GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Category: European Institutions (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!




Council of the European Union and China Presentation

Continuing on our tour of the various European Union (EU) institutions, we visited the Council of the EU this morning. We were lucky enough to have received two briefings from key advisors in the council. We loved seeing the ornate modern architecture of the Council building, as well as getting the chance to visit the Council as it is about to transition from the Bulgarian to the Austrian Presidency in a few days on July 1, 2018.  We also saw the Nobel Peace Prize display. The medal was given to the EU in 2012 for it’s global advancements in peace, democracy, and human rights.

Our first briefing was from a representative from the Secretariat of the Council. We received an overview of the roles, functions, and priorities of the Council of Ministers as well as the European Council. He provided a clear and concise explanation of the EU trilogue system of passing legislation between the Council of the EU, the European Commission, and the European Parliament. He also explained the nuances of translating legislation into the 24 official languages of the EU. The Council employs special senior translators, referred to as “loyal linguists” in order to ensure that the law retains its intended meaning across all the member state’s languages. Additionally, we learned about the multi-layered revision processes within the Council, starting with revision in the small working parties and committees, then moving on to revision in the COREPER structure (a revision body made up of permanent representatives to the Council), and lastly moving up to voting of approval by the Ministers in the Council.

Next, we were briefed by Susanne Nielsen, a specialist on the migration crisis. We learned about the multiple different challenges facing the three main routes of migration into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa to Spain, Libya and Northern Africa to Italy, and The Middle East to Greece through Turkey. We discussed the EU’s plans to invest in northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as work with migration officials in Turkey in order to fix the crisis to decrease the flow of migration into Europe.  EU coordination on development aide in these regions is critical at this stage in the crisis. We also learned about Frontex’s coordination with the Italian, Spainish, and Greek naval forces on a few very important maritime missions. They are working to rescue the migrants fleeing to Europe on insufficient makeshift rafts, which often capsize in the Mediterranean Sea, leading to numerous drownings. The work these organizations are doing is saving a ton of lives.

After our visit to the Council building, we were off to to Euroflat Hotel for a briefing on “The Dynamics Between Europe and China” from Theresa Fallon, Director at the Center for Russia Europe and Asia Studies (CREAS). We learned about China’s increasing foreign direct investment into Eastern Europe, as well as their one billion dollar infrastructure investment through the One Belt One Road initiative, designed to increase international trade to China. We also discussed Europe’s fears of a “G2” world order with the US and China as the world’s two competing superpowers due to China’s rapid rise to power. Some key areas of concern are the unbalanced trade and investment relationship between China and it’s trade partners (specifically the US and the EU), as well as China’s inadequate workers rights, lack of environmental regulation, and heavy censorship. We all thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Fallon’s talk about China’s relationship with the EU.

Lastly, Hamid, a student on the program, gave us an extremely informative presentation on the history of US-Iranian relations. We covered the history of the primarily amenable but now more adversarial relationship between Iran and the US government, starting from the 1953 coup in Iran until present-day. For me personally, the history of the Middle East is a topic that I am not very knowledgeable about, so I found it very interesting to learn things like the US’s long history of supporting Iranian military development as well as the 1979 Iranian revolution, including the peaceful stepping down of the Shah (the Islamic monarch at the time) and his replacement by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I also didn’t know that this revolution was the impetus for global conflicts such as the energy crisis of the late 1970s, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Iran Hostage Crisis.

For me, the most interesting part of our day was listening to Hamid’s personal anecdotes on the state of his home country of Iran. He shared with us the chilling story of a family friend who is trying to inspire progressive social change in the nation, however he is being heavily persecuted for his views, which oppose the nations traditional Islamic values. This gentleman was giving a speech at a political gathering in Iranian Assembly, in which he shared his progressive ideals. He received shouts of insults claiming that he “should be buried right underneath the nuclear power plant reactor.” The man left the podium in tears. Hamid relayed to us his disappointment in the current state of Iranian politics, and his concern that the USA’s unexpected decision to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal will only further escalate the political problems of the country. It was inspiring to me to see a fellow student so actively engaged in the global political dilemmas, and his will to change the troubled state of the Middle East today. Through our daily exposure to key issues facing the world stage, I hope that this study abroad program fosters that same sense of commitment  to build a better future for us all.

Build the Highway!, the Death of Memes, and Why Not 100 Scenarios?

After visiting the EEAS earlier in the day, we headed to the European Parliament to attend a couple of briefings by MEPs. But before we went in, we ran into demonstrators from all over Europe, who were protesting all sorts of issues, from shady politics in Romania, to the EU’s proposed new copyright laws, to Donald Trump.

The first protest we noticed was about a highway in Romania, but all their signs said Moldova, which was a little confusing at first. Since we were puzzled by what their sign saying “Moldova vrea autostrada” meant, we approached them and asked them about their cause. They explained to us that the Romanian government is purposely withholding funds that it should be spending to build a highway between the Moldavia (sic) region and the rest of Romania, apparently to keep the area underdeveloped. After looking into this, I learned that they were referring to the “Autostrada A8,” which is a project that has been in the planning since 2007, and remains in the “feasibility studies” stage to this day. Oh, and it turns out that what the sign says is “Moldova wants the highway.”

There were also events observing World Refugee Day, one of them being a dance by the Syrian ballet dancer, Ahmad Joudeh. According to the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), the event sought to highlight the positive things that refugees are doing around the world.

Outdoor ballet performance by Syrian dancer Ahmad Joudeh celebrating the United Nations World Refugee Day. Source: EP

One of the demonstrations that immediately caught our attention consisted of a group of six women holding signs that read ‘STOP TRUMP.’ They came all the way from Greece to tell the MEPs that Trump is a threat to minorities and women. They did not expect any action to be taken by the European Parliament, they just wanted to share their message.

After talking to some of the demonstrators outside the parliament, we proceeded to go inside the parliament for our briefings. The first meeting was with Mady Delvaux, an MEP from Luxembourg and member of the S&D group. She is the Vice-chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs, which that day had just voted 13-12 in favor of the new EU Copyright Directive. The directive was a hot topic of discussion during the briefing, especially articles 11 and 13, that could restrict the access to news publications online, and force websites to have a copyright screening mechanism for all content uploaded by its users. MEP Delvaux voted against this directive, citing that it would be detrimental to the access of news online, and will hurt smaller, rising websites while it benefits the already well-established platforms.

Meeting with MEP Mady Delvaux

Sign Outside the Parliament Protesting the new Copyright Directive

The new directive could also infringe on the right to freedom of speech, making the internet less open, less free. Oh, and did I mention that article 13 will have the unintended effect of basically ending internet meme culture? Yeah, the internet is not very happy about that. Here are just a couple of memes to protest the likely extinction of memes as we know them.

MEP Delvaux was out to another meeting as we prepared to meet with Mr. Tamas Meszerics, a Hungarian member of the Green Party. Our discussion with MEP Meszerics touched on several important issues facing the EU, but one that stood out the most to me is what the EU is going to do about its own future. Naturally, the question about what his preferred scenario is came up (from the five scenarios presented in the White Paper on the Future of Europe). Mr. Meszerics’ response to this question was very different to every other we had received on this issue. First, he pointed out that none of the scenarios said a word about institutional change (to be expected since it was published by the Commission). Second, placing policies conveniently into packages creates fake consensus, and is manipulative, said MEP Meszerics. Why 5 scenarios? Why place Juncker’s preferred scenario in the middle? Why not 12 scenarios? Or 100? The conversation with Mr. Meszerics was a very interesting one, and it covered many issues from an angle that we had not been exposed to before.

The Treaty of Lisbon, Institutions of the EU, Boat Rides, and Flam

We began the last lecture day of the week by diving into the details of the Lisbon Treaty as a conclusion to the prior day’s lecture. As Maddie mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Lisbon Treaty is the most recent treaty to be ratified and enacted by the European Union. As a whole, the EU hoped that the Lisbon Treaty would address the democratic deficit that was so often criticized by eurosceptics and increase the efficiency of the EU’s processes as well as make those processes more comprehensible and transparent. Externally, the EU hoped to increase its political clout by strengthening its ability to shape foreign policy positions and agendas. Indeed, the origins of the Lisbon Treaty can be traced back to the ineffectiveness of the Treaty of Nice. Several member states asserted that the Nice Treaty failed to adequately prepare for future expansion and the increased democratic processes for which they had hoped. Therefore, the Convention on the Future of Europe began in 2001 to discuss the next steps for the EU. This Convention was unprecedented in the history of the EU because instead of only allowing member states’ participation, a wide range of participants attended, including representatives from member states, candidate states, national parliaments, the European Parliament, and the European Commission. Dr. Birchfield was quick to highlight this point as a direct contradiction of the technocratic nature so often attributed to the development of the EU. After all, how can something so heavily attended by such a wide variety of representatives of different governments and populations be elitist?

We then walked through the rough-and-tumble process that tends to be international political decision-making to discuss how the Constitutional Treaty produced by the Convention was transformed into today’s Treaty of Lisbon. Essentially, the initial Constitutional Treaty hoped to constitutionalize the EU by creating a self-standing body of text as opposed to merely amending prior agreements and legislation. This text would unify member states under the concept of supranational law and the primacy of such law over national governments and establish cultural symbols like a common flag and anthem. Interestingly enough, most of the proposed institutional changes were widely accepted by member states, but many had severe reservations about constitutionalizing of the EU, citing disagreements with other states’ ruling governments, persistent euroscepticism, and fears of an overly liberal and social Europe. I would also agree to a certain extent that the Constitutional Treaty’s blatant formatting of the EU’s supranational authority threatened the pride of nations, as agreeing to such official measures of consolidation would challenge a nation’s identity. It makes me wonder if that degree of integration is even possible in the near future, and if this was maybe an early indicator of the increasing prevalence of nationalist movements we see in today’s political landscape.

The Lisbon Treaty did indeed restructure nearly every major EU institution. The directly-elected European Parliament’s (EP’s) seat count was granted co-decision power with the Council of Ministers for 95% of decisions, and the election of members of the EP also now impacts who the European Council proposes as the European Commission President. It granted national parliaments a method of subsidiarity control for challenging Commission proposals. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, initially lacking legal validity upon its proclamation in 2000, was granted the same value and force as all other Treaties. The Treaty also institutionalized the troika system of Council presidencies to standardize goals and created a new institution and established a new institution, the European Council, to maintain intergovernmentalism.

After breaking for lunch, we moved away from the Lisbon Treaty and began to discuss the institutions of the EU. As an institution, the European Council is comprised of heads of government that formally meet at least four times annually at summits to establish policy directions and make declarations. Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers, or Council of the European Union, is a second intergovernmental institution that acts as a decision-making body. The Council of Ministers touts national interests as its prime focus and is divided into ten committees. The Committee of Permanent Representatives to the EU (COREPER) is comprised of several dozen diplomats who shape meeting agendas for the Council of Ministers. This Council cooperates with the only directly-elected international legislative body: the European Parliament. Aside from co-decision making, the EP is tasked with reviewing all EU actions through a democratic lens. Each member country is guaranteed six members of the EP (MEPs) to guarantee representation for each major identity on the political spectrum. Currently, there are eight affiliations for MEPs, and to form a new political party, a minimum of twenty-five MEPs from seven states is required.

The basis of the European Union lies within the concept of pooled sovereignty. Something that struck me in particular today while studying the composition of the EU was the willingness to be vulnerable that the member states need to possess. A democratic state exists to serve its people. Sacrificing sovereignty and the protection that comes with it because a state believes the end result will better its population is a fascinating concept. Historically, weaker states were detrimental to their populations, and here we have the EU, full of member states choosing to become weaker to benefit their populations. The intergovernmental trust between the member states is unprecedented in modern history. The Brexit crisis, which Pedro discussed in class during his member state presentation today, has caused nations to become aware of how affected international relations are by the EU, both internally and externally, and I look forward to seeing how this first test of interstate reliance impacts the future of this sustained vulnerability between member states.

The Group with our life vests reppin’ Georgia Tech on the waterfront

Following class this afternoon, Dr. Birchfield treated us to boat rides on the Moselle river through historic Metz. We divided into two boats of five and one boat of eleven and cruised our way past beautiful churches, murals, balconies, and other scenery. We managed to pull all three of our boats together for a group selfie, and not a single person fell into the water. Most of us ate dinner afterward at a local restaurant that specializes in flammekuecheor “flam”, the local (and far superior) version of a flatbread pizza, and celebrated the end of a successful first week of our program. I look forward to learning more about the EU, delving into my personal interests in intergovernmental relationships and national sovereignty, continuing to explore the city and culture, and eating more flam!

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