19 November, 2011

The RIO Trip - Part 3: Brussels, the (unofficial) capital of Europe

Finally on wednesday evening we arrived in the city of Brussels, a city well suited for housing the core of the EU executive and legislature considering its diversity. Four visits were on the agenda in brussels: the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Netherlands permanent representation and the Council of Ministers and Eurocontrol. Adding to the visit at the CJEU the previous day, we would thereby tick off four out of five of the Unions main institutions. In light of the course that we all took at Leiden University, the visits would give an interesting insight into the institutional balance between these bodies.

The European Commission

On a brisk thursday morning, we took the bus down to the Van Maerlant Building to hear representatives of the Commission. We started off with a general introduction of the Commissions work by a representative of DG Communication. Although the presentation was very general in nature, it adressed some topical issues we've been discussing lately such as the recent Treaty changes, the institutional balance and of course the Euro crisis.

I posed a question about the proposals for new legislation or legislatory change that are presented by the Commission by virtue of their legislative initiative. I have always envisaged that the Commission, albeit being the watchdog of the Union, is conscious of its political position and thus seeks to gain support by the Member States for its proposal beforehand. According to the Commission representative this is not necessarily the case and a lot of times, the Commission plays a very active role in promoting downstream integration. Although this statement may be truth with a modification, it gave an interesting insight into how the Commission views itself, namely as a body, which at to some degree is independent from national bias. Of course, the Commission is well aware that its prerogatives are under review, as it may at any time be subjected to a motion of censure by the Parliament, should its members not fulfil their duties.

The second presentation at the Commission was by far one of the most interesting at the entire trip as it was undertaken by a representative of the Commissions legal service. The Commissions legal service is the quality filter, through which, all decisions and iniatives producing legal effects run through. It essentially quality checks the legal standard of all executive work of the Commision, ensuring it is compliant with the Commissions competences and secondary EU legislation. The representative was in particular specialised at competition law, a favourite subject among many EU law students (including the two authors of this blog) and his career path definitely served as an inspiration for those of us who imagine ourselves working within the institutions.

The European Parliament

After a quick lunch at the Commission we ventured onwards to the European Parliament. The building itself is rather impressive, although it doesnt quite match up to the Parliament building in Strasbourg, the latter which we unfortunately never got to see. While in the European Parliament we got a general introduction of the Parliament and its place in the constitutional structure of the Union. The presentation was rather subdued, but luckily there was some time to quickly pop into the assembly hall.

For those of us who did not go to the law firm in the afternoon, thursday ended with a very passionate speech by Mr. Michael Cashman, a British MEP for the Labour/Socialists & Democrats group. Although Mr. Cashman clearly is a politician and therefore added a bit of extra punch to his vision of future Europe, it was indeed inspiring to see a person working within the directly elected legislative body of the Union, having a very optimistic and idealistic view of the European Union. In a time when the Euro is failing, populism and xenophobia is on the rise and the very idea of European integration is resisted nationally, a bit of 'Euro-propaganda' felt needed to complement the strictly professional and judicial perspective we recieved of the European institutions.

Thursday night ended with Moules Frites and drinks out with the study group.

Friday: Permanent representation of the Netherlands to the Council of Minister
On the final day of the study trip, we  recieved a presentation by the Perm. rep. of the Netherlands to the Council, therefore 'enclosing' the circle of visits to the various institutions. As good Dutch hosts, we were offered coffee, well necessary, considering the constant lack of sleep that plagued us during the trip. During the visit we discussed, yet again, the matter of Treaty reform, but one point which I personally found interesting was when the staff members discussed the new powers of the EP. Clearly, the Council of Ministers has lost a degree of power with the Lisbon Treaty, as it now subjected to a co-legislative procedure with the EP for most legislative acts. The staff members pointed out that the Parliament has really been trying out its new powers and in a way 'flexed its' muscles' to demonstrate its new competences.

Following the short visit at the Perm. Rep. we travelled to Eurocontrol, where we had a nice lunch, which was unfortunately followed by a rather plain presentation. From there, we began our journey back to Leiden, with a short stop for a nice final dinner together before going home.

Some final words

Having studied EU-law for over two years and having decided that it is within this this legal system I will (hopefully) be working in the future, it was a great opportunity to visit the institutions of the Council of Europe as well as the European Union. It was insightful not only because the trip offered some good advice for those considering a future within the institutions, but also because it provided a well-needed insight in the institutional functioning and balance within these organisations and between them. When you study law, the actual function of these institution is something abstract. You need to be able to read between the lines to fully appreciate what is actually being said, or rather what underlying conflicts, concerns and purposes have shaped European integration to the point where we are now.

To round of I will make reference not to something that was said during the trip, but much later by our professor in constitutional law. He said that the rise of populism and Euroscepticism is something that has arisen in the face of every change and crisis that the European integration project has faced. As history has taught us, European integration has for the last 60 years prevailed through both political and economic turmoil. In my opinion this holds true, but yet the Union has not been able to tackle its most significant challenges yet: to make this project truly accessible, democratically for its citizens and factually for all other wishing to live and prosper within a Europe that is truly inclusive for all.
Oh and one more thing...

Either the European institutions are the most threatened or most paranoid public establishments in this part of the world. Either way, here is the collection of all the security passes that we recieved during our visit:

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