GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Category: Site Visits (Page 3 of 6)

Passing through Potsdam

With colorful graffiti, modern architecture, and wide open streets everywhere, Berlin is an amazing place to be. The people are really cool, too: yesterday while on a long metro ride, I struck up a conversation with a woman who’d lived in West Berlin about her experience on the day the Berlin Wall fell, and of her opinions on Angela Merkel. She said she’d sat in shock for about an hour when she saw what happened on TV, because for so long the wall had become a normal thing for her: “I didn’t realize how abnormal it was until it fell,” she said. As for Angela Merkel, the woman had a positive opinion of her. “Many people think she isn’t strong or assertive enough, but I think her tactfulness is a good thing. You can’t have someone like Trump when you’re dealing with Syria!”

However, this morning, we had a much more somber experience. First, we ventured to the Grunewald S-Bahn station memorial on the outer western part of Berlin. In 1941 and 1942, trains carrying Berlin’s Jews left from this station to deport them to death camps and ghettos such as Auschwitz and Minsk. Along the railway there were plaques bearing the amount of people deported, the date they were deported, and where they were taken. Stevie, our tour guide, told us an interesting story about a survivor from Theresienstadt who she’d taught English to. Because the woman’s husband had been a doctor, they’d had a leg up on escaping murder.


plaque: taken to Auschwitz




site of the Wannsee conference


Afterwards, we travelled to the site of the Wannsee conference. On January 20, 1942, high-ranking members of the SS and the Nazi party met in a mansion to discuss specifically how to eliminate all European Jews, what they called “the Final Solution.” It was horrifying to realize that the Nazis had meticulously planned out the murders, down to the dates and the construction of the death camps. Their detailed reports are partly why we have so much information about them today. “This is why Holocaust deniers are in such a minority–it happened,” said our tour guide. He explained the different reasons leading up to the Wannsee conference, starting with anti-Semetism that dated back to the Middle Ages and what he called “biological racism”–the idea that Jews were biologically less evolved and inferior to the “Aryan” race. I couldn’t believe how easy it was for the Nazis to successfully blame the Jewish people, an extremely small but generally affluent population, for the entire ruin of Germany after World War I. 

one foot in west berlin, one foot in the GDR--at Glienicke Bridge

one foot in west Berlin, one foot in the former GDR–at Glienicke Bridge

We then travelled to the Glienicke bridge, the infamous bridge featured in “the Bridge of Spies.” During the Cold War the bridge connected West Berlin with Potsdam. Only diplomats could cross the bridge freely. It was amazing to walk across the bridge and literally stand on an object that had divided a country for so long. After getting back on the bus, we took a tour of Potsdam (including the Dutch quarter) and stopped by the Sanssouci Palace, the former summer palace of King Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Directly across from Sanssouci Palace was the New Palace, which was built in 1763 by King Frederick as well. Continuing our royal tour, we ventured to the Charlottenhof Palace nearby, which was the summer residence of King Frederick the Great’s palace in the 1740s. After listening to our tour guide Stevie’s descriptions of him, I found King Frederick to be an extremely interesting character. As he was somewhat of a humanist, Frederick was good friends with the French philosopher Voltaire, who was the longest resident of Frederick’s palace. Also, since Frederick was credited for introducing the potato to Germany, people were leaving potatoes on his grave!

King Frederick's palace

King Frederick’s palace

Our last visit in Potsdam was to Cecilienhof, the former palace of the last of the Prussian royalty and the site of the Potsdam conference. (The Potsdam conference was the conference between the leaders of the UK, USA, and the Soviet Union in order to determine the post-WWII order, including reparations, borders, and war crimes). To stand in the very room that the Big Three–Churchill, Truman, and Stalin–had stood in 65 years ago  was incredible. It was amazing to think that the decisions made in that room led to the birth of modern Europe. All in all, it was a great day.

site of the Potsdam conference

site of the Potsdam conference

This post will be my last for the trip. I couldn’t be more thankful to have gone to Europe this summer. I’ve been at the right place at the right time for so many things: at the EU on the day of Brexit, at the Swedish Parliament when they passed a controversial refugee bill, in Paris during the Euros, and everywhere in between to witness European reactions to events like the Nice attacks and the coup in Turkey. Getting up close so many security, political, and humanitarian challenges has been enlightening. There has not been a day of this program when I haven’t gone, “Oh my god,” in response to something I learned or saw. Auf Wiedersehen, Europe! Je T’aime!


A Day at the French Parliament

Following our exciting and mind-blowingingly awesome days in Paris was an unimaginable day in the French Parliament. Instead of having a regular briefing at the Assemblée Nationale we had a guided tour through the historic building. Our tour guide was amazing and she told us the history behind the building and how it used to be the home of Louise-Françoise de Bourbon and the other part of the building was the home of her lover so she could stay out of the politics in Versailles. The Palais Bourbon was breathtaking and the artistry and attention to detail in all of decorations was very impressive. The Palace was overtaken by the future Parliament after the aristocrats left Paris in order to escape the revolution.


During our time in the first room we were informed in, we learned all about the history of the French Parliament and its roots. The French Parliament really started during the French Revolution and France’s first attempts at being a Republic. With its roots in the Council of the Five Hundred meeting in the Palais the building has since been a representation of the French legislative body. In fact, the terms left-wing and right-wing came from the French Parliament because of their seating in parliament in reference to the President of the Parliament. Already feeling like I was in an amazing place, the tour guide then showed us to the library. With paintings by Delacroix done on the ceiling in six panels. Words cannot describe the beauty of the room and all of its 700,000+ books was a wonderful sight to see and experience


After the library we were taken into the main chamber of the French Parliament and got to see where the parliament meets, discusses, and votes on legislation. The room itself was just as beautiful as the rest of the Palais complete with a painting by Raphael and remnants of the reign of Napoleon still hanging on the wall.


Then, we were given a special tour the rest of the Palais and the beautifully designed Hôtel de Lassay and its themed salons. During that portion of the tour we even got to see the desk of the president of the President and where he works on legislation, but does not sign it because of superstition placed on desk of all paperwork signed on it failing. The tour concluded with that tour but, I got the unbelievable chance with Madison and Meghan to return later that day and view the parliament’s questioning of the government.


It all started with the arrival of the President of the Parliament through the Palais to the main chamber lined with guards of the Republic to represent the unity of the people and the Republican guard. Seeing the President of the Parliament was beyond amazing and I also got to see the Minister of Education as well casually strolling by right in front of me. Little did I know who I was about to see in the chamber. We got great seats in the chamber right in the center first row on the first balcony and we got a clear view of the Prime Minister of France himself who was there to personally discuss France’s new labor reforms.


During the questioning such topics as the labor reform, Brexit, and agriculture were discussed and argued upon. The whole thing was exhilarating because of the freedom of the members of parliament who were yelling and booing at each other when somebody from the opposite party spoke or said something disagreeable to them. It was entertaining to see the members there reading a newspaper the whole time but then put it up just to yell at the other members, even though it was hard to hear what the real speaker was saying. We sat through about an hour of the questioning and then ended our day by spending a free night in the beautiful city of Paris. I feel extremely lucky to be able to attend this session and am grateful that I decided to learn French in high school so I could be able to attend it and understand what was going on. It is fascinating how the French government works and I learned a whole lot today about the parliament and how it works as compared to the US system. I was interested to see how much the EU was brought up during their discussions and it proved to me that France is an important player in the EU that takes its position seriously and uses all of its power to try and make Europe a better place.

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.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry


Today, after a weekend spent learning about Swedish history and walking around Stockholm, including a visit to the Vasa Museum, we visited the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the Swedish Parliament. I will talk about the visit to the Swedish Foreign Ministry and my colleague will talk about the visit to the Parliament tomorrow.

At the Swedish Foreign Ministry, we were briefed by an Ambassador who now heads up the European section of the ministry.  He last served as Ambassador for Sweden to the Netherlands so his view points were unique and interesting.

He started off his presentation by talking about the complicated relationship that Sweden has with the European Union and about the history of Sweden. He made a point on the wars with Russia in the 18th century which changed Sweden and led to the policy of neutrality that it successfully upheld during both World Wars. After the Cold War, and during the economic crisis in the 1990s, Sweden saw the benefits of the European Union and joined in 1995 (with Austria and Finland) after a positive referendum in 1994. However, Sweden is not part of the Eurozone and in the last referendum on whether Sweden should join the Eurozone, the public voted not to. As with other site visits, the Brexit issue emerged and the official stated that the UK is an important ally for Sweden within the European Union and that a Brexit would force Sweden to seek other similar minded allies. Interestingly, he also mentioned that about 65% of Swedes are for TTIP and that public backlash has been minimal. This is certainly interesting since in other countries the same percentage is opposed to TTIP.

Sweden is one of the EU member states that is not part of NATO, but Sweden allows NATO to conduct exercises on Swedish territory and with Swedish troops. Sweden also contributes to NATO missions as well as to EU missions. I think that the most important point that the official made was that the EU allows small countries like Sweden to influence global politics.

Tomorrow we had back to Brussels!

At the Foreign Ministry



Page 3 of 6

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