GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: Gianni Saporiti



Entrance to Auschwitz

Today on our first full day in Krakow we had an early start to the day with a van ride to Auschwitz. In my opinion, this has been by far the most emotional and eye opening visit of the entire trip. To me it was just surreal to be standing in the ground where so many people were stripped away of their humanity and murdered only less than 75 years ago. I think mankind has come a long way but if more people had the chance to see places like Auschwitz, there is no doubt in my mind that the world would change for better. Auschwitz is one of those places that is now so peaceful and so historic that sometimes it is hard to see beyond what is right in front of you and actually re-live some of the moments as some of the people that we encountered during our tour proved with their indifferent attitudes.

Auschwitz was not just one concentration camp, it was a network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps which consisted of three main camps plus some 45 satellite camps. There were 1.3 million people that were deported to the camp, 1.1 million of whom were murdered there. Although Jewish people accounted for the majority of those who were deported, the camp did not only include Jewish people. There were many non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies, soviet prisoners of war, and a large number of prisoners from other ethnic groups that included people who opposed the Nazi regime.


Perimeter fence around Auschwitz I

We started our tour on the site of Auschwitz I, where at front gate the first sign we saw said “Work brings freedom.” This was very sad to me because the people that were deported to the camp thought, at least initially, that they would be starting a new life and this was reflected by the kinds of things that they took with them which we could see in some of the exhibitions such as pots and pans, shoe polish, etc. The conditions inside of the living quarters were deplorable to say the least and something that most people accustomed to a modern style of living would not be able to withstand for nearly as long as most people did during WWII. I was particularly shocked by the standing cells in the basement of Block 11. These were 1 square yard with a 2 inch opening for air and a 2 square feet hatch for prisoners to enter the cell. There were up to four people at one time inside the cell where they could not sit or see the light of day and then they were repeatedly forced to work day after day until most of them died. We went through some of the gas and cremation chambers where approximately 90% of the people that were deported to the camp were murdered. These chambers were the result of the optimization of execution by Nazi officials since the price of ammunition was too high at the time. There we saw the places where people were told they would take a disinfecting bath and then sent to the concentration camp with everyone else but never made it out. Another thing that shocked me is that many people that were deported to the death camps were isolated from the rest of the camps and called the Sonderkommando. These special units were forced to work cremating the bodies of sometimes their own neighbors and family members after they had been gassed to death and then they were eventually put inside the chambers themselves.


Belongings from the deportees

We learned that the Nazi officials wanted to destroy Jewish those deported to the camps not only as a race but as human beings. They were lied to just so they would get on the train and then they were lied to just so they would get on the gas chambers. I think if they had known what kind of atrocities awaited them, they would have rather died fighting, but they didn’t know. As soon as they reached the camps they were stripped form their belongings and even their hair which was later used to make fabrics and their bones to make buttons. This to me was the ultimate dehumanization of these people. They were essentially reduced to the equivalent of raw materials, something so inhumane and so atrocious that for me it is impossible to imagine anyone could do that and to another human being and still live with themselves.


Bunk beds where up to five people were forced to sleep on each level

The tour continued in Auschwitz II-Birkenau were most of the murders were carried out. This place is now equally as peaceful as Auschwitz I and even surrounded by beautiful vegetation that now somewhat disguises the atrocities committed there. There we saw some other types of barracks were people were forced to live. None of the places really had a way to stay warm during the harsh winters and the bunk beds they had to share with five other people were not even larger enough for me to lay fully horizontally. Out of all of these experiences in Auschwitz however, what affected me the most emotionally was entering Auschwitz II and walking towards the death chambers using the exact same path that hundreds of thousands of people used to walk to their death. I tried to imagine what it would be like to take those steps during that time, the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that they must have felt when some of them eventually knew the faith that awaited them.


Cremation chamber

At the end of the tour, our guide told us that there have been debates about whether the place should even exist and be preserved anymore. I can almost understand how some people might want to forget this period of their history, move on and erase this painful period of time from their memories; however, this reminded me of a quote that I saw when we first entered the camp which said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I thought this was a very important quote specially in the times that we are living in right now with a migration and political crisis that is starting to spark feelings similar to those that steered us into WWII. That is why I think that Auschwitz should not only be preserved but should be taught about and should be exposed as much as possible. A few years from now when most survivors from that time period pass away and their relatives feel very distant from their memories, all we will have to remind us that atrocities such as the ones committed during WWII must never happen again will be sites like Auschwitz.

All in all, I think I can speak for all of us in the program when I say that today was a truly moving day and even life changing for some of us. Today, this knowledge was passed down to us so we could learn from it and make better decision during in our life and one day all of us will hopefully pass it down again to the next generations in hopes that we can teach them enough for them not to repeat the same mistakes that have been made in the past and ensure that this will never happen again.

US Embassy in the City of Light

Today we met with Johnny Jones in a more formal setting than our previous meeting. Before a series of briefings, we had the chance to attend an early fourth of July party, “The Annual Community Independence Day Barbecue,” at the official residence of the United States Ambassador to France, the Hôtel de Pontalba in Paris. After making our way through a very rigorous security checkpoint to enter the palace we arrived to the gardens and took a tour of the portion of the residence that is open to guests. The palace was magnificent to say the least and the party was delightful with great food and a small military-looking ensemble playing some great music.


After the party, we made our way through two more security checkpoints to the inside of the United States Embassy which is the oldest diplomatic mission of the US. There we went to the Wallace room, a room that is used in many occasions for official meetings, where we had briefings from three officials of the Embassy. We learned many things about the relationship between the US, France, and the EU in general. Common topics such as the UK referendum on EU membership came up and I was a little surprised to learn that this referendum had been basically disregarded by many officials. The Brexit victory came as a shock to many of them because they really did not expect for this to happen and therefore they had no backup plan but to keep doing things the way they used to. This has led to some uncertainty in negotiations such as TTIP and even talks about the need for the EU to evolve to discourage other members from leaving.

We also learned about some of the differences in opinion and policy between France and the US. For example, whenever a new industry is created in the US, the government does not regulate many aspects of it until the need arises to do so. The opposite is true in France. Whenever a new industry is created, it is immediately heavily regulated and slowly deregulated as it proves to be safe. This, in part, is what many think is one of the cause of the US focus on innovation and of France’s youth unemployment.

All in all, in my opinion the most important lessons of the day were in the areas of the violent extremism and the Privacy Shield Agreement.

The Privacy Shield Agreement that has now ended the negotiation phase has been the focus point for many debates and many people that argue that the agreement does not b08b31d8173f4e09b6d5f86a20060900sufficiently address the problems that it was meant to tackle. Others also argue that because of this lack of resolution to previous problems, the agreement is going to be challenged again in court and that this will deteriorate the credibility of the EU Parliament and the EU in general; however, the argument of many Europeans is that the deal does not meet European standards and does not require US companies to do things the way Europeans do but under EU law, international agreements require that the laws, regulations, and requirements be “essentially equivalent” to those of the EU. This raises the question of what “essentially equivalent” means. According to our speakers, the main point of contention used to be the commercial component of this agreement and not the national security component. Even though there are still many people who disagree with the agreement, many officials on both sides now believe that the Privacy Shield Agreement now provides this essential equivalency. The agreement is set to be voted on July the 4th by the EU parliament and go into effect on July 11th.

When speaking about violent extremism one of our speakers said that at the end of the day if your name is Muhammad and you live outside of Paris it is really difficult to find a job and that this is really the greatest challenge that France is facing right now in their fight against the spread of violent extremism. According to them, the suburbs have higher unemployment rates and also higher radicalization incidence than urban areas which combined with the precarious economic situation has made it really hard to mitigate the radicalization of those who are the most susceptible to it. I thought this was a very interesting point of view because it shifts the focus of the problem from the people that spread their radical and violent extremism to the people that are susceptible to it, to the economy, and to a deeper societal problem. There is always going to be people trying to spread their radical views and trying to justify their discontent with society by dragging other people into their problems so that they are not the only ones in that situation; however, if those who would be susceptible to this propaganda and those frustrated with their status quo have opportunities for social mobility, can find a job to sustain themselves and their families and feel accepted in the society they live in, they would dismiss this propaganda and break the cycle that leads to radicalization and violent extremism.

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.

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