GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: July 2017 (Page 1 of 3)

Berlin Museum Visits

On our free day, Sean and I went to Tempelhof Airport, which was constructed by the Nazis in the 1930s, and was one of the world’s busiest airports before the start of World War II. The airport and the land it was built on has been at the center of German history for hundreds of years. The land initially belonged to the Knights Templar in the middle ages. It was then used as a parade field for Prussian forces and then unified German forces until World War I. It was also used as a parade ground for massive Nazi demonstrations. The airport was used for commercial travel before the war, but closed down after Germany banned commercial flights during the war. The Nazis used the airport terminal as a huge factory to build and repair airplanes damaged in fighting, and then flew the repaired planes back to return to fighting. After the War, the airport was in West Berlin, and became the terminus of the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49.  The Airlift was an operation that was so hugely symbolic and really highlighted the competing economic and ideological trajectories of post-war Europe. After Stalin cut off land route from West Germany to West Berlin, the people of Berlin had no other supply of outside food and fuel, and relied on the Allied forces to keep the supply corridors open. The Allies flew over 200,000 flights in just one year, landing a plane every 30 seconds at Tempelhof Field. The sheer scale of the operation really showed the Allies’ commitment to the people of Berlin, and against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, and the stark differences in ideology of the two sides.

We also visited the DDR Museum, which was an interactive museum covering the history and society of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, during the Cold War years. It was an interactive museum, which was interesting because I got to see a lot of the propaganda and advertising the GDR utilized. They had mock classrooms, houses, and examples of state-sponsored music. When the GDR was in charge, they outlawed popular music like rock and roll because it was said to be suggestive and provocative. Along with this, the government actually made up dances that students had to learn and perform. Because of this extreme oppression, citizens became very creative in their methods of protest. People wanted Western music and culture, and oftentimes secretly played banned music or held dances that were not state sponsored. The museum also had examples of “underground” publications and newsletters that citizens produced secretly, with news other than what the GDR supplied. I was shocked by the number of spies that were secretly working for the government during the cold war era.  I enjoyed actually seeing examples and artifacts from this era, and seeing how far reaching the government of the GDR really was.

The Reichstag Building and the German Foreign Ministry

The day began with a trip to the Reichstag building, the home of the Bundestag: the German Parliament. The Reichstag building has a rich history dating back to the late nineteenth century. It has been the home of the German Parliament under three different forms of government: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and now under the modern German government. In 1933, the building was badly damaged by fire, which the Nazi government used as an opportunity to suspend regular meetings of the Reichstag Parliament. The building fell into disuse during the Cold War and was badly damaged in World War II by Soviet forces. However, after German reunification in the 1990s, the parliament relocated from Bonn to Berlin, and the building was restored to become the home of the Bundestag. When we visited, the parliament was not in session, but we were still able to take a trip to the top of the building to enjoy the panoramic views of Berlin.

The glass dome at the top of the Reichstag building was added when the building was restored in the 1990s. While the dome was closed for cleaning when we visited, we were still able to see the outside of the dome. The glass dome offers 360 degree view of the city, along with a history of the building. Inside the dome, there is a direct view into the meeting chamber of the Bundestag. This is intended to represent transparency to the public, and remind the parliament that the public is always watching. Anyone can visit the dome and the top of the building, even if the parliament is in session.

The second trip of the day was to the German Foreign Ministry. However, during our break between our visit to the Reichstag and the Foreign Ministry, Dr. Weber guided us to a memorial to those who had lost their lives trying to escape East Berlin during the Cold War. Located near the Brandenburg Gate, this memorial is made up of white crosses with the names of those killed and the dates they died. This memorial reminded us all of what length people were willing to go to in order to escape the Communist regime in Eastern Berlin.

We arrived at the German Foreign Ministry, the building has gardens all through out it, including one on the roof of the building. We were briefed by a young German diplomat who explained German foreign policy in a variety of areas during an hour long Q&A. We were able to discuss many different issues, including the strained relationship between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump, the Nordstrom Two Pipeline, and German military objectives such as the 2% NATO spending target.

These two visits gave us a brief glimpse into the workings of the German political system and the changing transatlantic relationship. Not only that, they also provided us an understanding of the German place in the world, including the relationship between Germany and the EU, Germany and the Middle East, and Germany in Africa. When discussing German roles in different arenas, we were able to better understand how the country takes an active roles in some areas, but remains neutral in others. For example, when discussing peace in the Middle East, Germany takes a very passive position due to complicated relations with Israel, but supplies Israel with non-nuclear submarines. However, when dealing with the European Union, Germany is more likely to push Brussels to achieve their specific policy objectives.

After visiting both the French and German foreign ministries, it is clear why these two nations are known as the “Twin Engines” of the European Union. The two most important founding members of the EU must work together on a variety of complex issues to help the EU be as efficient as possible. Because these two nations do differ on a variety of issues, the relationship between them is complex and ever-changing. As the diplomat mentioned, the relationship between Germany and France has been reinvigorated by the election of Emmanuel Macron due to Macron’s pro-EU stance. The diplomat even pointed to Macron’s walking out to “Ode to Joy” as an omen for future EU cooperation between the two pro-EU nations. After visiting Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, it is clear that these three cities are vital to the every day and long term functions of the EU, and they are at the heart of global and European issues.

The Binnenhof and the Peace Palace

After spending the last eight and a half weeks focusing on the EU and other International institutions one could be excused for temporarily forgetting the importance of national governments. Nonetheless, we stepped back into the slightly smaller world of national politics this morning with a trip to the Binnenhof, the headquarters of the Dutch government. After receiving VIP passes for our guided tour we were taken into the complex that has stood since the 13th century.  We followed our guide into an old wine cellar where we watched a short video explaining the history of the Binnenhof. The complex had been built by Dutch nobility in the mid 1200’s and was slowly expanded over the following centuries. It served many roles under differing Dutch, Spanish, and French governments but eventually became the location for the Senate and the House of Representatives. Though the House grew too large and recently moved to a different complex, the Binnenhof still houses the Senate, the Prime Minister’s office and serves as the center of government in the hearts of the Dutch people.

Probably the most well-known event that happens at the Binnenhof is Prince’s Day or Budget Day, where every year, on the third Tuesday of September, the King gives a speech to the House of Representatives, the Senate, and many high-level diplomats in the Hall of Knights. In this speech, he outlines the major governmental objectives for the coming year. This day is also important because it is when the finance minister outlines the country’s budget for the coming year. In the hall, there is an upper balcony where the public can come and watch. However, it is quite small and our guide said that the waiting list to get in on Prince’s Day is ten years long.

Out guide then took us out of the hall and, from the courtyard, showed us where Dutch leaders were currently debating as they try to form a coalition government. The Netherlands is primarily represented by the 150-member House of Representatives. The members of the house are chosen by proportional representation with around 70,000 votes resulting in one seat in parliament. This system, while effective at including many different viewpoints, also leads to a body with many different political parties. Our guide informed us that since the current governmental system came into place, the Netherlands has never had a single party gain a simple majority and there are currently 13 parties represented in the House. The largest party in the house, the leftist VVD headed by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has 33 seats while the smallest party, the Forum for Democracy, holds just two seats. The largest four parties are currently working on creating a coalition government. Worryingly, these negotiations have been going for over 110 days as compared to the historical average of 90.

We then were taken into the historical Senate chamber. The room is a majestically decorated portal to the golden age of the Netherlands. Portraits of some of the most important Dutch citizens surround the room. Along the ceiling, painted by students of Rembrandt, are caricatures of people from across the word trying to get a glimpse of how the Netherlands was so successful. In the center of the painted ceiling was a portrait of Dutch children watching the politicians to remind them that they are setting an example for posterity. Over the President’s seat in the center of the chamber hangs a portrait of King William the first, who ceded much of his power to the people. Officially this happened because the good king recognized the need for representative government and wanted to help his citizens. Our guide had a different understanding. He told us that the King was worried about two things, first his large outstanding debts to his cousin, the Russian Tsar. Secondly, he was worried about the possibility of political blackmail from his opposition due to his many affairs with both women and men. Afraid of damaging his public image, our guide suggested that he ceded his power to remain popular in the eyes of the citizens. Nonetheless, King William’s portrait hangs proudly in the Senate and is remembered for his actions that benefit the Dutch people.

The Senate as a legislative body is also interesting. Rather than being directly elected, the 75 Senators are selected by regional legislatures. This separates the body from the public and leads to it being slightly different in makeup from the House. Another interesting quirk about the Senate is that it is only a part time position. The body only meets once a week and the members have other jobs in politics or industry outside of being Senators. This gives the members the ability to see the impact of legislation in real life. In the passing of legislation, the Senators review all the bills after they are passed by the House. However, the Senate can only approve or deny legislation, not write their own or make amendments. Because of this inability to act there have been some proposals to disband the Senate entirely but for now it remains a traditional part of the Dutch legislative process.

After our short foray into national politics we wandered back into the realm of supranational organizations by going to see the Peace Palace, the location of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Sadly, we were not able to take a tour of the building but we were able to learn about the important work done there by visiting the Palace Museum. The Palace was built in the early years of the 20th century after two peace conferences in 1899 and 1907 and a sizable donation from Andrew Carnegie. Initially only supporting the PCA, the project seemed fool hearted in the first half of the 20th century which saw the worst conflict that the world has ever seen in WW1 and WW2. However, after the founding of the ICJ in 1945 as the principal judicial body of the UN the Palace began to see a resurgence. In modern times both the PCA and the ICJ help nations to resolve international conflicts without resorting to military means. There were case studies highlighting the successes of the organizations such as a dispute over Red Sea islands between Eretria and Yemen or a conflict over the building of a dam between Slovakia and Hungary. The ICJ and the PCA play an integral role in maintaining peace in our modern world and will be increasingly necessary as technology accelerates the pace of change.

The Peace Palace is also home to the Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library. The Academy draws professors and students from around the world in the study of international law. Students can attend lectures from some of the world’s most prestigious international law academics and receive an internationally recognized and valued honor in having attended the Academy. The Palace is also home to the famous library, created as Carnegie’s one requirement for his funding of the building. The library is one of the most important international law libraries in the world and serves both the legal professionals in the ICJ and the PCA as well as the Academy’s students.

Our day saw a wide breath of information packed into two relatively quick site visits. Along with giving us a basic understanding of how Dutch government operates, our trip to Binnenhof also gave us another glimpse at a democratic alternative to the US legislative system. Being able to compare other systems around the world can help us see the strengths and weaknesses of our own system and think of opportunities for improvement. The trip to the Peace Palace gave us another consider how international organizations based on cooperation are essential to maintaining the current peaceful world order. The museum gave us a wonderful, interactive consider the two bodies and gave us a reason to come back and spend more time in a full tour. Tomorrow we are looking forward to a day trip to Amsterdam to take advantage of some of great museums, cultural, and historical landmarks that this region offers.

Witnessing International Law

After having some great traditional Dutch Pancakes and a cool walk down the beach the evening before, we went back to business. Our first site visit in The Hague was to the International Criminal Court. It was a beautiful glass covered building with a nice “moat” in between the security clearance and the actual entrance of the building. After passing the security check we were all busy admiring the picturesque view of the building, which unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures of.

(A fact we learned after this picture was taken)

A very insightful intellectual conversation with our lovely TA Emma Smith followed where she mentioned the criticisms that surround the court’s impartiality and legitimacy. We learnt that the United States was one of the countries that opted out of the Treaty of Rome which ratified by 124 countries established the International Criminal Court.

We had a short tour of the history and purpose of the court. Using iPhone-like devices and headsets we went through the exhibition learning about the procedures the court undergoes in order to persecute those who commit crimes against humanity in the world. A particularly interactive segment of the tour involved a camera and microphone that displayed how the evidence provided by witnesses is distorted in order to keep them anonymous and safe. Following this tour, a representative of the communications division of the court gave us a briefing on the current cases of the court. We learnt about previous convictions the court had made and about the big role that cooperation between the member states and the court played in order to make the process work.

We were given a choice over which on-going trial to observe and were taken to the gallery to do so. It was a unique experience. It really changed our perspective of the court to actually get to see it in action. The prosecuting team announced to the judge that they were going to play a video as evidence. The defense objected and said the video hadn’t been presented at the start of the trial and therefore they hadn’t had the chance to confirm its origins and accuracy. This discussion brought forward another case in itself where the accused had to be taken out of the room while the court decided whether the video should be played. After a 30 min recess the decision was that the video could be played. We were all awaiting to watch it but then the prosecution decided to do a “short” interrogation of the accused to preface the video. This turned into a showcase of the poor management of the translators, where the English and French versions contradicted each other and the accused had to repeat his testimony over and over. At some point, he even spoke in English to clarify a fact contested by the translators.

Long story short, we sat in the gallery for 2 hours in order to watch a 30 second video that at the end got pushed back to the afternoon session which we couldn’t attend. So much for efficiency in the International Criminal Court I guess.

Next up was the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). We started with a short briefing where the position of the ICTY under the MICT was explained, as well as its own characteristics. The ICTY was scheduled to finish its cases and close permanently on December 2017, so we felt very lucky to have the chance to visit it before then. We got to observe an ongoing retrial of two politicians of the former Yugoslavia who were accused of purposefully pushing away Serbians from the areas of the country they were in charge of. The first trial had acquitted them, but now they were being retried. This case had more information and seemed to be moving forward much more efficiently than the one at the ICC, however a large part of it was held in private session. This meant that in order for confidential information to be discussed in the court room, the recording was silent and us observers couldn’t hear what was being said in the room. A particularly long private session brought us to leave the court.

Overall, we had a very exciting day where we had the chance to watch on-going trials in two widely recognized international courts. We had never been so close to the inner operations of international law as today. It was a unique experience to see how the courts operate and formulate our own opinions and views on the efficiency and accuracy of each of the courts.


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