GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: May 2016 (Page 2 of 2)

NATO – Our First Site Visit

Today was an extremely exciting and interesting day. After a little over a week of really information intensive lectures, we had our first site visits today to NATO headquarters and the EU Parliament. Today I’ll be writing about our NATO visit, and the Parliament visit will be covered in tomorrow’s blog post.

When we first arrived at NATO, we went through some pretty tight security checks. We were required to show our passports for identification verification, followed by a full body scan, similar to airport security methods.


After getting through the security precautions, we were met and guided by Alison Smith, who works in the Engagements Section and Public Diplomacy Division of NATO, who escorted us to the Martino Conference Room.

From there, we were shown a video outlining the history of NATO, which gave us a nice refresher on our lecture material from the past week. After a couple minutes, Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General, Emerging Security Challenges Division, met us in the conference room and we began our briefing and discussion on NATO’s current political agenda.

Dr. Shea gave us some really interesting insight on NATO and both its current and future state. In terms of NATO’s present state, Dr. Shea described it as Charles Dickens began his book “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Essentially, NATO is in a good place right now because there is simply so much to deal with right now in terms of security, especially in regards to Russia, Ukraine, and the Middle East. At the same time, however, Dr. Shea called this a “sobering time” as well, meaning NATO is being stretched in a way that it hasn’t for a while, for the same reason of just having so many security issues to prevent and control.

In looking at Russia specifically, Dr. Shea discussed the fact that NATO doesn’t know exactly how to deter Russia and Putin. He compared the situation to the story of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears – “not too hot, nor too cold.” In other words, there’s a balance that NATO needs to find in order to stabilize the situation.

A second issue Dr. Shea brought up was the US – European Burden Sharing Issue. The U.S. does not want to pick up European slack like they did in the Cold War, so Dr. Shea mentioned tensions between the U.S. and Europe in terms of responsibilities and burden sharing in NATO, which spurred the famous 2% rule – in which all NATO countries are required to spend at least 2% of their GDP on NATO outlined security spending.

The third issue Dr. Shea mentioned was the dilemma of whether or not we are fighting the right war. He brought up the idea of a hybrid war, in which countries conduct aggression in order to sabotage other countries. He also mentioned the question of whether every country is vulnerable, where we are vulnerable, and how we would protect these vulnerable areas.

In terms of the Middle East, Dr. Shea called this area much more difficult to handle in comparison to the situation in Eastern Europe. He discussed the fact that NATO really doesn’t know quite where to start – with Tunisia, Libya, President Assad, or somewhere else? Dr. Shea also brought up the question of whether or not there is a military solution to the problems in the Middle East, and essentially, a lot of money has been spent on helping the issues, but it hasn’t gone anywhere really, so NATO has faced quite a bit of scrutiny and criticism in this regard.

Overall, Dr. Shea gave us an excellent overview on NATO’s current situation, as well as a lot of insider information on NATO’s future and where it’s headed.

The next person who spoke with us was Jennifer Tierney, Political Officer for the United States Mission to NATO. Tierney specifically mentioned that she works in detail with the Ballistic Missile Defense and Arms Control / Disarmament Council.

Tierney began the discussion by talking about the importance of tracking NATO’s development from summit to summit; she called it “Wales to Warsaw.” She then outlined the main topics that will be covered at the Warsaw Summit in this coming July.

The first topic Tierney brought up was Defense and Deterrence, focusing primarily on the “Readiness Action Plan,” which is intended to model the NATO ally forces for the new security environment, given that threats are moving much more quickly than they ever have before. Tierney also brought up the “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force,” which is a NATO quick reaction task force that will ideally be in a constant state of readiness to deploy anywhere necessary.

Tierney then brought up the Ballistic Missile Defense Capability, and the idea of Initial Operating Capability, which is the goal in which NATO wants to have full capabilities at even the lowest level countries. There are two parts – land and sea-based, and most contributions are from the U.S. The two countries that BMD’s are developing on that Tierney mentioned are Romania, which is operational currently, and Poland, which is just beginning. BMD development will ideally not end at Warsaw, but hopefully will continue developing, especially in terms of the Initial Operating Capability.

Tierney also talked a bit about correcting Russia’s behavior, and how it’s essential to bring it back to compliance with NATO standards and rule of law. Tierney emphasized the importance of some type of dialogue, and the idea that NATO simply “can’t let Russia get away with what it’s done.”

The second main topic Tierney discussed was Projecting Stability, where she brought up the idea that NATO can’t only focus just on Russia, and that there needs to be a 360 degree approach to security and threats. There were three main threats that NATO faces other than Russia and countries in Eastern Europe – maritime threats, North Africa / ISIL, and cyber threats, which is a constantly increasing and changing area, and NATO isn’t quite sure about its role in the issue. Tierney also brought up the idea of burden sharing, mentioning that the U.S. is the main leader in NATO, with France being the country that spends the least on NATO related expenses.

Finally, Tierney talked about EU and NATO relations, which was a nice bridge, I felt, between our two main topics of discussion in lecture. She mentioned that there is a bit of tension in NATO and EU relations, especially in terms of the migrant crisis. EU and NATO cooperation, Tierney said, will be discussed at the Warsaw Summit this summer, which is a U.S. led effort.

Some other interesting things Tierney touched on were the implications of Brexit on NATO, and the fact that there really isn’t a huge projected detrimental impact on NATO if Britain chooses to leave the EU. She also briefly discussed NATO in Asia and the importance of NATO partnerships with a number of other friendly countries, and the fact that through these partnerships, NATO understands other countries’ individual concerns.

Lastly, we got to speak with Francois Delatour, the French Delegation Representative to NATO. He spoke a lot about the challenge to make countries and member states invest in their security in NATO, and he mentioned that France’s contribution to NATO is almost up to the 2% requirement. I thought this was really interesting, because the U.S. Representative, Tierney, actually used France as an example for a country in NATO that does not pull its weight in terms of NATO spending. I think this was just one example of governmental differences, as well as differences in perspective.

Francois talked a little bit about future NATO challenges, and he brought up a really interesting point about NATO’s values changing. He mentioned that the alliances’ values are under “attack” so to speak, because it’s difficult to take the moral high ground when having to condemn Russia and other countries, and talk about migrant rights.

During lunch, we also got the change to speak with Jose Naves-Fidalgo, who is a current host parent and works in Human Resources and IT in NATO. He is currently launching a program or database that holds all of NATO’s documents, which will be incredibly helpful and convenient for future use. He spoke to us about his current projects as well as his past experiences at NATO, which was really interesting to hear about.

One thing I found really interesting was that all three of our main speakers mentioned one of the same things – the fact that it is becoming exceedingly difficult to come to consensuses with 29 member states in NATO, especially considering that the organization intends on growing even further. I thought it was really curious that all three of the people we spoke with brought up this point as a main driving factor for the future of NATO, so it’ll be really interesting to see how this affects NATO and its functioning overall in the coming years.

Overall, it was a fantastic day, and a great start to our site visit series. I’m really looking forward to the rest of our visits.

Discussing Brexit

Last night, May 23 at 6:30 pm the class attended a discussion at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) titled Brexit/Bremain: what is at stake for the UK and the EU, on the topic of the June 23 vote by the UK deciding on membership in the European Union. Brexit has been an interesting topic of discussion for our class as the result of the vote will have great effects regardless of outcome. This panel discussion was our first in depth look at the issue, but it won’t be our last.


The panel was introduced by Anne Weyembergh, President of the Institute of European Studies (IEE) at ULB, and was moderated by Mendel Goldstein, President of the Alumni IEE association and former member of the External Action Service of the European Commission. Jonathan Faull, Director General of the Task Force for Strategic Issues related to the UK Referendum in the European Commission presented, and the discussants on the panel were Catherine Stihler, Member of the European Parliament (S&D/UK), Rector of St Andrews University and Labour Party member, and Mario Telo, former IEE president and ULB professor.

Faull began the discussion presenting his point of view that both the EU and UK benefit from having the UK remain in the union. One point that was made is the fact that there has been no official campaigning done by the EU in order to keep the UK in. This struck me as interesting, as I felt that a lack of campaigning means a lack of understanding of the costs and benefits of EU membership. When I posed this question today in class, the answer I received was that it would backfire since the UK would see the EU as an overlord rather than a union. However, the EU campaigned and advertised for the Lisbon Treaty, the most recent treaty in effect for the EU, and so I wonder why the difference in intervention? It still seems as though an EU campaign would help counter all of the anti EU talk enough to have an effect, therefore increasing the chances that the UK will remain.

Stihler then spoke, also advocating for the UK to remain in the union. Stihler’s main point was that the vote will be determined by the voter turnout. As such, the labour party has been campaigning in Scotland encouraging citizens to vote and providing them with the economic impacts that EU membership has had on the UK. Stihler also made the point that voter registration ends June 7, so action needs to be taken now in order to have the full opinion of the UK. I think it’s interesting that Stihler is focusing on voter turnout, as it seems that there is a mostly negative EU sentiment in the UK. Because of this, the remain vote may require a large voter turnout in order to win, which may prove to be a challenge.

Telo was the final speaker who presented an interesting point of view. Telo focused on the negative aspects thus far in the campaign effort for the UK to remain. Telo spoke of the points of the campaign and explained why they were not “innovative” enough. For example one point of why the UK should remain was that Europe would delve into conflict. Telo insisted that this was not an effective point as Europe was peaceful for 25 years prior to the UK joining and has been peaceful since, so nobody would believe the point. The essence of his discussion was that in order for the campaign to be more effective, they would have to be more innovative and as the vote is one month away, this could prove to be difficult. Telo was still pro remain it seemed.

Following the discussions were questions from various audience members, including a former Belgian ambassador to the UK, a journalist from the United States representing Politico Europe and a former ULB student. The journalist asked about previous requests for the negotiation documents, which are private, between the UK and EU. Faull met the question with the statement that protocol had been seen through and the request was denied, which led to heated response by the journalist while Faull was addressing the question. The journalist ended with “That’s just how the commission works,” leaving the room tense. This was interesting to see as I felt that the journalist had a right to request the documents and being somewhat pushy is necessary in some situations. However, the documents are private as so many are in negotiations between any two large entities and they rarely tend to show their hands.

Long, a Georgia Tech student, asked about the security implications regarding Ukraine and the refugee crisis, but the questions was only vaguely answered. Faull responded that the UK being a nuclear actor is important, but that as they are not leaving NATO that the security implications would not be grand. I challenge this as the relationship between countries could very well change and the issue is simply more complex than EU and NATO being separate. Since the two organizations have so much overlap, it is hard to say that Brexit will barely affect security. How much of an effect will Brexit have on security? What will the effects be? Will there be an effect even if the UK remains due to a change in international relations changing?

Brexit is a complex issue and so this panel discussion was a good look at one side of the picture. Though each panel member represented different parties, they were all for the UK remaining. I am eager to hear the other side’s point of view and continue to watch this issue evolve. I am also interested to see the voting results on June 23 and to see the outcome of the vote, no matter what happens. I’m glad that our class could be in Europe for such a historic vote.

Welcome to Europe

I think I speak for everyone when I say our first week in the program flew by. For our first day in Brussels, all that was planned was meeting our host families. My future roommate, Lucy, and I had spent time in London before the start of the program and thus did not take the same flight in as everyone else. As we walked into the cafe where we were meeting everyone it became very clear; half of the table looked up as we came in and used their last bit of strength to smile or wave and the other half just continued sleeping. The upside of this was because we were not jet-lagged we walked around with our host family to see what was close to their house.

The next morning, our first full day in Brussels, Lucy and I made tourist mistake #347, or as we like to call it the laundromat incident. Since we had spent the previous week in London we needed to do our laundry, we went to the nearest Carrefour Express, a grocery store and the only thing open on Sundays, to look for detergent. Lucy insisted on looking for Tide Pods, and soon we found a box of Tide Pod-looking cubes that had the words “laver” and “lave-linge”. After one year of french we bought these “Tide Pods” without hesitation. As Lucy read the instructions clearly written in the wall in French and Dutch, I soon discovered our beloved “Tide Pods” were cubes used to wash the washing machine itself and not to do laundry. Luckily for ourselves, there was a detergent vending machine. This was just the first of our problems, we spent nearly half an hour putting coins into the machine not understanding why it wouldn’t start. Eventually a lady took pity on us and walked in and decided to show us how you are supposed to put the coins into another machine that gives a coin that the washing machine uses. After what felt like an eternity we got our laundry done and decided to call it a day.

The following week flew by, packed with learning both in and out of the class, whether it was touring Brussels on Monday or sitting in lecture the other days. After our afternoon lecture on Tuesday some of us decided to do something together and we decided to go to some of the places we had been to the previous day on our tour. After what seemed hours of walking, and not finding what we were looking for in the first place, we called it a day and headed back to our houses for dinner. Brussels was more confusing to navigate than we had previously expected, but what we didn’t know is that it was only our first day and in the days to come we would become experts on the metro and tram systems.

One week later, filled with more trips to Parc du Cinquantenaire than we should be proud of, our second week began with a visit to the Parlamentarium and a conference on “Brexit or Bremain.” To say there was a lot of out of class learning would definitely be an understatement. I hadn’t known what my expectations for the Parlamentarium were, but they were exceeded. There was constant visual, auditory and hands-on learning which made every type of learner benefit. The Parlamentarium began with a history lesson, covering decades of events all of the EU’s member states witnessed. The lower room focused solely on the European Parliament. One room played a video about the Parliament which helped me visualize how the sessions look. Also in this same room, while the video was playing, each seat had a touch screen for more information and a different presentation.


After the video room, which looked like the Parliament itself, there was an exhibition focusing on the job the parliament does both in Europe and outside. Some of the close projects being developed with Latin America really surprised me because I wasn’t aware of them before, especially seeing as I am Salvadorian.

europe roome

Finally, the museum had a display of all the MEPs currently elected and a touch screen that gave further information on every member of parliament. After the Parlamentarium, however, our day was far from over. Dr. Birchfield invited us to eat pastries at Le Pain Quotidien.

When we finished our snack, we walked back to our classroom in ULB to listen to a conference on the United Kingdom’s referendum on “Brexit or Bremain.” Points were brought up on both sides but it is safe to say that the panel was definitely hoping the vote on June 23 is to Bremain. An analytic discussion on the advertisement and what is lacking on the Bremain campaign was particularly interesting to me as a foreigner. I just assumed most people knew more than they actually do about the costs of leaving the EU. In conclusion, this day like any other in Europe was full of learning and new experiences.

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