GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: June 2019 (Page 1 of 3)

The Council of the European Union

Hi! My name is Jack Sheldon and I am a second-year International Affairs and Modern Language (French) student from Atlanta, GA.

Yesterday, myself and 20 other students on the 2019 Georgia Tech European Union and Transatlantic Affairs study abroad had the privilege to visit the Council of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. The Council of the European Union, also referred to as “the Council of Ministers”, is comprised of Union Member State heads of government along with national ministers who meet regularly in summits and working groups to engage in co-decision with the European Parliament, issue statements, and streamline policies. Yesterday, we were granted access to the Council’s two main buildings in the so-called “European Quarter” of Brussels, the Europa Consilium and the Justus Lipsius.

We began the day with a tour of the Europa building. Recently opened, this building is composed of two sections: the Résidences Palais and the Lantern. Housed in the Lantern are three meeting rooms that can accommodate from 80 to over 300 heads of state and officials. I found the smallest meeting room to be quite interesting, as it had many intentional design features and symbolic elements. First, the entire Lantern is decorated with a mosaic of vibrant colors, allegedly meant to represent colors found in Member State flags. Since lime green and neon pink are not found in any EU flags, I think the colors were meant more-so to project the Union’s motto, “United in diversity.” The building is named “the Lantern” not just for its shape but also to emphasize how the Council and Union are lights of Europe and have a duty to project power and jurisdiction in a positive manner. Logistically speaking, the meeting rooms seat the President of the Council, the High Representative of Foreign Policy and Security, and the Secretariat opposite from the Commission delegation. This shows the dynamic of the Commission acting as policy initiator and the Council working as co-decider with the European Parliament.

Exterior of the Lantern.

Vibrant carpet mosaic on the roof, found throughout the building.

The seats for Council and Parliament leadership.

The chambers are also quite small and elliptical in shape. I found this interesting because, although this allows for leaders and ministers to engage in informal and personal dialogue, it tends to exclude delegations or the press from larger meetings. Each delegation has offices in the Résidences, but it is often helpful to have them on hand (the Danish ambassadorial team has a WhatsApp group message to help with communication issues during summit sessions!). It is hard to imagine that of about four to five thousand people involved in a Council summit, only about 40 sit in the meeting room.

The second part of the Europa building, the Résidences, is the remains of a luxury 1920’s apartment complexes. It was fascinating to see the contrast between old and new; the Union is relatively old but must remain modernized and streamlined to function. In this wing, delegations and other civil servants keep offices.

Neo-renaissance styled hallway of the Résidences office wing.

Following our tour, we moved over to the Justus Lipsius building to be briefed by Mr. Alessandro Vitro, a member of the Council’s Legal Service about the Council as it relates treaty law, security, and defense. Mr. Vitro described three layers of decision-making in the Council: first about 200 expert working groups, then national ambassadors, and finally national ministers and heads of government. Foreign policy and defense are complicated for the Union; I found it quite interesting that the Commission is not able to initiate legislation for these areas, only Member States can. This is often used to rebut the claim that the Union “steals” national sovereignty, as the Member States have not conferred foreign and defense competencies exclusively to the Union.

Students at the Council briefing in a multilateral conference room.

Currently, the Union has 16 defense missions active: 10 civil and 6 military. According to treaty law, these missions cannot operate within the Union. This has posed many logistical and legal problems, especially as it relates to migrant crises in the Mediterranean and Balkans.

During class at Georgia Tech Lorraine, we learned about the Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The briefing gave me more context about this body. Spread across three sections in the Treaty for European Union (Maastricht), PESCO has two goals of fulfilling higher defense criteria and making more binding collective security commitments. It looks to increase spending but also make spending more efficient and effective. Currently, the Union is second in the world in military expenditures, however, it only reaps about 10% effectiveness when compared with the United States. I was not aware that PESCO had this utility that is often used to justify its means!

We also learned through students’ Member State presentations that countries like Hungary and Poland have been undergoing democratic backsliding in the past years. Poland, for example, has seen its federal judiciary independence trampled by the reigning Law and Justice (PiS) party. During the briefing, these questions were raised, and it was asked how the Council can use its legal powers to combat and punish these backslides.

According to Article 7.2 of the Treaty on European Union “In the event of a ‘serious and persistent breach’ (i.e. the country does not heed the Council’s guidance) then the Commission or one-third of countries, approved by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, calls the country to answer to the European Council again. The European Council must then decide unanimously to proceed to Article 7.3.” It was then explained that this article has proved ineffective, as invoking it requires unanimity of 28 often divergent Member States. We learned that in these cases the Council tends to hear less from these countries, seeing them as black sheep. This surprised me, because in my opinion times of democratic crisis are not times to throttle dialogues and proceedings.

The third and final part of our visit to the Council was the Visitor’s Centre. In the Centre, we watched films about how the Council, Brussels Police, and others prepare security and logistical arrangements for higher-level officials and European summits. We also got to quiz our knowledge on the Union, and got some fun photos while we were at it!

Students showing their love for the EU!

In summary, the site visit to the Council of the European Union’s main buildings was eye-opening and helped to supplement the class work, discussions, and readings pertaining to the Council, the Union, pooling of sovereignty, and European integration as a whole. It is bittersweet to say that our visits to the Union’s Institutional Triangle are officially over, but I along with my peers have learned so much in the past two weeks. Now to Versailles!




Brussels Regional Parliament

Located at 77 Rue du Lombard, the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region serves as the governing body for the Brussels area, one of three regions that make up Belgium. The parliament is housed by two beautiful buildings of contrasting nature.


The older of the two buildings was the former Governor’s Palace. Entering the building off of a street inspired by the work of Haussmann in Paris, we were greeted by a historic marble entrance hall where we met the President of the Parliament and Host Mother to one of our students, Julie de Groote. To begin the visit, she took us on a short, informative tour of the building. She showed many different rooms, a dining room where she has hosted heads of states, one called “little Versailles”, and pieces of art all along the way.

Next, we proceeded to the newer Parliament building. When the building was under construction, a modern style was chosen to represent the evolving nature of democracy. The contrasting extravagant, gold plated design of the old building with the sleek, clean design of the new building is meant to represent the ever-changing work that the parliament does every day. Additionally, there was a large shift in the decoration of this building. Mrs. de Groote told us that when decorating the building, local artists were asked to “occupy” each room. This lead to some thought- provoking designs. For example, in one of the commission rooms, there was a modern depiction of the famous Manneken Pis standing next to Erasmus, the founder of humanism, representing various elements of the common Brussels spirit. Also, in the center of the room, a large concrete block hangs from a thread. This is meant to convey that the heavy, difficult process of democracy is often only held together by a small thread. In addition to the prominent symbolism at every corner of the building, it is sustainably constructed, using rainwater to power various functions throughout the building and lacking any central heating system.

After climbing a winding staircase to the top floor of the building, we arrived in the hemicycle of the parliament. Here Mrs. de Groote opened up the floor to questions that we may have had for her. Students from our group asked her a wide variety of questions, ranging from tensions between urban and rural Brussels to women in politics. In my opinion, the answers that Mrs, de Groote gave were detailed and informative. Once all questions were answered, she turned the tables and posed 3 different questions for us to think about. First, is it beneficial to have an obligatory vote? Second, she asked us to think about President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” and what “Great Again” actually means for the future of the United States. She ended the tour with one final question, is it possible to speak about civil liberties in a world where social media is so prevalent? We were not required to answer any of the questions right then, but just to think about them and determine what our personal responses would be.

Overall, I found this site visit to be extremely interesting and unique. It was such a privilege to be shown around by the President herself and it offered a perspective that we could not have gained from anyone else. As a host parent for the program, the tour felt even more personal due to this unique connection. This program focuses mainly on supranational European Union institutions, so it was nice to visit a regional government to see how the EU Member States are run on a more intimate level. Consequently, I think that understanding this concept will help us better visualize the true magnitude of the EU’s work.


Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History of Belgium

On Thursday, June 20, the Georgia Tech students on the European Union Study Abroad Program visited the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History of Belgium in Brussels. The panorama on top of the arches overlooking the Cinquantenaire Park provided a beautiful view of the city, despite the overcast weather.

When we entered the museum, we spent about 30-45 minutes previewing the World War I exhibit that provided a detailed analysis of the events towards the end of the war and the period after the war. After a short introduction of the exhibit, the group had lunch in the museum café located in the hangar, and we all admired the historical military air-crafts as we ate.

After lunch, we entered the World War I exhibit again to explore the artifacts in greater depth. From my high school experiences, as well as several other students on the program that I spoke with, the First World War was taught in much less depth than the Second World War. As a result, a large portion of the exhibit, such as certain statistics regarding destruction and other specifics, presented new information to me. This new information improved my understanding of the post-war period as well. For example, the exhibit featured U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for world peace, and one of them mentioned the restoration of French territories that were invaded in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Understanding that the French wanted to address issues from the Franco-Prussian War helped to clarify why the punishments Germany faced after the First World War were so harsh.

However, the museum also reinforced the broad knowledge I had of the First World War before our class visit. The existence of alliances led to an unimaginable escalation of events after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist. The technological evolution of military weaponry coupled with the global scale of the conflict resulted in tremendously deadly trench warfare, and the destruction that ensued crippled societies, physically and psychologically. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, expressed the grief of the Allied Powers with its harsh punishments on Germany, but it also demonstrated the importance placed on creating a peaceful way to resolve conflicts by establishing the League of Nations.

I also believe the opportunity to visit this museum arose in a very timely fashion, considering our group is traveling to Versailles on Thursday, June 27 to attend the symposium for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the treaty on the following day. We will have the opportunity to hear from multiple speakers with expert knowledge on the topic, and the added significance of the 100th anniversary will greatly enhance the experience.



On Tuesday, June 18th, the students of the GT European Union program visited Bruegel, an economic think tank based in the city of Brussels. When the students arrived, they were greeted with refreshments and snacks, which they all enjoyed.

The group was then led into a large briefing room, and spent the next few hours learning from Secretary General Matt Dunn about what Bruegel does and how they are influential in the European Union.

Bruegel is a European think tank established in 2005, and the name Bruegel stands for Brussels European and Global Economic Laboratory. Their mission includes helping to shape European economic policy with a focus on European macroeconomics, global economics and governance, and an emphasis on policy recommendations. Bruegel uses open and fact-based research, analysis, and debate to improve the quality of economic policy while being independent and nondoctrinal. They are inspired by leading US nonpartisan think tanks, but there are many differences between Bruegel and US think tanks such as the Brookings Institute.

For instance, Bruegel is funded by both public and private organizations. Their independent research agenda is set collectively by members and other stakeholders. There are three categories of members: state, corporate, and institutional; their members include 18 EU Member states, 34 international companies, and 14 international institutions. Bruegel is a non-profit organization classified as AISBL under Belgian law. They are non-partisan with a strong emphasis on public transparency and accountability, and they have an inbuilt balance of stakeholder representation that allows them to be non-partisan. For example, no organization can provide funding that is more than 4.5% of Bruegel’s annual budget, ensuring that no one member has significantly more influence over the think tank. The board is half-elected and half-appointed with 3-year mandates.

In terms of Bruegel’s research, they provide an annual report of research activity to members and have an annual collective exercise to set the agenda for the research. They also have bilateral consultations with the members on a draft programme, and board decisions are based on feedback collected on the programme. Execution of the research programme is carried out independently, and all of Bruegel’s outputs have a strategic design. In order to completely commit to transparency, Bruegel is also evaluated every three years by an independent committee, and the evaluations are published to their website.


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