GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: Madison Malarkey

Visiting the Bundestag

On our second day in Berlin, we began our site visits with a trip to the Bundestag, where we were shown around by an official in the upper house of the German Parliament. The parliament is not currently in session, but will return later in September. As we walked through several parliamentary buildings, one of the things that I noticed was how much care was put into the architecture and design of the buildings. The various architects and designers employed to work on the buildings were given an extraordinary amount of control over their respective areas, and the resulting rooms and buildings are really something to see. Not only are they impressive architectural works of art, many of the features on the parliamentary buildings have great historical or political significance. For example, the plenary room, which our guide referred to as the most important room of the parliament, was designed in such a way that a person can stand outside the building from a great distance away and see directly into the glass walls of the room. The intended result was a room that is both transparent and somehow accessible to the people, reflecting the transparency of the parliament and processes. German history is also an integral part of the parliamentary buildings; there are many references to German identity and history in the buildings themselves and in the tunnels under them. Below the Bundestag in one tunnel is a construction of boxes bearing the names of German MPs. Certain boxes are specially marked and commemorate the members who were killed or imprisoned standing up to the Nazi regime. In this way, the construction is not just a record of those who have served the German people in parliament; it is also a sort of memorial.
The tour of the Bundestag presented an opportunity to see some incredible architecture as well as a glimpse into German culture and history. In each country we’ve visited so far, we have seen multiple government buildings and parliaments, but the visit to the Bundestag gave us an example of how history affects national identity in a very visible way. Throughout the buildings, we saw memorials and monuments commemorating German independence and reunification as well as the events of World War II. Entire rooms and buildings have been redesigned to intentionally reflect changes in German identity and values, making them works of art as well as historical reminders. It was incredibly interesting to see a visible representation of how deeply German culture and politics are linked to historical events.
After the tour, we were briefed by Mr. Hardt, a member of the German Parliament as well as the official coordinator for transatlantic cooperation. He began the briefing by speaking about some of the main topics on the agendas of the EU and the German parliament; according to Hardt, the primary concern at the moment is Brexit, which few expected would actually happen and for which no one was prepared. As the European Union prepares for the UK’s secession, their top priority will be to avoid losing power by showing the European people that they are still strong and prepared to follow through in spite of the referendum. As a part of this effort, Angela Merkel will release a new strategy approach after this coming March, which might involve closer cooperation between state governments as well as EU institutions. We also discussed the potential economic and policy effects of Brexit on both the United Kingdom and the European Union, including what the possible impacts will be on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In regards to how TTIP will be affected, Hardt’s opinion was that both the EU and the US consider TTIP and its progress a top priority, which will take precedence over any future bilateral trade agreements with the UK. As a result, the UK is at a disadvantage in its trade negotiations with both sides, and its relationship with the US will likely deteriorate, as the United States’ first trade priority is with the EU and not the UK. He also remarked that the UK has weakened significantly its bargaining power with the EU by not actively taking a role in EU politics and issues for the past few years. He finds it unlikely that Great Britain will be able to remain within the single market; while it will probably form a special agreement with the EU, it will not enjoy full integration into the single market after leaving. Hardt also spoke about the direct impacts that Brexit has had on Germany, its role as a member state, and its people’s perceptions of the EU. With the loss of such a large and influential member state, it is possible that Germany will take a stronger leadership role within the EU.
We also discussed the rise of right-wing politics across the European continent, a trend which has become evident with the events of the UK referendum and the recent presidential elections (and re-elections) in Austria. The success of the French Front Nationale and the Austrian People’s Party has been characterized by the rise of national-populistic rhetoric and strong anti-EU sentiment, which is also evident in the words and actions of a number of members of the European Parliament who are actively anti-EU. The events of the Syrian refugee crisis and recent economic hardships (largely due to the financial crisis of 2008), have increased similar sentiments in many European countries. However, by contrast, public support for the EU has recently increased in Germany. Mr. Hardt mentioned that even in the midst of the refugee influx, which encouraged right-wing support in other countries, support for the German far right party was only around 10%, and has since fallen lower. He told us that while the far right party will likely become an acting party in parliament next year, they will do so only as a tiny percentage, echoing what we heard from the official who toured the Bundestag with us earlier in the day.
Finally, our briefing with Mr. Hardt included a conversation on current German politics, including an analysis of Angela Merkel. In particular, he mentioned a decisive moment in Merkel’s career in which she spoke on the topic of refugees, saying that if one can’t be friendly and open to refugees in Germany, then it is not her country. It was very interesting and informative to hear the perspective of a German MP on Angela Merkel and her approach to refugee policy, which has such huge implications for European states today. It was also interesting to hear Hardt’s opinions on TTIP- he gave us part of his explanation as to why negotiations might be moving so slowly. In addition to being extremely complex and difficult to explain to citizens, the trade deal is also encountering issues with differing standards of production, mistrust on both sides of the negotiations, and a certain reluctance to embrace changes that might come with a final deal. The 14th round of negotiations began on the previous day, and there will be a council meeting in September regarding progress. Hardt finds it unlikely that the agreement will be finished before President Obama’s term is up, which means that the next US president will very likely have to look at the final stages of the agreement and push it through. While many speakers have expressed extreme doubt that the agreement will pass if not completed under the Obama administration, Hardt seemed to be of the opinion that the new US president will be able to finish the TTIP negotiations. The briefing has only made it more evident how closely the world is watching the upcoming elections; it’s been spoken about in nearly every single site visit, and this one was no exception. Speaking with MP Hardt was a great opportunity to gain a further understanding of the importance of cooperation between the EU and the US as well as insight into German politics. As we come to the end of the program, it will be very interesting to follow Germany’s evolving role in the EU and in transatlantic relations.

A Visit to the Riksdag

Our second site visit of our last full day in Stockholm was a trip to the Swedish Parliament, where we took a short tour of the building and spoke with a representative about parliamentary procedures as well as its interactions with the EU. We learned that the Swedish Parliament, or the Riksdag, has numerous sectoral committees monitering EU affairs within specific policy areas. The Committee on EU Affairs deals with all areas of cooperation with the EU , and the Government consults both the Committee on EU Affairs and parliamentary committees when it needs to gain support for its EU policies before meeting with the Council of Ministers. It was particularly interesting to learn that consultations ahead of the meetings with the Council are open to the public, and the stenographic records are published. In many previous site visits, we’ve seen that a certain percentage of European citizens feel that they lack access to or knowledge of policymaking processes within the EU, so this visit gave us some valuable insight into how Sweden tries to make its interactions with the EU as transparent as possible to its people. It’s also important to note that the Swedish Parliament checks all of the EU drafts before approving them, but not all countries do. There have been discussions on finding a way for national parliaments across member states to work together on subsidiarity checks, which would make agreement and implementation of EU laws more efficient.
Another interesting point the representative made was that since Sweden currently has a minority government, there are often cases in which the government must negotiate with other parties, sometimes changing its position.
We also discussed some of the issues the Riksdag is currently dealing with, the most pressing of which is the migration crisis. The same day we visited parliament, they were voting whether to adopt new legislation on migration that would last for the next two years. We had the unique opportunity to witness the vote, which ended with a majority agreeing to pass the legislation. The new regulations will make it more difficult for refugees to attain permanent residency, and will impose serious restrictions on family reunification. Sweden has always taken a more liberal approach on migration than the rest of Europe, and this legislation was not without strong opposition, which was demonstrated in protests that took place outside the building. The legislation and the protests were further evidence that the migration crisis is only becoming more serious, and highlights the need for a more cohesive, effective strategy across EU member states. The visit to the Swedish parliament was an interesting look into Swedish politics, and gave us valuable insight into the Nordic model as well as prominent issues like the migration crisis. After visiting institutions in both Copenhagen and Stockholm, it will be very interesting to compare Scandinavian perspectives on European issues to those in other member states.

Richard Corbett and a Visit to Bruegel

Our day began with a trip to the European Parliament in Brussels, where we had the opportunity to talk with MEP Richard Corbett, a representative from the Labour Party for Yorkshire. We discussed the likelihood and possible implications of the Brexit in the EU and the UK, and also heard his perspective on the situation. According to Mr. Corbett, he believes there are three reasons that Britain should remain an EU member: “idealistic, pragmatic, and selfish.” Regarding the first, he looked back to the original intent behind the establishment of the European Union. It has served to unite the region and prevent conflict between member states, as well as promote the pursuit of common interests. The second reason is related to the complex interactions between European countries- the EU has united a group of nations that are undeniably deeply interconnected, and has done so quite successfully, despite having flaws like any other international institution. Corbett’s last reason pertains to Great Britain itself, as its EU membership provides it with advantages such as access to the Single Market and allows it to have a say in important economic decisions. Leaving the EU would undoubtedly have serious economic effects, not the least of which would be leaving the single market. While some have suggested leaving the EU but retaining full access to the market, it is difficult to imagine this being very successful. If it went global, Great Britain would have to negotiate a divorce settlement with the EU as well as new trade negotiations with other nations, in which it would have decreased influence and leverage due to a smaller economy. UK citizens and businesses would then have to deal with tariffs and customs barriers, which would be particularly felt along the border with Northern Ireland, which would become a closed border. Additionally, we discussed the possibility that in the event of a Brexit, Scotland might push for a second referendum on secession from the UK to join the EU alone.
One of the most difficult challenges Mr. Corbett and other Bremain advocates have faced is combating the influence of an extremely Eurosceptic media. Slogans like “an undemocratic EU” are much catchier and easier to remember than explanations of the advantages of EU membership, which are very difficult to communicate in the short minute or two people are willing to stop and listen. Myths and beliefs propagated by the media include the idea Great Britain’s membership in the EU makes it subject to restrictions created by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. In response, Mr. Corbett pointed out that this argument completely neglects the MEP’s and the joint-decision making process, as well as the huge improvements in a more democratic decision making process implemented with EU treaties like Lisbon. He maintained that while the EU certainly has flaws, it remains a hugely valuable institution that many undervalue without understanding. To help in the campaign to remain, Corbett and his assistants have developed an app called Doorstep EU, which can reach more people more quickly than going door to door. In addition to the pro-EU “Stronger In” campaign, he is also involved in a campaign to remain geared specifically towards the Labour Party, particularly focusing on workers’ rights, which is a serious point of contention in the Brexit debate. We also discussed actions that might be taken if the Bremain side wins, as well as how Great Britain’s identity will change in the event that Brexit does happen.
He was both entertaining and convincing as he made the case for Great Britain remaining in the EU, and it will definitely be very interesting to see what happens after the referendum on June 23.
After leaving Parliament, we headed the Brussels European and Global Economy Laboratory, an economic think tank otherwise known as Bruegel. The Secretary General, Matt Dann, introduced the think tank as an organization that prioritizes “transparency and accountability,” an assessment that proved to be very true as he presented Bruegel’s mission, structure and research process. They are funded by 18 out of 27 EU countries, and 27 international organizations. Their mission is to “contribute to the quality of policy making through open, fact-based, policy-relevant research, analysis and discussion.” Mr. Dann was quick to clarify Bruegel’s role in economic policy; it does not take an institutional standpoint, and takes no views of its own, although its writers do. Additionally, when considering an issue, Bruegel will use its funds to look at evidence, and then produce recommendations (not forecasts) based on an analysis of that evidence. It was really impressive how thoroughly Bruegel is structured to ensure that it produces reliable information and analyses that aren’t controlled or dictated by other institutions. No member can contribute more than a certain amount (3-5%) to the budget, which is published annually, and anyone who writes more than three pieces must annually and publicly declare any outside interests in the name of transparency. Mr. Dann also mentioned that Bruegel didn’t participate in consultancy or lobbying, but did practice advocacy- promoting change for the better for the greatest number of people and considering the effects of policy for the good of the public. In addition to carefully researching and reviewing its publications to make sure they are accurate, they analyze their audience and tailor output to different sectors to reach each segment with versions of their articles that fit their needs. We were also able to discuss how Bruegel built its reputation and trust from its beginning in 2005 (according to Mr. Dann, by following the motto “to be strategic is to be successful”). Today was a great opportunity there to listen to a very informative and entertaining speaker, and we gained a thorough knowledge of Bruegel as an institution and a valuable source.

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