Our journey to the Centre for European Policy Studies began later in the day than any of our previous site visits, at 16:30. We were met with the vibrant personality of John Peterson. His contagious smile and quick remarks left us all ready to hear more.
Instead of just beginning with a spiel about himself, he asked to hear a little more about us. We each described our favorite part of the trip thus far. Answers ranged from all the various institutions we have visited to more broad responses. These broad answers touched on the cohesion of the European Union amidst great cultural diversity, and how our visits to the various institutions have lent themselves to analysis of the differing perspectives of different institutions.
Once we had gone around the table, it was time to hear from the experts. While MEP Richard Corbett was meant to be the one briefing us, he had important business that kept him in London. Understandable, especially since this is a bit of a tumultuous time for the United Kingdom. In a pinch, John Peterson was able to rally some of his colleagues to give us a fascinating view from the thinktank itself.
As we moved on to the perspective of the think-tank employees, the mood turned more somber. Our first presenter began discussing how he thinks the EU has failed to make drastic changes since he first moved to Brussels. He highlighted that a lot of this lack of progress stems from the locations of the various institutions, which is detailed in the treaties. For example, he described these red boxes in the Parliament building in Brussels that contain material that must be shipped to Strasbourg because of the incidence of there being two Parliament buildings.
We then moved to a more positive note with the talking points on the summit agenda coming up at the end of the month. The agenda includes Brexit, migration, the deepening of the banking union, and the probable accession of Albania and Macedonia. On the idea of Brexit, one of the students wanted to understand what exactly the exit of the United Kingdom will look like. The conclusion seems to be that no one truly knows. There will have be a transition period, due to the fact that Article 50 was triggered with no plans in order for an exit strategy. Overall, though, British citizens are surprised about how little Brussels today is concerned with Brexit. This is due to negotiations being extremely compartmentalized within the institutions.
Our next briefer was involved in the economic policy unit at CEPS and also happened to be from Italy. As there is quite a bit going on with the Italian government at the moment, it was interesting to hear about it from the perspective of an Italian citizen. The newly elected government is a coalition government that is sympathetic to Trump and Putin and has agreed on a loose fiscal policy, which will increase the country’s debt further. As of right now, Italy has a 130% debt in relation to their GDP and has experienced low growth since the Great Recession. Although the EU has already experienced a debt crisis with Greece, Greece accounts for approximately 1% of the EU economy, whereas Italy accounts for 12% to 13%. This crisis would be more disastrous to the European Union than any other. Due to this situation, the EU is justifying moving some of their budget to Southern European countries. This may also be a scheme to remove some of the funding from Hungary and Poland, where there is democratic backsliding.
To wrap our meeting up, we briefly touched on whether the Trump administration will drastically change the trajectory of the EU-US relationship. I think that while it may put a major stall on the process, it will not change the trajectory completely, but the next president will have major bridges to build.