GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: Radford Brosius

An Introduction to Human Rights

On July 4th we had the amazing opportunity to visit Human Rights Watch in which we were given a talk by Andrew Stroehlein, the European Media Director at Human Rights Watch, and briefed on major human rights issues today as well as how the NGO works. Stroehlein began by explaining that HRW does three main things: investigate human rights abuses, expose these abuses and push for change in the areas they are committed.


With this in mind, we began simply by asking questions and received some surprising answers. For instance, we all were taken aback when the UK left the EU on June 23, but we mostly thought of Brexit as an economic and political disaster, not one that would spur human rights abuses. Stroehlein informed us, however, that with Brexit there had been a rise in xenophobic attacks. As one of the reasons the UK left the EU was so that they could control their refugee intake, it makes sense that there is xenophobia in the state. Andrew explained that refugees and such a rise in xenophobia are the two primary issues being dealt with at this point.

As I was interested in how NGO’s can affect change, I asked about the advantages and disadvantages of not having the power a government does as I thought this would make it more difficult to effectively stop human rights violations. The resounding answer was that they have independence and that they don’t have to worry about being reelected. “NGO’s are far more able to speak out. We have the freedom to speak the truth,” Stroehlein said. At first I thought of ceasing human rights abuses as threatening economic strain on a country, but HRW is a large and loud enough organization that when they publish an article detailing the abuses that take place in various countries, the media listens and so the world listens.

The two most interesting topics covered in my opinion were the Czech Republic and the US. In the Czech Republic, refugees were being taken off of trains, had numbers written on their arms and then thrown in jail. This was only a year ago, but nobody was paying any attention for some time. HRW then published an article detailing these abuses and received so much media attention that the policies were dropped within 48 hours. This is fascinating to think about the fact that the organization can affect such huge change in such a short span of time. Stroehlein explained that this was one of the more recent instances in which they saw an instantaneous reaction following an investigation and report.

As for the US, Andrew said many interesting things. Firstly, he spoke of how it’s worrying that US politicians openly endorse torture and carpet bombing as both of these are recognized as human rights abuses and are illegal under international treaties. There is some xenophobia in the US, and so some politicians have appealed to this group. Though they most likely won’t actually carpet bomb an area, it is scary to think that this notion is popular enough to be used in any political rhetoric.

I also asked which country has the most investigative funding going into it, and the answer was that the US has the most articles published on its human rights abuses annually. Stroehlein gave two reasons for this. Firstly, as HRW is a US NGO they are more easily able to look within their own country and identify when individuals’ rights are not being recognized. It was also explained that the human rights abuses in the US are not systematic as they might be in other countries and may be less severe, though HRW doesn’t rank abuses as they are all bad. Most investigation in the US is about domestic issues, but there are still a good number of issues that arise out of how the US projects its power in the international arena.

It is impressive their power to affect change, especially given that they are a staff of 450 covering 100 countries. When asked how they got to be so widely known Stroehlein responded “be big and be loud.” HRW is very good at directing attention towards such abuses, and so they are very effective. This site visit was one of my favorites so far as we learned a great deal, it was a good introduction to our human rights course and Stroehlein was a very interesting speaker.

Academics and Haircuts

On Monday June 13 we were given the opportunity to visit the University of Copenhagen and were given a lecture by Ian Manners, a Professor of Political Science. In our discussion we covered three categories: member state perspectives, the future of Europe and possible scenarios for the EU moving forward.

In talking about the member state perspectives, Manners gave us some interesting facts about how nations act and think. We talked about the changing border controls and were presented with the idea that was founded in the 70’s that border controls within the EU couldn’t stop terrorism. This seems to be true given that the terror attacks on Paris in November were by French and Belgian nationals and the recent shooting in the US was perpetrated by a US citizen. Ian Manners confirmed this saying “terrorism is home grown,” which is both an interesting and somewhat scary thing to think about.

Ian in Class

Ian also talked about the economic situation in the EU and specifically about the Eurozone. While previous speakers have said that Sweden simply isn’t adopting the Euro because it cannot be forced on them and they don’t want to adopt it, it turns out that they are using a much more sophisticated method in order to not have the Euro forced on them. In order for countries to take on the Euro as their national currency they have to have stable currency for two years. Sweden controls its interest rates close to the Euro while letting their currency flow enough to not be eligible.

Another interesting fact we learned was about political parties specifically in Denmark. The second and third most popular parties in Denmark, Venstre and the Danish Peoples’ Party respectively, have made a coalition in order to gain power. Though the Socialists & Democrats are technically the most popular party in Denmark, Venstre is in power. The same thing can be seen in the European Parliament with the three largest socialist parties forming a coalition in order to have a majority over the European Peoples’ Party. This is one of the more interesting aspects of European politics that we don’t see in American politics since we have a two party system. It is also interesting to see the number of parties in the member countries and how this same coalition forming happens at a national and supranational level. Ian Manners ended his discussion saying “Danish politics is extremely volatile right now.”

As for the future of Europe, our speaker talked about three main challenges. The first is demographic challenges. The age distribution of most European countries is very heavily older. The work force in the next 15 years will be much smaller than it is now, which will put a strain on many countries’ economies. The only two countries that have a sufficiently high reproduction rate so as to not face these demographic challenges are the US and India, according to Manners.

The second issue is climate change. Though there have been movements towards a greener global community, the implementation of policy has to be relatively uniform in order for effective change.

The third issue is the move to the right, though this issue may be short-term. Austria recently nearly elected a very far-right party, the Freedom Party of Austria. Manners even called the Greek and Hungarian parties that are in power fascist. This is a problem as it creates friction within the EU, which can be seen as the EU has issued a warning to Poland over its abuse of power and limiting of constitutional rights. However, I think that this is a short-term issue as historically there can be seen a rightward shift following economic crises such as that that happened in 2009.

Finally, Manners explained five scenarios that could happen regarding the future of the EU. These are Absentio – no EU, Confederatio – intergovernmental cooperation, Federatio – supranational integration, Stato – a regional state or Communio – regional sharing. Which of these will be put in place is up for debate, they are simply the five possible scenarios. As of right now I believe that Absentio and Federatio are the least likely while Communio or Confederatio are the most likely.

I also got a haircut today. I went to a barber shop that was owned by a British man. During my haircut I told him that I was going to London, to which he responded that it will be interesting to be there after the 23rd. I asked him what he thought was going to happen and he had a very strong belief that the UK would leave. He also believed that when the UK left it would hurt Europe but not UK. He said that this was because 90% of British Businesses don’t export to Europe. This simply is not true, as evidenced by the link below, and it made me wonder about what kind of information or misinformation is spread about the UK’s role in the EU economy and the EU’s role in the UK economy. It was interesting to hear this perspective as mostly we have heard that the UK should stay. I hope to hear more public opinion on this issue.

How Important is the EU to UK Trade and Investment?

Discussing Brexit

Last night, May 23 at 6:30 pm the class attended a discussion at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) titled Brexit/Bremain: what is at stake for the UK and the EU, on the topic of the June 23 vote by the UK deciding on membership in the European Union. Brexit has been an interesting topic of discussion for our class as the result of the vote will have great effects regardless of outcome. This panel discussion was our first in depth look at the issue, but it won’t be our last.


The panel was introduced by Anne Weyembergh, President of the Institute of European Studies (IEE) at ULB, and was moderated by Mendel Goldstein, President of the Alumni IEE association and former member of the External Action Service of the European Commission. Jonathan Faull, Director General of the Task Force for Strategic Issues related to the UK Referendum in the European Commission presented, and the discussants on the panel were Catherine Stihler, Member of the European Parliament (S&D/UK), Rector of St Andrews University and Labour Party member, and Mario Telo, former IEE president and ULB professor.

Faull began the discussion presenting his point of view that both the EU and UK benefit from having the UK remain in the union. One point that was made is the fact that there has been no official campaigning done by the EU in order to keep the UK in. This struck me as interesting, as I felt that a lack of campaigning means a lack of understanding of the costs and benefits of EU membership. When I posed this question today in class, the answer I received was that it would backfire since the UK would see the EU as an overlord rather than a union. However, the EU campaigned and advertised for the Lisbon Treaty, the most recent treaty in effect for the EU, and so I wonder why the difference in intervention? It still seems as though an EU campaign would help counter all of the anti EU talk enough to have an effect, therefore increasing the chances that the UK will remain.

Stihler then spoke, also advocating for the UK to remain in the union. Stihler’s main point was that the vote will be determined by the voter turnout. As such, the labour party has been campaigning in Scotland encouraging citizens to vote and providing them with the economic impacts that EU membership has had on the UK. Stihler also made the point that voter registration ends June 7, so action needs to be taken now in order to have the full opinion of the UK. I think it’s interesting that Stihler is focusing on voter turnout, as it seems that there is a mostly negative EU sentiment in the UK. Because of this, the remain vote may require a large voter turnout in order to win, which may prove to be a challenge.

Telo was the final speaker who presented an interesting point of view. Telo focused on the negative aspects thus far in the campaign effort for the UK to remain. Telo spoke of the points of the campaign and explained why they were not “innovative” enough. For example one point of why the UK should remain was that Europe would delve into conflict. Telo insisted that this was not an effective point as Europe was peaceful for 25 years prior to the UK joining and has been peaceful since, so nobody would believe the point. The essence of his discussion was that in order for the campaign to be more effective, they would have to be more innovative and as the vote is one month away, this could prove to be difficult. Telo was still pro remain it seemed.

Following the discussions were questions from various audience members, including a former Belgian ambassador to the UK, a journalist from the United States representing Politico Europe and a former ULB student. The journalist asked about previous requests for the negotiation documents, which are private, between the UK and EU. Faull met the question with the statement that protocol had been seen through and the request was denied, which led to heated response by the journalist while Faull was addressing the question. The journalist ended with “That’s just how the commission works,” leaving the room tense. This was interesting to see as I felt that the journalist had a right to request the documents and being somewhat pushy is necessary in some situations. However, the documents are private as so many are in negotiations between any two large entities and they rarely tend to show their hands.

Long, a Georgia Tech student, asked about the security implications regarding Ukraine and the refugee crisis, but the questions was only vaguely answered. Faull responded that the UK being a nuclear actor is important, but that as they are not leaving NATO that the security implications would not be grand. I challenge this as the relationship between countries could very well change and the issue is simply more complex than EU and NATO being separate. Since the two organizations have so much overlap, it is hard to say that Brexit will barely affect security. How much of an effect will Brexit have on security? What will the effects be? Will there be an effect even if the UK remains due to a change in international relations changing?

Brexit is a complex issue and so this panel discussion was a good look at one side of the picture. Though each panel member represented different parties, they were all for the UK remaining. I am eager to hear the other side’s point of view and continue to watch this issue evolve. I am also interested to see the voting results on June 23 and to see the outcome of the vote, no matter what happens. I’m glad that our class could be in Europe for such a historic vote.

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