Welcome to Brussels: An introduction to the European Union

Hello and Greetings from Brussels, Belgium, the home of the European Union!

I’m here on a tour sponsored by the European Union Delegation to the United States for graduate students in journalism to learn more about what it does and its relations with the United States. It has already been a fascinating trip and we’re only on day one. I would like to share with you some of my reflections from this trip so far. (Note: I want to point out these thoughts that I share are my personal reflections and not necessarily those of the EU.)

American and EU flag pin

It’s an interesting time to be visiting the EU as Britain is trying to exit the European Union. Meanwhile, Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Romewhich established an economic community between six member countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. This economic partnership set the ground work for what developed into the European Union which now consists of 28 member countries — soon to be 27 when the UK “Brexits” (British exit).

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has left many pundits speculating about the future of the organization. But it seems European Council President Donald Tusk’s speech in Rome this weekend commemorating the anniversary has helped calm some nerves.

A lot of our meetings are educational and, thus, off record, but there are some things that are common knowledge yet may still not be familiar to you (as they weren’t to me). I want to share these so that you might better understand the EU.

First of all, we had the opportunity to sit in on the daily press briefing. Much like the White House, the EU has a press conference every day at noon where reporters can ask their questions.

Attending the EU Daily Press Briefing

However, it’s a little different than the White House as many of the reporters submit their questions in writing before or after the press conference. That’s by the reporter’s choice as many of them are not actually in Brussels or may not be available to make the daily briefing. So today’s press conference was by far shorter than what I’ve seen in the U.S.

Reporter’s chair at the EU Daily Press Briefing. Note the headphones (for translation) and microphone (for asking questions).

 

 

Also, the press briefings are conducted in both English and French. The spokespeople seamlessly switch between the two languages. On the chairs, the reporters have a microphone they can pull out when they are called on to ask their question. They also have the availability of headphones with translation into their home language. Along the top of each press room, the translators sit behind glass interpreting what is being said during the briefing.

The questions today ranged from bees, to an opposition leader arrest in Ethiopia, to arms embargoes, to visa reciprocity with the United States (there are five EU countries who are not part of the U.S. visa waiver program).

Each country also has their own press briefing room. This is really just a normal classroom-sized room that each country has set up with their own background and decorations. It was kind of interesting to go from door to door seeing how each country had decorated its room.

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I think one of the challenges for the EU is something people in PR call “telling its story.” It’s a complicated organization to understand, which in politics makes it an easy target. I think there is a lot of work they do that goes unnoticed.

There are several parts to the European Union political structure:

The European Commission consists of subject experts from each of the member countries which work together to draft legislation.

The European Council — from what I understand this council consists of the leaders of the member countries. The leaders of the European countries vote on a president. This position is currently being filled by Poland’s Donald Tusk.

The Council of the EU — from what I understand this council consists of the foreign ministers of each country. Every six months a new country takes the lead of this organization and is currently being served by Malta as president.

Finally, there is the EU parliament, which is elected by the citizens of each EU nation based on population. The next EU parliamentary election is in 2019.

The member countries are all part of Europe and accept the common goals of human dignity, freedom of speech, rule of law and respect of democracy. One thing I also found interesting: The EU finds the death penalty to be a human rights abuse, so any nation wishing to join the EU cannot allow the death penalty. (I think the fact that the EU is founded on a principle of human dignity is lost in the conversation in the U.S. about the EU’s migration policy so I wanted to make a point of mentioning that.)

There are a lot of swinging parts to the EU and sometimes it’s a little confusing as to what they all do. (I’m still hoping I have them all straight here.) I’ve personally been surprised at the range of issues the EU is involved in globally. Those vary from economic interests to terrorism/security to economics to migration and other humanitarian crises.

Inside the new Europa Building

As a native Kansas Citian, I’ve been surprised at how often I have heard Europeans mention the upcoming anniversary of the U.S.’s entrance into World War I. Kansas City has the national WWI museum and will be holding a ceremony commemorating the war on April 6. Though you don’t hear much in the U.S. outside of K.C. about this, I’ve heard a lot about the upcoming anniversary here in Brussels. It seems the Europeans view the U.S. entry into that war as the beginning of the modern relationship between Europe and the United States.

Finally, let’s talk about the important part of coming to Belgium: the food. Or — let’s use a fancy term — culinary diplomacy, also known as gastrodiplomacy!

I’ve already had one of their incredible street waffles. For just a euro (about $1.25 USD) you can have one of these incredible things. I still have to go try the frites — but I will leave this post with a picture of those wonderful Belgium waffles!

I’ll update this blog as I have more things to share about Brussels, but bonsoir for now!

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