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Report by Lucy OWENS (year 13 Politics student) about her visit to the European Parliament in Nov/Dec 2016
Monday 28th November, 2016
This morning I got up at 4:45am to catch the 5:20am from Uckfield, a time of day I will admit I am not and will never be used to. I got the 8:04 Eurostar train, arriving in Brussels at 11:05 CET to be met by Joost and Jess, two of Catherine Bearder’s lovely assistants. Jess is from Kent, right next door to Sussex, so it’s nice to meet someone who feels close to home as well as Joost and two Dutch visitors (Romy and Merve), all incredibly interesting people already. After dropping our stuff at the hotel, we all headed off to the European Parliament for a lunch with the other young visitors and Sophie in ‘t Veld, the MEP that organises the Young Visitors Programme who is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party, a left, pro-European party who currently have 68 elected MEPs in the European Parliament. She’s so welcoming and interesting, listening to her talk about the EU and about the programme was fascinating. The other young visitors are all incredibly lovely people, and to my surprise all speak excellent English, which is a wonderful surprise with a somewhat embarrassed note at my own appalling language skills.
We went to the Parliament Museum and played a role play Parliamentarian game, which was both amazingly informative and a very fun and friendly activity, which allowed us all to get to know each other in a bit more of a relaxed space. It was useful in explaining that the European Parliament are the ones who debate and vote on legislation proposed and the amendments individuals and parties wish to make so that it may eventually become European law. We then headed back to the hotel and ate pizza together whilst listening to small presentations about each other’s countries, all of which have such rich and diverse histories that were fascinating to hear about. We exchanged all manner of different foods from our countries, chatted for awhile, and then all headed up to bed. I think we were all a little tired from the early starts and some still rather jet-lagged. Nevertheless, an amazing first day already filled with information and new friends.
What I Learnt:
Whilst people do tend to group “Europeans” together, the amount of diversity just in this group of 18 young people is amazing. We all have our own set of languages, ideals, political outlooks and interests, and yet despite this there has never been a moment of conflict, only interesting and thoughtful discussion coupled with a really friendly atmosphere with a lot of laughter.
Tuesday 29th November, 2016
Today we got the chance to chat more in smaller groups, since we were split up for the photo competition, the theme being “European Identity and Diversity”. My group specifically had people from Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, both countries I was fascinated to learn more and more about.
Our group took a lovely photo of a group of people standing outside the Parliament, and whilst we did not end up winning we were nevertheless proud of the photo we had taken. We then had one of the most interesting talks of the week, in my opinion, from an MEP named Damian Draghici. He was a Romanian man who had been homeless in Greece for a time, then getting a scholarship to Berklee music college in America, winning some Grammys, and then becoming an MEP. He was very quick witted, honest and upfront with us, and had some wonderful insight into both the world and the European Union. The subsequent individual lunch with Catherine Bearder and her team was also a highlight. They gave me some valuable insight into the real workings of the Parliament, and specifically Catherine’s work on both human and wildlife trafficking prevention was just amazing to learn about.
Our teambuilding activity was so much fun, attempting to build models with nothing but spaghetti pieces and marshmallows. Out meeting with Angelika Mlinar was unfortunately quite short because of how busy she is, but so interesting nonetheless. We then had some of the famous Brussels fries to bring an end to an amazing second day.
What I Learnt:
Whilst there is a common misconception that MEPs do nothing and spend all day having fancy lunches and meetings, this could not be more wrong. I couldn’t even begin to fathom trying to do all of the things these people do in one day, and all with only two to five assistants trying to help them coordinate this. They are busy, important people with a real want for change and powerful spirits, at least the ones I’ve met.
The European Parliament is massive. Too big to even try and comprehend even pretending to know my way around. Even following people around I somehow feel lost.
Wednesday 30th November, 2016
The first thing we did was attend the ALDE group meeting in the parliament (which meant a much earlier start), in which we listened to them talk about who they were going to put forward as a candidate for the position of President of the European Parliament once Martin Schulz steps down. The overwhelming majority was for Guy Verhofstadt, a former Prime Minister of Brussels. We then had some group photos done together with the MEPs involved before meeting with the ALDE press team to discuss what they do and how they do it.
It was impressive to hear how strategize every post on every social media is, how much thought goes into it, but ultimately how unpredictable the reaction of the public can be. After some lunch we met with a man from COC Netherland, a group that advocates all around the world for the rights of members of the LGBTI community. He provided us with a lot of information about the history of LGBTI rights in the European Parliament, and an informative map of Europe that demonstrated the most equal and safe countries for LGBTI people, and adversely the worst too. It was both heartwarming and disheartening, both to learn about how such great strides had been made, but also to learn how far this community still has to go. We then got to watch a plenary session primarily focused on debating a proposed trade link with Ghana, and whilst there were few MEPs actually in session it is still an experience I will never forget.
What I Learnt:
The translators in the European Parliament are some of the most incredible and important people in the whole building. The sheer speed and accuracy of the translations - done basically in real time as the person is speaking - is just incredible, I was in absolute awe of all that they do. Without these translations, there is little chance of such fruitful and interesting debate, and their efficiency just amazed me.
The LGBTI community have come so so far all over the European Union. However, there is so much inequality that nobody really talks about, and unfortunately there are not enough people inside the Parliament focusing on this. There definitely needs to be.
Thursday 1st December, 2016
Although we had to get up incredibly early again (somehow I’m still not used to the hour difference) meeting Helga Stevens was so worth it. She’s a Flemish MEP, who also happens to be deaf. She was so coherent, and the strong relationship she has with her translation team was so amazing to witness. She was consistently so interesting, talking of her experiences as somebody working in politics with a disability, and campaigning for these rights for others as much as she can. There was then a much different atmosphere when we heard from the European Humanist Federation, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for secularism within the European Union, mostly to ensure those with a secular view are represented as much as those with a religious one. The atmosphere was more uncomfortable since it had been, since I think there was much disagreement with the views of this particular group, much more than there had been in comparison to the rest of the week. Although they were still very interesting and informative. However, any tension was quickly forgotten when we went on a Brussels City Tour to explore around a bit more.
The city is beautiful and vibrant, with a rich history, especially architecturally. The atomium was a lot bigger in person, an incredibly impressive structure. The bus had a busted tire but other than that we had managed to get 18 young people around the city with no major incident. We then went to the Christmas market in the evening near the Grand Place, which was gorgeous and vibrant and allowed us to just walk around the city as we pleased. Not to feed any type of stereotype, but the waffles in Belgium are one of the most delicious foods I have ever tasted. A great last evening for all of us.
What I Learnt:
The European Union is so much more involved in our lives, including in religious communities, than it first presents. They do have meetings with many religious leaders, and although there is little religious influence it was interesting to hear how restricted their communication is to protect this secularisation of legislation. There is a lot of emotion within the debate around religious involvement within the European Parliament.
Groups trying to campaign for change within the European Union face so many obstacles and challenges.
Brussels has so much more history than I ever knew. It surprised me how little I knew about a country so close and important.
Friday 2nd December, 2016
We all met in the hotel lobby to go to the European Parliament to say some final sad goodbyes. I ended up saying to basically everyone to contact me if they’re ever in the UK, since I’m definitely going to stay in contact with all of these new and interesting people as much as I can. We all took one last group picture and headed our separate ways after an amazing and inspiring week that will surely stay in my memory for the rest of my life.
What I Learnt:
The European Union is a vibrant and powerful institution that is just amazing to bear witness to. It is a shame that we are leaving, since I believe (whilst the EU has its problems) we have so much potential to make this world a better, stronger place.
Everyone really does love the English accent. It’s not a just a stereotype.
Everyone wants to know about Brexit! It was definitely the hot topic for me once people found out I was English. Everyone wanted to know my own opinion, as well as what the UK was like now that Brexit had occurred. Everyone had such excellent knowledge about it and were so keen to learn even more.
This was an absolutely incredible week in which I made so many new friends who were just fascinating to spend the week with. The whole Parliament is filled with inspiring individuals who work so hard every single day to make the change they want to see, and I am in awe of the whole institution and the amazing people it houses.