Today, we had the opportunity to interact with representatives of the Secretariat of the Council of the European Union for the first time. We got to listen to briefings in the Justus Lipsius building in one of the 19 nearly-identical meeting rooms around the main atrium where members of the European Council, Council of the EU, European Commission and other lower level bodies hold more than 6430 meetings per year. The places where we sat around the table were labeled with the names of all 28 member states in order of rotating presidency and even though there was no official business going on, it felt marvelous to be in the place where so many important and impactful decisions are taken.
One important thing that we learned is that the Secretariat of the Council is one of the only constant bodies of the institution and it provides for continuity, memory, and structure to the council. This is because there are no fixed members in the Council of the EU. The presidency of the Council is assumed by a country, not an individual, and rotates every six months. Even then, all meetings are not chaired by the same person. Whoever chairs the meetings depends on which one of the ten Council configurations is in session at the time. Each configuration corresponds to the policy area currently being discussed and therefore each country sends the relevant minister responsible for that policy area at the time, this also includes the presidency. The only Council configuration that has a permanent chairperson is the Foreign Affairs Council. This spot is held by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This was partly due to Henry Kissinger and his famous “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” question that in a way forced the EU to become more cohesive. All of this, in my opinion, makes this institution probably one of the most intricate and fast changing institutions in the EU and having this demystified during our first briefing was tremendously helpful.
After this, we talked about some interesting issues that make decision making within the Council unnecessarily intricate at times. The one that stood to me the most was something that I had not really put much thought into which is the language barrier between most member states. There are 24 official languages in the EU and most documents as well as conversations are translated into all of them. One may argue that there are professional translators that abstract this complexity away. However, what about the cases when the translators make a mistake? or when nuances in meaning due to dialects or regional factors exist? or when simply because of culture, things that are correctly translated just do not convey the intended message? This is something that the representative mentioned sometimes prolongs meetings or causes revisions. One of the cases of meaning lost in translation that the representative pointed out has happened multiple times was resettlement vs. relocation. These are similar words that even in the same language can be tricky if you have not thought about it before and have caused significant discontent in the past.
The complex relationship between the EU and Russia was next on the agenda. Following the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, there were sanctions imposed to exert pressure on Russia to negotiate for a solution on what, to this date, is still considered by the international community as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by the Russian government. However, the EU is dependent on Russia in many aspects and vice versa. Some countries in the EU have a nearly 100% energy dependency on Russia and overall the EU is estimated to depend on them for about 30% of their total energy needs. Also, Russia is the 3rd trading partner of the EU and the EU is the 1st trading partner of Russia. Therefore, we learned that these sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Crimean crisis were not meant to punish Russia or make them suffer because then they could punish back and hurt the EU just as much. Instead, these sanctions were meant to be used as a tool to encourage a change in behavior. This is something that struck me as ineffective to say the least and as a way of just showing the EU population, which might not be educated on all the aforementioned facts, that something is being done but without actually doing something that would upset the relationship significantly, like battle groups.
Now that we are almost a month into our trip to the EU, I would also like to take this opportunity to reflect upon what I think are things that usually fly under the radar but could be detrimental in the long run, which is misinformation. During our trip to the NATO headquarters a couple weeks ago, one of our briefers said a couple of things that struck me as inaccurate because they happened to fall inside my area of interest. The first thing was that cryptocurrencies are easy to track and the second thing was that encryption (AES256 specifically) can and has been broken relatively easily. After doing some double checking I corroborated that even though cryptocurrencies are traceable by default, there are methods that can be used to make it very difficult or nearly impossible to trace. The same goes for encryption. Even though theoretically encryption can be broken, it would take about 9.18*1050 years on average to break AES256 using one million very powerful computers simultaneously. To put that into perspective, the universe is thought to have formed 1.4*1010 years ago. So even though he was partially right on both questions, this was a reminder that we always need to have a questioning attitude and not assume things are true because simply because they come from a seemingly reputable source.
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