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Into the heart of Europe: Reflections on the EPS Brussels Field Trip


On November 17th and 18th, the first and second years in the European Politics and Society (EPS) Joint-Master’s degree program gathered together in Brussels for our annual Brussels field trip. The trip was insightful, shaped both by the dynamics of the city itself and by the experiences we shared throughout the weekend.


Beatrice Giovannoni, Emilie Joe Brandt, & Irina Percemli


Brussels: a city of light and darkness


Brussels is a vibrant and multicultural city and the beating heart of the European Union. While walking around, one can hear languages from all over the world and admire the architectural melting pot that characterises the different neighbourhoods.


For a person who is passionate about the politics of the European Union, visiting Brussels is an exciting opportunity to learn more about the inner mechanisms of the EU from the people who work within its institutions.


However, just like every big city, Brussels is a place characterised by light and darkness. The charm of the international capital stands in stark contrast with the increasing poverty and inequality that affect the city’s population. One of Brussels greatest problems nowadays is the rising number of homeless people who cannot afford decent housing and live below the poverty line. While the housing market prices skyrocket, people are often discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, or their low income, thus experiencing the serious risk of having to spend the night in the street. Although the city of Brussels offers structures and programmes to support homeless people and provide them with shelter, the problem is still very much visible in the capital, where people sleep on makeshift mattresses inside the metro stations or on the side of the street.


A further problem that characterises Brussels is the dense car traffic and the often poor air quality of the city. The dangerous concentration of fine particles and/or nitrogen dioxide that can occur in the winter has caused the city to devise a “Brussels pollution peak map” to keep track of possible threats caused by air pollution. Although the introduction of Low Emission Zones (LEZ) has contributed to improving Brussels air quality over the years, the problem of air pollution in the city persists today. In recent times, the EU has been advancing extremely relevant environmental policies such as the The European Green Deal and the Ambient Air Quality Directives. However, the standards and the goals set out in these policies do not seem to be reflected in the situations on the ground in the city of Brussels. This is troubling, as one may expect that the city where a great number of EU officials and decision-makers work and often even live would be at the forefront of turning the EU commitments into reality.


Despite the many challenges that it faces today, Brussels has been improving in many ways throughout the years. Its ability to attract young people and its role at the heart of European politics will hopefully provide the creative energy that it needs to become a positive role model for the cities of Europe and the capitals of the world.


European Identity and its Challenges


One of the highlights of the Brussels field trip was the opportunity to learn more about the EU and its decision-making process. Through experiences like the tour of the European Parliament and the lecture series at the European Commission, we heard various reflections on the work of the Union and the day-to-day experiences of policymakers. However, one of the most interesting insights was understanding how the EU sees itself and its history.






The EU’s self-perception was especially evident on the tour of the House of European History, a museum curated by the European Parliament, meant to interpret history from a European perspective. The first floor explored the question “What is Europe?” — attempting to distinguish Europe from other continents with recognizable motifs related to shared values like democratic decision-making and human dignity.


The second floor presented Europe as a global power, discussing transformations between the 19th and 20th centuries. Then, we were ushered through a section that showed the continental devastation that occurred until 1945, including important arguments on the dangers of totalitarianism. The following section, “Rebuilding a Divided Continent,” discussed Europe’s position in relation to the bi-polar powers: The Soviet Union and the United States.





Afterward, many of the remaining floors dealt with questions of European memory, revealing how the founding of the European Union facilitated cooperation and peace, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.


As students of European Politics, the narratives in the House of European History were familiar. Yet, the absence of certain moments in European history was striking. For example, the museum briefly touched on how Europe was only able to accumulate the wealth and status of a global leader through the violent exploitation of its colonial territories. However, our guide never mentioned the decolonization or the very real, continued neocolonial relationships that EU Member States have with former colonial territories.


Additionally, conceptions of European solidarity, especially during crises like the Euro crisis of 2008, were massive themes. However, there was no recognition of the privileged position of Europe within the broader structure of international relations. Within their discussions of solidarity, there was no reflection on how to show solidarity to those outside of the continent.


These absences were disappointing, illustrating that the European Union has a long way to go in order to authentically honor its promise to uphold and promote its values on an international scale.


Beyond the Brussels Bubble: career opportunities in the heart of the EU


One of the important goals of the Brussels field trip was, of course, to tempt the EPS students into chasing a career in Brussels. Given that many EPSers dream about becoming a part of the so-called ‘Brussels bubble’, it was very exciting to take part in the panels where the EPS alumni currently based in Brussels provided us with insights from their own experience in the city. However, with all the talks about having to prepare over 40 applications or compete with fifteen thousand people for an internship in the EU institutions, the excitement also got tainted by a little bit of concern.




Besides high competition, another issue that many speakers mentioned was the additional obstacles that non-EU citizens face to obtain a job in EU institutions. “Students outside of the EU, you can sleep for the next half an hour”— said jokingly one of the speakers when they were about to start speaking about the Blue Book traineeship in the European Commission. So should students start worrying or even give up the Brussels dream? Fortunately, not at all! The good thing about the panels was that the invited alumni had various backgrounds and different opportunities to present which also included non-EU citizens.


For example, Lennart Paetz, an alumnus from 2022, told the story of how he managed to get an associate position in ‘365 Sherpas Brussels’, which is a consulting organisation for policy and corporate affairs. Another alumnus from the same year, Ziad Dakroub, introduced the possibility to continue his studies in the College of Europe, the leading institute for European affairs. Another good option can be working in various nongovernmental organisations supported by the EU, such as European Network for Social Integration Enterprises (ENSIE), European Network Against Racism (ENAR), or European Women’s Lobby.


For those who despite all the pressure feel themselves committed to becoming a part of the ‘Brussels bubble’, Covadonga Morales (Blue Book trainee at European Commission) and Ana Puljiz (trainee at European Parliament), who by the way is a non-EU citizen, told many helpful tips, including the advice to use all the advantages the EPS programme gives us for a strong CV. An even more important tip that all the speakers mentioned was building a network. And this was another quite well-accomplished aim of the Brussels field trip.


Conclusion


The Brussels Field Trip of this year was a crucial learning experience both for those who recently became EPS students and for those who are approaching the end of the programme. On one hand, the experiences within the institution and seeing how the EU presents itself brought forth important discussions among EPS students about the challenges and opportunities we see related to the the future of the EU.


On the other hand, the trip provided us with a platform to build community within the program, providing us with a space to share our thoughts and experiences, and support one another as young-professionals. As we enter into our careers and reflect on the societal, political, economic and cultural processes that shape contemporary Europe, it is essential for us to lean on the diverse knowledge-base and support system that exists within our EPS community. This, in our view, is the way we can build a ‘EPS legacy’ for present students and and students to come.


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