Brussels is seen by many as the capital of Europe and the EU. It is the location of key EU institutions such as of the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council. It is also the location for committee meetings and some plenary sessions of the European Parliament albeit the primary home of the European Parliament is Strasbourg.
What is striking about Brussels is the extent to which it has been at the centre of European affairs, almost reluctantly so, for centuries. A rather unassuming plaque on Grand Place marks the spot where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on The Communist Manifesto.
Nearby is the house where Victor Hugo developed writings that would become his masterpiece, Les Miserables. Both Karl Marx and Victor Hugo had sought political refuge in Brussels. Other writers to have been inspired by Brussels include the Brontë sisters and our very own Sir Walter Scott. It is clear that Brussels has been a welcoming and tolerant place for centuries. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that it later became the de facto capital of Europe.
The primary purpose of our visit was to explore the European institutions and get a better sense of how the EU works and how this then affects public administration. A key highlight of the trip was our visit to the EU Parliament and the adjoining visitor centre – the Parliamentarium.
The Parliamentarium provides an exceptional account of the development and workings of the EU institutions. The exhibition starts with some deeply moving accounts of Europe before the EU was established – plagued by war and poverty.
These stark images were set alongside some key quotes setting out the vision of a more prosperous, peaceful and united Europe that latter became the European Union.
Later parts of the exhibition set out how early agreements on integration of the Western European coal and steel industries later developed into the European Economic Community and eventually to the establishment of the European Union with free movement of people, a shared currency and free trade. Again the images portraying the expansion of the EU community were set alongside images of major world events such as the Fall of the Berlin Wall which influenced it’s development and expansion over time.
The final part of the exhibition explained how the different parts of the EU work in practice. This allowed our MPA students to fully explore the nature of decision-making within the EU.
Having completed our tour we congregated at the Parliamentarium cafe and were struck by the presence of several copies of the letter from UK Prime Minister Theresa May to European Council President Donald Tusk which invoked Article 50 just a few days before our trip.
Exploring the city further during our visit it is clear that Brussels remains a tolerant and welcoming place. Today Brussels is the multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic capital of Europe. It has the second highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any city in the world (62%). It remains hugely influential within Europe and indeed throughout the world. It will continue to do so without the UK being a member of the EU. Hopefully it will continue to be a tolerant and welcoming place – and perhaps parts, or the whole, of the UK will be welcomed back some day.
I certainly think Brussels left it’s mark on our students. Visiting the EU institutions and seeing how they work has, I hope, raised their awareness and appreciation of the EU more than any book or academic journal article would. I only wish more students and more members of the public could benefit from this experience.
I now look forward to our new cohort of MPA students and hope that we may be welcomed back to Brussels next year. As for Scotland and the UK – it would seem like anyone’s guess as to what will happen next – but I look forward to finding out!
We are now accepting applications to start the MPA in September 2017. Find out more here: http://www.qmu.ac.uk/courses/PGCourse.cfm?c_id=277