GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: June 2016 (Page 4 of 5)

Decrypting the Council

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 TheCouncilother 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 20160609_171008estimated 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.

Waffles and the Foreign Service

Today we met with Johnny Jones, a U.S. foreign service officer currently stationed at the U.S. embassy in Paris, France. He came to have waffles with us in Grand Place. He also happened to be a graduate of the Nunn School, before attending Georgia State Law School and the foreign service thereafter! It was extremely interesting learning about his career trajectory, from his initial decision to be posted in the Middle East, to actually living and working in Islamabad and Cairo, where he was present during the start of the Arab Spring. After deciding he wanted to take an 8-month-intensive course in French, he arrived at “the place where everyone in the foreign service wants to go,” Paris.

Maison Dandoy, where we had great waffles and greater conversation

Maison Dandoy in Grand Place, where we had waffles with Mr. Jones

I asked him what it was like to be at the embassy during the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. He said that as soon as reports started coming in of the attacks, the atmosphere got very stressful. He and the other embassy employees worked in rounds to keep writing up and sending in reports of the events back to the U.S., as well as keep track of the U.S. citizens in Paris at the time. He pointed out that it was very difficult to track the attacker as well as other terrorists for several reasons: First of all, the Schengen area treaty makes it extremely easy for citizens and residents of member countries to travel from country to country in Europe; i.e. the attacker fled from France to Belgium with relative ease. Second of all, because terrorists are starting to become more and more people who are French or E.U. citizens, it is harder to track them, infringe on their citizenship rights, and keep constant surveillance. Moreover, a typical “radicalization” path leads these citizens to “go on vacation” to Turkey and then go to an ISIS or other terrorist group’s camp somewhere like Yemen in order to receive training. Then, the terrorist will return and carry out an attack in his home country, which he knows well and is less likely to make a mistake that will lead him to get caught.

The irony of the situation was fascinating to me: something that has contributed so much to the European project, the Schengen area, has posed a significant problem for European security. NATO has done its job in terms of protecting the EU from external threats, but I think the EU and especially the CFSP needs to take a bigger role in terms of inter-European security.  There’s already been a lot of progress in terms of information sharing among governments, but Europe doesn’t have border checks along each border road like the U.S. does. There is also the problem of integration and French culture, which is not the most inclusive of European cultures, according to Mr. Jones. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of strongly held cultural practices, but sometimes it can lead to a significant lack of integration with immigrant populations. These poorly integrated immigrant populations can then become hotbeds for extremism. This is something that I’ve also observed in Brussels. The neighborhood Molenbeek, with a predominantly immigrant population, looks more like a Moroccan city than a part of Belgium, from the languages spoken to the isolation of the community.

Overall, I really enjoyed meeting up with Johnny Jones and seeing how he went from a Yellow Jacket to a diplomat. He encouraged us to keep being well-read on European issues and to get involved in INTA-related organizations at school if we wanted to prepare ourselves for a career like his.

After we got back to our host families’ apartments, our bellies full of waffles and icecream, I had a chance to reflect on my experience during the three-day long weekend. For 8.50 euros, I bought a round-trip train ticket to Antwerp, a port city north of Brussels. The city is famous for its diamonds, train station, and Het Steen, a medieval fortress right on the banks of the Scheldt river. I walked through the city’s large shopping district, to Grote Market, and then finally to the newly created MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), which offers panoramic views of the city. The “oldness” of everything in Europe never ceases to amaze me—I had coffee in a room built in the early 1500s! Whereas Americans tend to have little historical “memory” in dealing with situations (partly because the U.S. is much younger than France or Germany), I’ve realized that it’s important to take the long-held traditions and deeply-held values that EU citizens hold into account when determining how to balance sovereignty vs. security within the region.

Antwerp train station

Antwerp train station


The EEAS and The US Mission to the EU

After an adventurous yet restful 3-day weekend, we continued our program with two important appointments at key institutions. Packed with site visits and briefings, today was perhaps the busiest day yet of our journey. After following my classmates’ blog posts attentively, I know that the task of blog writing should not be taken lightly. I will endeavor to summarize the briefings of the five distinguished speakers and additionally provide some analysis of their ideas and significant takeaways from the speeches. With the sheer amount of information given over about five hours of lectures, I admit it is difficult to retain everything; however, I will do my best to recount concepts that struck me as notable as these important speakers offered us insightful information and opinions about their respective areas of focus. Although unintentionally scheduled, we had the unique opportunity to hear the opinions of the EEAS followed by those of the US Mission to the EU. Interacting with both sides of the transatlantic relationship proved to be very interesting, especially in discussions of issues like TTIP in which tensions run high between international entities. Viewing the dynamics of the relationship from each group’s viewpoints made for a stimulating and constructive Monday.


The morning began to a visit to the EEAS. Headed by High Representative Federica Mogherini, the EEAS is an organization with extensive power and influence in the EU and globally. A key EU institution, the EEAS focuses on “external action” or, in perhaps simpler terms, foreign policy. The most significant role of the EEAS is the representation of the EU internationally and its various missions abroad. During our visit to the institution three distinguished speakers briefed us and offered us lengthy question and answer sessions. This was an excellent opportunity to ask thought-provoking questions to those that deal directly with the most quarrelsome issues in the European Union and the world.


The first of the three speakers was British diplomat David Tunney.  He spoke about the organization of the EEAS as well as the main issues that the institution is currently addressing referring to the EEAS as the “state department” of the EU. While much of this was review following my visit to the EEAS’s website prior to the briefing, it was interesting to hear about the organization of the institution from someone so involved in its inner workings.  Following David Tunney, another British diplomat named Stuart Summers spoke to us about the global strategy and an array of EU issues, the most significant of which being Brexit. The most interesting take away from this conversation for me was the fact that there was no “plan b” in the case that the UK exits the EU. I find this to be telling of the importance of the EU to the UK. A large percentage of UK officials preach of the importance of the European Project yet there is still concern of UK exit. For the sake of United Kingdom citizens and the EU, I hope that the UK can come to a consensus to stay in the beneficial economic and political union. The final speaker at the EEAS was Rafal Domisiewicz, an important Polish figure in EU relations with the US and Canada. While he works on many issues, the most important seems to be TTIP. Hearing an EEAS representative with a great deal of experience in transatlantic relations speak about this important trade agreement offered a new perspective on the issue. The thing stressed the most was the lack of compromise by both sides. I believe that this is a trade deal that must be passed in order to increase trade and transatlantic prosperity; however, passing an agreement between entities unwilling to compromise has proved to be very difficult. All in all, the EEAS was a great opportunity to discuss issues with European diplomats who are specialized and knowledgeable about crucial topics and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to hear their side of discussions.


After a pleasant Belgian lunch, we made the walk from the EEAS to the US mission to the EU. The US mission to the EU is an organization that works on US relations with the EU. Their work spans many pertinent and contentious issues in the EU including the refugee crisis and counter-terrorism. In many ways this institution can be seen as a sort of counterpart to the EEAS as both work on foreign policy and relationships between international actors. Two American speakers briefed our group and a collection of students from Florida International University. Following brief introductions of themselves and their noteworthy backgrounds, the speakers opened the floor up for questions which students from both universities took as an opportunity to learn more about the US Mission to the EU as well as global conflicts. This question and answer session proved to be fruitful for all involved as important issues were broken down and analyzed through discussion.

In this interestingly formatted question and answer session, both speakers responded questions based on their specialties and supplemented each other’s thoughts with additional information.  The speakers were Amy Roth and D.A. Brown, two American diplomats with different focuses posted at the Mission. Roth works on sanctions while Brown focuses on terrorism with a specialization in the areas of North Africa and the Middle East. While many questions were interesting, the idea of sanctions struck me as particularly interesting. When speaking about sanctions, Roth discussed the importance of cooperation between nations necessary to make efforts successful.

While from time to time I admit it is difficult to understand the goals set and actions taken in terms of international relations, the idea of cooperation in the creation and upholding of sanctions makes sense as an effective political move. Without collaboration, sanctions are more or less useless, as the country only experiences a relatively low loss of trade instead of substantial losses in economic prosperity. Sanctions interest me greatly as they are a tool commonly used, but only when their use is not detrimental to the states imposing the sanctions on others. An excellent example of countries worrying about their own well being and avoiding imposing sanctions is the European Union and Russia. The EU depends heavily on Russia for energy and thus has not inflicted any sanctions following clear Russian violation of international law. While talks about counter terrorism are always interesting, I found the discussion around sanctions to be more so because of the lack of availability of experts in the subject area. This briefing was the first time that I fully grasped the power of sanctions and their underlying importance and I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak with an expert on the subject.


In sum, today was definitely one of the most interesting days of our trip thus far. Experiencing the opinions of both sides of the foreign affairs conversation was excellent and a unique opportunity. The discussions of important world issues as well as the focus on a few key areas including Brexit, counter-terrorism, and sanctions proved to be very insightful and stimulating. I look forward to further site visits and am confident they will be as interesting as today’s briefings.

Europe Day 2016

Although Europe Day was indicated as “optional” in our EU study abroad itinerary, I did not want to miss this wonderful opportunity. This event was held on May 28 this year to celebrate peace and unity in Europe. On this day, EU institutions (such as the European Commission and the European Parliament) are open to the public to visit various stands and activities, so this is a great day for EU citizens as well as international visitors to understand more about the European Union.

Since we have not yet explored the European Commission building, I decided to go there. The building was packed with people, especially kids. People learn about the European Commission as they stop by different stations inside the building. I had a chance to take a look at many different European Commission bodies such as Eurostat, the European Court of Auditors, TTIP, EU policy towards migration, EU competition policy, EU budget, climate and energy, EU guaranteed quality on food, etc.

2016-05-28 13.52.48

Europe Day has really opened my eyes to see how important Europeans think it is to educate children, the next generation of European citizens. The interesting part was that each station has a quiz or game that helps players understand more about the functionality of a particular body or policy as they play. There was always a big playground section at each station specifically designed for kids. To many people, the idea of European unity and diversity is something Europeans are proud of, and they want to pass it on to future generations.

2016-05-28 14.05.00            One of the most fascinating topics to me was the EU maritime and fisheries policy. Understanding the importance of aquaculture production as the main source of seafood in the future, the European Union applies strict rules to protect the consumers as well as the fish and to promote sustainable aquaculture. During the conversation with the staff, I learned some interesting facts. In terms of aquaculture production, the European Union is the eighth biggest producer. An estimated forty-three percent of aquaculture consumption is from the European Union. When eating fish, it is surprising to realize that the size does matter. For example, for sea bass, the minimum size to be considered legal is 25 cm and 18 cm for mackerels. This was something I did not know before.

Another thing that really caught my attention was the station for migration. There were many stands dedicated to significant topics such as legal migration, asylum information, and EU migration policy. In front of those stands was a big pillar posing one engaging question “what would make you leave your home country?”. It was an astonishing moment for me to see the answers on stickers and to witness how much Europeans care about the migration issue. Furthermore, interacting with the staff helped me have a better understanding of the main European Union legislation and initiatives towards migration policy. By implementing many directives and regulations such as the students and researcher’s directive, blue card directive, intra-corporate transferees directive, global approach to migration and mobility (GAMM), Dublin regulation, etc., the EU has been working hard to address irregular flows of migration while ensuring a proactive policy of sustainable and accessible process.

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In conclusion, I thought it was a productive day for me, and I was glad that I took advantage of this opportunity. To be honest, I am pro-EU, and I think this is definitely a very good way for the European Union to inspire their own citizens.

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