employment, climate change, trade, migration, economy, and the EU as a global actor.
Wednesday evening was just as enjoyable, as we all went out for a ‘last supper’ in a restaurant on the Grande Place. This gave us an opportunity to take all sorts of local Belgian cuisine, ranging from horse steak, to rabbit stew. It was amazing to be amongst the lively atmosphere in the centre of the city and tasting the food that the restaurant had to offer!
Thursday eventually came, and Liz and Chris weren’t quite finished educating us all. We still had two more institutions to visit, and plenty more to learn. We left the hotel just slightly after Chris had planned (much to his dismay), ready to visit the Council of the European Union. Now, Chris was insistent that we were there promptly at 9:00am. However, there just happened to be a national protest that day, preventing any public transport operating to our desired destination. Chris was surprisingly calm, but we couldn’t help but capture the look of panic when he found out we might be a little late…
Panic over, we managed to board a train to Bruxelles-Schuman station (named after one of the EU’s ‘founding fathers’) to begin our visit to the Council of the European Union. This institution represents the governments of the EU member states. There we spoke a senior official in the Council in a meeting room usually used for working group committees where ambassadors from each member state negotiate over EU policy. We learnt the seating order reflects the order of rotating Council presidency (currently held by Slovakia). We were given a very informative briefing on the role of the Council in the EU’s legislative process. We also learnt about the Council’s hierarchy, from the working groups, to COREPER I and II, through to the ministerial level. His talk was captivating and left us (and me in particular) wishing to be a part of such an influential institution.
Next up was the European Parliament which, with the Council of the EU, jointly decides most EU legislation. We were shown around the Parliament’s hemicycle and learnt about several art installations and sculptures which symbolised Europe (including a Nordic Noir crime novel written by a Swedish MEP about a man who fell from the twelfth floor of the Parliament onto the sculpture and impaled himself). Unfortunately this tale hadn’t been translated into English so we were unable to read it! Anyway, we learnt about the role of the European Parliament in representing EU citizens and approving EU legislation (and even how Nigel Farage keeps a personal Union flag on his desk in the hemicycle). We then spoke to Daniel Dalton, a Conservative MEP from the West Midlands, who informed us on the role and work of an MEP and tried his best to answer all of our complex questions on Brexit (it was a recurring theme on this trip!), the refugee crisis and the status of Gibraltar.
I found it extremely interesting to learn about all the different stages of the EU’s legislative process and all the institutions involved (some of which I wasn’t aware even existed!). It was also interesting to learn just how many people are involved in the EU institutions, whether it is translating speakers so that representatives can understand and follow (as everyone has the right to listen and read in their own language – there are 24 in total) or actively taking part in advising or influencing the decision making process in EU legislation. Although the UK is sadly leaving the EU, I felt privileged to learn in so much detail about the institutions that have shaped our country and law. Finally, with enough Brussels merchandise by my side, I’d like to say huge thank you to all the people that took time out of their schedules to talk to us and answer our questions, and to Chris and Liz for leading the group safely around Brussels, and putting up with us all for four days!