Brussels Study Tour 2014

April marked the anniversary of the 51st Easter study tour in a trip to Brussels led by Antony Frost. As the clock struck twelve on 7th April 2014, Laurence Smy, Antony Frost and Laura Higgins met a plethora of study tour participants at St Pancras International including students from various universities, teachers, business people, a retired diplomat and even a retired pathologist.

This thirty strong group preceded to travel together on the Eurostar and were welcomed in Brussels to dinner at Le Cercle des Voyageurs. As the remnants of dinner were cleared from the table, Tim Helm, from the European People’s Party (EPP), stood up to give an impassioned speech about the then impending European Elections and the role the EPP might play in them. This sparked great debate around the table, and was indicative of the engagement and display of deep interest the group would have with all speakers throughout the week.

Tuesday – The Council of the European Union, The European Parliament and The European Commission

Tuesday began with an early start and a whirlwind tour around the key seats of legislative power in Brussels: The Council of the European Union, The European Parliament and The European Commission. At the Council of the European Union, our party was welcomed by Jürgen Neisse, coordinator of the General Secretariats programme for the preparation of future presidencies. We met in a working room, filled with translation equipment (pictured left) and Jürgen informed us of both the council’s role in The European Union and also his own interesting role in preparing future presidencies.

Next stop: The European Parliament where the group were met by Ryan Meilak, Senior Lecturer of the visits and seminars unit, who introduced the group to the European Parliament and the different EU institutions. This was both informative and enjoyable bringing our group, via humour and charm, up to speed with how the EU institutions functioned in relation to one another.

Ryan then introduced us to Sharon Bowles MEP, who had kindly sponsored the tour. Described by EU news website Euractiv (http://www.euractiv.com/) as the most powerful Briton in the EU, Sharon answered a most enlightening Q&A session giving the participants a real feel of the stresses and strains of operating as a top-flight MEP. This was followed by an engaging presentation by Anthony Teasdale, Director General of Parliamentary Research Services and patron of TEAMGlobal, giving the group a British perspective on politics in the European Parliament.

Having indulged in a brief lunch at Le Place de Luxembourg, the group moved to the European Commission where we were met by Maria José Pastor, a vivacious Spaniard from the ‘visits service’, who brought a smile to everybody as she gave us a brief tour to our room. Mr Jamie Andreu, Directorate-General for “Communication”, then spoke to the group about the role of the European Commission and the EU decision-making process. He also fielded a Q&A session where he responded to challenging questions regarding the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission and the measures in place to protect democracy.

Benjamin Angel, Directorate-General for “Economic and Monetary Affairs, then led our group through an in-depth yet remarkably comprehensible economic explanation of the Eurocrisis from the creation of the Euro, a project in which he was involved, right up to 2014. He guided us through complex economic theories with the ease of a seasoned teacher, a rare art and one for which those of us not from an economic background were enormously grateful.

Wednesday – NATO and the US mission to the EU

On Wednesday morning we were met outside our hotel by a coach, sent by NATO, which took us to the NATO headquarters on Boulevard Leopold. After the now accustomed to passport and security checks, we were led into a meeting room by Alison Smith, from the Public Diplomacy Division, and welcomed by Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for the Emerging Security and Challenges Division and longstanding friend and Patron of TEAMGlobal. Jamie, in the relaxed and seasoned fashion which brought him to fame as NATO’s spokesperson during the Balkan’s conflict, fielded questions and answers on a number of contemporary security issues. The sincerity and genuine interest which Jamie dedicated to our questions caused a number of study tour participants to point to this meeting as a key highlight of their week.

After a brief coffee break, the study tour were given two further presentations at NATO. The first was a briefing on NATO partnerships by Mr Ruben-Erik DIAZ-PLAJA, Integration, Partnerships and Cooperation Directorate for the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division. Ruben took us through the difference between NATO members and partners and the different levels of partnership who are involved with the treaty around the globe. This was followed by a presentation by Ms Isabel Fernandez, Head Librarian, who introduced the group to NATO Libguides, a free online tool available at http://www.natolibguides.info/ which include topics that are of current interest to NATO’s mission.

Following a complimentary lunch in the NATO cafeteria, provided by NATO Public Diplomacy Division, the group were taken by coach to The US Mission to the European Union. We were given two briefings: the first by Joe Burke, an Economic Foreign Service Officer from the State Department who had previously operated in Helmand Province, Bogota and Buenos Aires before moving to Brussels. He outlined the US Mission’s work in The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and touched on the implications of a potential referendum on European membership in the United Kingdom and the consequences this might have on trade.

Joe Burke’s presentation was followed by John Sullivan, director of The Public Affairs Office who has worked extensively in Central and South America, the Middle East, Korea and the Ukraine. He conducted an extensive Q&A session with study tour participants which provoked searching questions on US foreign policy amongst the study tour participants, many of whom were from international backgrounds.

Thursday – UKREP, EEAS and the Council of Europe

On Thursday morning, the group arrived at the UK permanent representation to the EU (UKREP) where Brooke Spurling, Political Team Intern, gave a much valued presentation, particularly for the undergraduates, of the career opportunities in the European Union.

Brooke’s presentation was followed by a brief talk on the Economy and taxation by John O’Regan, First Secretary to the Finance and Taxation Section. Karen Massin, Chief Operating Officer at Burson Marsteller, a public relations firm catering to the public sector then spoke about “The British Problem as seen from the Mainland”.

The final presentation at UKREP was given by Piers Fotiadis, Senior Political and Communications Officer for the FCO at the British Embassy in Belgium. Piers outlined the sort of tasks involved in his job including preparations for a royal visit to Belgium to mark the centenary of WWI. He also spoke briefly about his own entry into to the Foreign Office and the various alterative options available to those interested in life in the diplomatic service.

Following a luxurious sandwich buffet Lunch at the UKREP, provided by TEAMGlobal, where we were joined by various operational staff, the tour met across the road at the European External Action Service (EEAS). The EEAS is a relatively new department, launched in 2010 following the Lisbon Treaty to serve as the diplomatic arm of the EU. Here, we were given a presentation and quick fire Q&A session by Mr Ross Church, Information and Communications Officer of the Strategic Communications Division. Ross fielded a great number of questions regarding foreign policy and the EU’s diplomatic role in conflict, particularly in the still ongoing crisis in The Ukraine.

Ross then gave way to Mr Alar Olljum, Advisor to the Managing Director for North Africa, The Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, Iran & Iraq. Alar presented on the changing role of EU policy post Arab Spring and the effects that the uprisings have had on EU relations with the affected regions.

Our final stop on Thursday was at The Council of Europe, who went to great lengths to make sure we understood that they were a completely different body to the Council of the European Union and the European Council. Andrew Cutting, Brussels Press Officer at the Council of Europe Liaison Office, took us through an excellent presentation entitled “Promoting European Values, the council of Europe and the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights).”

Andrew’s presentation provoked great debate around the table about Europe’s Human Rights law and its representation in the UK press as ‘at odds’ with UK law (For example, the controversial ongoing discussion of prisoners’ rights to vote). He graciously took impassioned questions from study tour members and helped all participants to understand what the Council of Europe’s role was in Europe and the wider world.

Friday – The Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

After a final departure from our hotel, we arrived by coach in Mons, some 65km south of Brussels, at The Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). After arriving at the compound we were led into a briefing room by Lieutenant Le Lidec, who gave us an overview of SHAPE and Allied Command Operations. She also offered the group an insider’s view into life on SHAPE’s extensive compound, home to hundreds of civilians and service people from all over the world.

The second briefing the group was treated to at SHAPE was by Lieutenant Colonel Vilma Vaiceliune, who spoke about NATO military Partnerships, a topic which he expanded on following our briefing at the NATO headquarters. Finally, Lieutenant Le Lidec moderated in a Q&A session attended by Lieutenant Colonel Vilma Vaiceliune, Major Shawn Kyle, USA and LTU A, SHAPE MIP. Questions fielded ranged from everyday operations to long term nuclear strategy and disarmament.

TEAMGlobal then treated all study tour participants to a lunch at the SHAPE officer’s club and were joined there by Lieutenant Le Lidec for an informal three course meal. The tour officially ended with an hour long feedback session on the week in which a number of the participants revealed how the week had affected them not only politically and professionally, but also personally. The coach trip and subsequent journey home on the Eurostar were full of reflections and discussions on the week gone-by.

As a member of that study tour myself and still in contact with many of the other participants, I should like to extend our thanks to Antony Frost, who meticulously organised this excellent week which had a profound impact on so many of us.