GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: June 2019 (Page 2 of 3)

The European Commission

Yesterday, we visited the European Commission! We walked in at 9:20 AM and went through security. We were first greeted by Nicole Peil and were given a few minutes to look around in the Visitors Center before our briefings. The Visitors Center is very interactive, with an entire wall dedicated to a touch-screen display of the current Commissioners. The opposite wall shows previous Presidents and their achievements. After ten minutes or so, we were directed to a presentation room.

Enjoying the interactive displays

The presidents!

The purpose of the Commission!

Our first briefing was from Simon Genevaz and Laurent Forestier on the topic of competition policy and what the Commission does about mergers. Mr. Forestier walked us through the Commission’s policies and rules in a theoretical sense. He described the history of the policies and what he thought the future might hold for competition policy. Mr. Genevaz then explained a case study- the Siemens-Alstom merger. He gave us a quick history of both companies and then illustrated how their merger would have negative consequences. He then asked us what we would do to solve the problem, and showed us a few potential solutions that were discarded. After we had thought for a few minutes, Mr. Genevaz unveiled the actual solution: the European Commissioner blocked their merge completely! At the end of their presentation, Mr. Forestier and Mr. Genevaz took our questions. One of the most interesting questions was Anika’s- she wondered if the Commission ever exerts merger control solely for security reasons. The answer Mr. Forestier gave us was no; the European Commission analyzes companies regardless of where they are from. When security is involved, different laws apply.

Laurent Forestier presenting to us!

Our second briefing was from Franco Roccatagliata on the topic of international taxes and the laws surrounding them. He was very nice and funny; he captivated us with an interesting presentation. Mr. Roccatagliata talked about how important it is for us to understand international law, especially as students of international relations! He even gave us his personal email so that we could reach out with any questions. He then explained tax havens in detail and showed us how they impact the economy of the European Union. He also talked about the criminality of tax evasion and the difficulties that come with the digitalization of our economy. It was more interesting than one would have guessed! Mr. Roccatagliata then took questions. One of the best questions was Kyle’s, which was whether companies should be concerned about taxation if they receive money for things that are “bad” or illegal, such as when Facebook received money from Russia to promote certain ads during the US election. Mr. Roccatagliata told us that the taxation is the least of their worries!

Our third briefing was on the topic of data privacy, given by Bruno Gencarelli. He spoke about the delicate balance between privacy and security. He also explained GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in great detail, which was really helpful. He told us what his responsibilities are- to the extent that he could! Mr. Gencarelli works with confidential information daily. The most interesting part of his presentation was the question and answer session. Jordan asked him what we all wanted to know- what was the Commission doing about Huawei? (Huawei is a Chinese technology company that is currently attempting to be the first global 5G provider. Many countries, including the US, are uncomfortable with this, as China could have easy access to individuals’ data.) Mr. Gencarelli told us that different countries had different opinions, and that the EU has not decided on one specific response. He stated that the EU has to see what other companies have to offer, and that they will pick the best network. He also reminded us that Huawei is not run by the government of China. He told us that at the recent G20 meeting, Japan started an initiative called Data Free Flow with Trust, which is a plan to create an alternative data pool, created on the basis of healthy human-centric values. This is the first time that conversation has happened internationally, so that was really cool!

Over all, it was incredibly interesting to be allowed inside the European Commissioner and to hear from some of its hardest workers on issues that interest us and the people around us!

House of European History

A couple of days ago, the group visited the House of European History museum. Before entering, Dean Royster treated us all to a delicious lunch in the museum café. She and her husband also went through the museum with us. The museum is a very interactive museum, with tablets to carry and audio guides in the language of your choice.

The first exhibit is their temporary exhibit on what it was like to be a youth (18-27) in different decades of Europe’s recent history. It started with a punk room, including a bedroom decorated how a punk would have, with music, posters, and a spiked jacket. It explained the youth movement and protests, which primarily occurred due to their age group having very little job security. Next, there is a room about the Free Love ideals and AIDS discovery and awareness. This room interestingly had a board game about AIDS! The next room is decorated to look like a teenage girl’s bedroom in the 80’s, complete with scrunchies, a jean jacket, and a tiny square television playing MTV. It also had an interactive spot, where museum-goers could decorate buttons in the style of the 80s. The final room is about our generations- millennials and Gen Z. There is information about social media, politics, and current youth protests in countries across Europe. There is also a mini exhibit about the Schengen Area, which we studied! At the end, there is an interactive spot at which museum-goers could design a protest poster or type a Twitter-esque thought to be permanently displayed in the exhibit.

On the next floor begin the permanent exhibitions. This floor is titled, “Shaping Europe,” and is primarily about pre-19th-century Europe. It contains an exhibit on mapping Europe and the difficulties faced by ancient and modern cartographers (Where does Europe end and Asia begin?), a video about Europa and the overarching trends of an ever-changing Europe, and many bits and pieces of European heritage, history, and memory, including philosophy, slavery, and colonialism. It was very interesting to see items from Ancient Greek times next to a copy of Anne Frank’s diary. As museum-goers walked, their audio guides explained the overviews of each exhibit, with an option to hear more about each piece.

The next floor is titled “Europe: A Global Power” and is full of artifacts, books, and art from the 19th and 20th century. The first thing museum-goers see is an IMAX-type video about European revolutions, starting with the French Revolution, and surrounded by copies of multiple countries’ constitutions. Next, there is a steam machine, with images from the working class perspective on one side, and images from an industrialist perspective on the other. This museum did a very good job of showing both sides of every issue and conflict, especially in the next section, which separates advances in science and technology on one side from colonialism and exploitation on the other, both viewed behind panels of glass, like a windowed tunnel.

The next floor, titled “Europe in Ruins,” is all about World War One, World War Two, and their consequences. It had an entire exhibit on the Nuremberg trials and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, two things we studied in Metz! There is also a Holocaust, or Shoah, remembrance exhibit. One section, titled “The Harvest of Destruction,” showed the impact of such atrocities and catastrophes on the people involved in them, through photographs, letters, and personal items. It was chilling.

The floor above that, with the happier title “Rebuilding a Divided Continent,” showed us the worldwide lasting consequences of the two world wars, including a very interesting Cold War room. The Cold War room, again, showed both sides of the conflict equally, and contained artifacts, posters, and political cartoons from the United States on one side of the room, and from the Soviet Union on the other. Interestingly, the first picture on each side is of the respective side’s atomic bomb. American museums don’t show “the other side” as much, so it was very thought-provoking to see communist propaganda next to strikingly similar capitalist propaganda. This floor also contained “Creating Social Security,” one of the most interesting rooms in the museum. The first thing museum-goers see is a small-scale 3-dimensional model of an apartment interior from the 70s, mounted on the wall when they first walk in. This room also features a wall dedicated to the consumer of the decade, filled with products the average person might buy. In addition, there is an old VW Bug in the corner, and a dentist’s chair from before health care was publicly funded. This room culminates in an interactive desk that allows museum-goers to take a quiz to see whether their personal values align more with communism or capitalism. Also on this floor is a room dedicated to European integration, specifically Robert Schuman and his peers. This was very cool to see, as we’ve been studying their history and principles all summer!

The next floor is titled “Shattering Certainties,” and starts in the 70s with OPEC’s price increase and the resulting global energy crisis. In Europe, everyone’s day-to-day lives were affected because they were so dependent on imported energy. In many places, “No Car Sundays” were implemented, and awareness was raised about waste- hot on the heels of the consumerist lives many had been living. There is a room about democratization, specifically the 1970s revolutions across Europe (Greece, Spain, and Portugal), and the rise of feminism. The area right after that is about the decline of communism as it became more and more obvious that it never lived up to its promises, and that the people under communism suffered. There are more exhibits and artifacts about European integration, specifically the first direct elections for European Parliament, the movement towards a single market, a harmonization of European passports, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975). There is an emotional exhibit on the redrawing of European borders, first with the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, and second with the Yugoslavian civil wars, ethnic cleansing, and subsequent split. There is also a room dedicated to how similar and unified European lives are becoming, modern views of the EU, and an intriguing exhibit on how “shared and divided” European memory is.

The final floor has three distinct sections. The first is about how Europe is and was viewed by those outside of Europe. This section contains pieces from museums about Europe. The second section is about accolades and criticisms the European Union, its members, and its neighbors have received. The third section is all about Brussels!

Overall, the House of European History was much more interesting, interactive, and stimulating than any of us could have imagined, and several of us will likely be going back, as it’s free!

The Royal Museum of Central Africa

Anika Gouhl                                                                                                              Teruven, Belgium                                                                                                                  19 June 2019

“If nothing is said, we can imagine everything we want to imagine.” Those were the words our tour guide greeted us with at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. It was only a few minutes into the tour that I realized that quote very succinctly describes the core mission of the Royal Museum in Teruven, Belgium.

Upon our arrival to the newly renovated facility, known colloquially as the AfricaMuseum, we were brought to a painting that quite literally framed the entire museum experience. The work, Chéri Samba’s Réorganisation, depicts the very recent  personal reckoning of the AfricaMuseum. In it, a sculpture of a Congolese assassin hunches over a sleeping countryman, poised to strike. To the left, white museum employees pull the statue into the museum’s doors. On the right, African men and women pull the statue away from the museum employees. The museum director stands behind, watching the struggle with crossed arms. The caption reads “It’s true that it is sad but in fact the museum must become fully organized.”

Chéri Samba’s Réorganisation

The painting represents the overarching challenge that the AftricaMuseum is now facing: how to grapple with its colonialist past and update its portrayal of a people it helped discount and marginalize. That’s not an easy task, but the sentiment is echoed through the many displays. I was impressed with the museum’s comprehensive reorganization. The effort reflects the AfricaMuseum’s willingness to change with the times and to improve upon recent progress.

Our tour guide next led us to the room where the statue in the painting actually stood. The assassin was even more imposing in person. However, the statue was surrounded by other statues, some of men in intimidating poses, others of Congolese making tools, caring for children, or even fighting off slavers. The sculptures on their own only gave insight to a single aspect of the Congolese people. Only together did they provide a better portrait of the Congo’s history.  It was here that our tour guide made a point to emphasize how important it was to form opinions from more than one source.

This immediately reminded me of the Ted Talk our group had watched earlier on the European Union program, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” In the museum and in the Ted Talk, we were warned of the danger of reducing a people, a culture, or a history to a single perspective. The message from the speech was further reinforced by our tour guide’s reminder: if we want to treat others with the tolerance and respect they deserve, we need to take the initiative to view them through multiple perspectives, rather than through the lens of a single opinion.

Keeping this exact philosophy in mind, the AfricaMuseum has worked to re-contextualize its many artifacts and displays. As we walked through the halls, working our way up from the subterranean exhibits to the famous rotunda on the first floor, it was clear that the AfricaMuseum took the danger of a single story seriously.   

The shadows of the names of known Congolese killed by Belgians during the live exhibitions in the early 1900s.


We continued on in the subterranean exhibit, coming to a miniature model of the museum itself. Here, our tour guide told us the history of the actual museum. It was built by King Leopold II, known as the “building king.” Originally, the museum grounds were filled with stolen artifacts and served as a propaganda tool for Belgian colonialism. Our group learned that King Leopold II even ordered for a small group of Congolese men, women, and children to be brought to Belgium. Here they were forced to recreate their tribes from home and to live on the museum grounds. They were enclosed by a barrier, and Belgians would visit the museum, watching the displaced Congolese like a zoo exhibit. That piece of history was one of the parts of the tour that stuck with me the most. It was then that I began to grasp how much damage had been done to the Congolese during the Colonial Era.

Continuing on with our tour, we walked to the Languages and Music exhibit. Amongst the artifacts we visited and learned about the beautifully woven fabrics, intricately carved pottery, and impressively large drums of the Congolese people. One of the highlights included when the tour guide explained the use of tonal languages in Africa. Essentially, the musicality of a word conveys its meaning, where different tones of the same word mean different things.

Political reconciliation between Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent-Désiré Kabila as mediated by Nelson Mandela.

Examples of Central African artworks











Our tour moved on to an exhibit of ritual masks, where men would wear decorative masks to channel their ancestors during ceremonial dances and fights. The masks were made with finely carved wood, raffia grass, and shells to signify wealth. Our tour guide noted that much is known about some of the masks, while next to nothing about others. I was shocked to learn that a portion of the artifacts were blatantly stolen from Africans. In some cases, there’s record of Belgians sneaking into African villages at night and taking prized possessions. Under these circumstances, the history of these masks were lost, unknown to this day.

  Our tour concluded with the exhibit on present day Congo. I was surprised to see that in the center of the room, a towering robot swiveled in place. The robot was a traffic conductor, designed by a Congolese female engineer. It was in stark contrast to the ritual masks we had just seen, a futuristic centerpiece in a room steeped in colonial history. It was a fitting symbol of the progress that the Congolese region has cultivated, and the ways in which conversations about African culture have begun to change.

The museum had begun a transformation. Where the Congolese people were once treated as a zoo exhibit to be gawked at, they were now portrayed as a complex, thriving culture.

Our final stop was in the grand rotunda of the Royal Museum. In it, we looked at the colonial statues lined in alcoves along the walls. There were statues representing Belgium bringing well-being, civilization, and security to the African region. Where once stood statues of Congolese natives, placed below the colonial art, was a new installation. It was central in the rotunda. There was no mistaking that it was the focal point, not the antique figures on the wall. It was the profile of an African figure, with their head held high. It was hopeful, unflinching, and a welcome change from the Royal Museum of the past.


Parliamentarium and Parliament

For weeks now, we have been studying the structure and the de facto rules of the European institutions.  However, like many social systems, the nuances buried deep in experiences carry the most truth. Through our visit to the Parliamentarium, the visitor center, and home of the EU parliament role-playing game, we gained hands on experience for the first time and learned the de jure rules and tendencies that sway and tide the members of the EU parliament.  

We started with being seated in a small cubby-sized auditorium.  Our speaker explained the course of the game, provided us with assistive smartphones, and sent us off to begin the game.  We first broke into political parties, each resembling one from the European Parliament: the Tradition party (center-right), the Liberty party (center), the Solidarity party (center-left), and the Ecology Party (Greens).  I was a representative from Greece and was placed in the Liberty party. We received information on the proposals from the commission (as would happen in the European Parliament) we would be debating: a sustainable water development proposal and legislation on microchip implants. Our party divided further into groups that would tackle each topic and chose a spokesperson. We broke off, with our smartphones telling us where to go. We rapidly moved from station to station, interviewing virtual constituents, experts, and lobbyists, running the office by taking calls and reading emails, and eventually talking to a simulated press conference on our stances. We then met with our team to settle on a stance before going into debates.

In the debate room we were asked to negotiate, compromise, and settle on a bill that could eventually pass in a parliament. A frenzy of conversation started in which everyone attempted to leverage one factor over another in trying to convince everyone else why they should accept one proposition over another. We soon discovered multiple majorities: some were for increasing infrastructure while others were totally against raising water prices.  The interests of the parties were assigned so that no one party could get everything they wanted if they also wanted the required majority to pass it. This led to coalitions that formed, not on common interests, but on shared “unacceptables”. I think this perfectly outlines one of the important nuances about governance and cooperation that one could only find by experience: the fact that structure matters. The rules of the game you’re playing matter more than who your opponents are, how they think, or how they play. For the Parliament, or any legislative body for that matter, structure defines a scope of reach and efficacy within which a representative sees their work.  The importance of structure may be obvious, but the non-triviality of such importance is not. No one could have predicted how the structure of the Parliamentarium game was going to affect the final outcome based on information beforehand, yet it blindsided us as the overriding feature. Each social system has a unique and subtle set of hidden governing factors. After a second hearing two bills were passed that left everyone exhausted and dissatisfied – a final reminder of the power of structure.

After a couple of hours of rest we visited what we had simulated day before: the European Parliament. We were received by Jana Javi-Robertson who works for the visitor and seminar committee of the Parliament. Her presentation, unlike some of the other site visits we’ve gone to, avoided basic information that we already knew and dove into deeper and more relevant topics that worked on our existing knowledge: the Brexit redistribution of seats, party restructuring after the elections, and the interesting dynamic of majority-seeking in the Parliament. She also included the fact that MEPs must fulfill their role as a representative of their constituents and must not overstep their duties and responsibilities. I think this specificity of role within the parliamentary structure is often forgotten despite its somewhat counterintuitive importance. After the presentation we were lead to the Hemicycle and completed our European Parliament visit series with the location in Strasbourg.

As an engineering major, I have at times found myself extremely conflicted on this trip. My tendency is to identify factors of utility for a given scenario and then immediately find the values for which utility is optimized. However, throughout this trip I have seen many solutions to problems provided by smart people that seemed so far from the theoretical utility maximum in the name of things like sovereignty and democracy. But when faced with virtual Ministers, self-interested lobbyists and frustrated constituents in the Parliamentarium game, I’ve come to see that representation is itself a factor of utility and while it may not produce the most efficient or speedy solution, the structure sacrifices these things in order to give people a voice and not leave them in the margins of a document of legislation. People and the ways in which they interact, unfortunately, cannot be engineered or optimized. Democracy and cooperation will probably always be imperfect, but through thoughtful structure and humanism, it’ll be the best imperfect system we can have.

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén