Tag Archives: Brussels

MA students’ trip to Brussels


Guest blog post by Rebecca Brown, MA Student

Day 1

Armed with suit-filled suitcases and 3 months’ worth of intensive EU based knowledge, the intrepid explorers from 2012’s International Relations MA group set out on a journey that saw them at first battling a snowstorm- all in the name of adventure and education of course.

In the days leading up to our departure, the question on everybody’s lips had been; “will we make it to Brussels?” But the poor weather was no match for our steely determination! So armed with coffee, fluffy coats, plenty of reading material and a game of Connect-Four; we began our journey to where Monnet, Schuman, Churchill and others had made history nearly 65 years before.


At the Eurostar, Simon Smith and the students met with Carolyn Rowe and we made our way through security to await news about our delayed train.

We had chosen an exciting time to visit Brussels; President Obama was due to be inaugurated for his second term, the Euro continued to tumble into the depths of crisis and Prime Minister David Cameron had been due to deliver a speech, declaring an EU-opt in or out referendum for UK citizens if they chose to have him as their leader for a second term.

Studying Political Science is a gift really, because you understand more about how a country or region is powered, politically, culturally and economically. This trip to Brussels would give us a first-hand look at how our European Union is powered, and answer the many questions that we had.

But anyway, for now we were just happy to finally get on the train and make it to Brussels despite the heavy snowfall.

When at last we arrived in Brussels, we began the treacherous journey through the snow with our suitcases to our fabulous hotel. It felt like the journey had lasted an eternity, but at least we got some good exercise- and the hotel was certainly worth the wait. We didn’t take long to test the comfy beds!

But there was no time to waste, and soon we were touring the city in search of Simon’s friend, Mannequin Pis, and for a great bar to sample the delicious local beer.

Simon led us into an Alice in Wonderland type location where the walls were decorated with retro dummies and puppets while Glenn Miller and Plastic Bertrand songs played on a loop. Then after getting our fill of scrumptious food and tasty beer, we headed off home to get a good nights rest in preparation for our early morning visit to the European Commission.

Day 2

After a hearty, croixant-filled breakfast, we made our way through rabbit-covered metro stations to the oldest and one of the most important EU Institutions, The European Commission. Originating in 1951, it was known as the High Authority and led by President Jean Monnet during the time of the European Coal and Steel Treaty. Here is where the process of legislation begins its journey towards changing the lives of all Europeans, so it was rather exciting!


We were fortunate to listen to two fascinating presentations during our visit, the first given by Mr. Emanuele Giaufret, Managing Director of North Africa, Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Iraq at the European External Action Service. His presentation covered the European Union and its Relations with the Middle East and North Africa.

He explained to us the reasons behind the Arab Spring, the consequences it has had for the people and what the EU is doing to improve relations between the areas in question. The news paints a very bleak picture, but Mr Giaufret concentrated on the positive effects that the EU has had in helping these places, such as aiding talks that convinced Tunisia to have its first democratic election in 2011.


Our second talk concerned European integration and EU enlargement, with regards to Iceland. Our speaker was the charismatic Mr.Willem Noë, Policy Officer in European integration for Iceland. Mr Noë, who had himself been on the team who got Slovenia into the EU, explained to us about the processes a country must go through before becoming part of the European community. We learned about the Acquis Communitaire and discussed the case of Iceland and other possible candidate countries with the boundaries that needed crossing before accession.

The next part of our adventure saw us visiting NATO headquarters, which turned out to be a little bit like being in a Bond movie! Security was tight, and we swiftly handed over passports and electronic devices and passed through scanners before being taken to a conference room. Although, despite the serious security measures, the NATO team were really quite friendly and we were spoiled with presents! We were given two presentations; an insight into NATO’s current political agenda and its emerging security challenges, and another which spoke about working for NATO. Our trip was made even more exciting when we exited, as we experienced the procedure for a real security breach at NATO headquarters- which made it even more like being in a spy movie.

That night we ventured out to sample the local nightlife and celebrate the birthday of one of the students. We ate the most delicious pizzas ever (the Italian’s will be furious to read that) and tasted the beer at Brussels’ most famous bar Delirium!


Tuesday was a very busy day indeed! The third day saw us visiting an ex-pupil of Simon, James Allen, who now works as a policy advisor for renowned Lobbying Company CBI, accompanied by an intern. Here, we experienced the first instalment of our encounter into the life of a lobbyist worker and what they do, as well as hearing things from the point of a view of an intern. A lobbyist works and speaks on behalf of the individuals or companies who seek to influence policy-based decisions made by the government, so that the decision made is one which doesn’t stunt the growth or development of the subject in question.

Our journey continued next with a trip to the European Council building.

Created informally in 1975, the European Council became an official EU institution in in 2009 after the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect, where it was given the task of “the general political directions and priorities” of the EU. This institution gives final approval to policies made, after they’ve passed through the Commission and Parliament.


We got to experience the genuine setting of a European Council meeting and listened to a presentation about the institution from an EU interpreter, who explained a little bit about how it all works and what his job is like.

To finish off the day, we visited the British Embassy in Brussels, where Robert Tinline, Deputy Head of Mission and Gwen Edwards, Senior Parliamentary Officer, spoke to us about the role the UK plays within the EU, and their thoughts about euro-scepticism along with their predictions about a possible UK Referendum.


That night, we were sooooo tired that only the bravest individuals went out to party. For the rest of us, it was a night in bed with Vietnamese takeaway and terrible TV game-shows!

Day 3

The third day saw the Aston team pay a morning visit to the Committee of the Regions building to learn about the vital role they play with voicing the subnational views within the EU.

Established in 1994, the Committee of the Regions sought to represent the large percentage of EU legislation made at a regional level, with an additional goal to unite the gap between the public and the process of integration within the EU. We received a presentation which offered first-hand insight into working in the world of the CoR from the eyes of a translator.

Shortly after, we were lead to a very stylish building, home of renowned Burson Marsteller lobbying group, who work with big companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Ford, as well as many others. Founded by Harold Burson and Bill Marsteller in 1953, it now has 71 offices in 98 countries and is one of the largest PR groups in the world.

We were all sat in a grand looking conference room and given an insightful and frank talk about the pros and cons of working in the exciting world of lobbying along with the experiences of working for such a large and well-respected company.

We had a few hours to kill before invading a European Parliament committee, so we found ourselves a nice pub and ordered raspberry beer and chocolate waffles before heading off to The Parliamentarian, or ‘EU fun land’ as one student called it. We had a wonderful time being big kids and playing with the interactive toys!

We were fortunate to be invited into a real Parliamentary Committee conference, where the newly elected Irish presidency teams spoke about their plans for EU economic growth and the increasing problems with internet security. Sadly, our visit was fleeting, as in typical political-meeting style the party started over an hour late, meaning we had to leave early in order to get to our meeting on time with an EU Delegate from Cyprus from the UK visits department.

He often gave presentations about the functions of the European Parliament to people every day, so he was rather pleased to meet a group that already knew so much and wanted to concentrate on debating the current affairs aspect of the EU Institution. We quizzed him about current affairs, such as the possible UK departure from the EU, and his responses were frank, honest and funny. We ended up spending more time there than we should have because we were so interested in what he had to say!

Soon, it was time to shoot off home and change into our smartest clothes, for it was our last evening in Brussels and time for the Aston Centre for Europe Brussels reunion, with previous Aston students and current EU workers.

We all enjoyed a good chat over a nice gin and tonic, and the guests were extremely kind, friendly and helpful when it came to us asking questions about working for the EU in Brussels. Afterwards, a few brave souls decided to march out into the snow for one last visit to Delirium and a local Absinthe bar. Safe to say, there were few who managed to leave their beds and come down for breakfast the next morning…

Day 4

We’d had such a fantastic time visiting Brussels and we’d learned so much during our stay, but although our hearts were heavy at the thought of leaving that evening, we still had a trip to BBC Europe headquarters to look forward to!

We were given a fascinating presentation by Mr. Sean Klein, Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent Mr Chris Morris, about the role journalism plays in society, with specific reference to how the world views the EU, and the ethical issues they encounter when trying to report the news as neutrally as possible.


Sadly during the presentation, it was time to say goodbye to three of our French Masters students from Rennes, who had only been attending Aston University for a term! At the time, one of these girls already had an internship lined up for the summer at Brussels in the European Union, a fantastic start!

We had a few hours to wait before boarding our train back to England, just enough time to do some sightseeing and eat one last waffle around the Grand Place.

Then sadly, it was time to journey home!

For this former British euro-sceptic, the whole course, but particularly this trip to Brussels, had been a major eye-opener. I couldn’t help but wonder if more people would feel as I did if they’d had the opportunity to see and understand things in this way, for themselves.

Despite the economic downturn, the EU has been the most functional economic ‘peace’ building experiment ever made. Last year, the institution deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize award, for being a war-free region that has even managed to take in former war-torn countries and promote democracy within them. The EU is the number one peace-building institution, donating aid and building bridges with less-developed countries and regions.

Mistakes have been made and it will take a long time to fix them, but for the first time in history there’s a large section of the world where the vast majority live with good health and security. Knowing this, for me, makes me appreciate more and more that we form a part of something so noble.

So keep a look out for our faces! Because something tells me that you’ll be seeing this inspired lot again very soon on a media outlet near you!

A SUPER big thanks to the Aston Centre for Europe team who made this all possible, and to Lucie for allowing me to use some of her photos!


MA students’ study trip to Brussels

This is a guest post from our students on the EU and the World Masters programme.
Untitled1Brussels, Commissionn, European institutions, policymaking…we had heard about these topics non-stop since we started our MAs last September, some of us studying the European Union and International Relations, others on a Double MA in Europe and the World with Institut d’Etudes Politiques Lille. Going to Brussels to visit the main institutions was therefore very useful as it enabled us to gain first-hand experience of the venues and processes we learn about in the classroom, and to get a taster for the environment where some of us might want to work in the future.

Our five-day trip was structured around meetings with officials who work on policymaking or the provision of services in institutions such as the Commission, the Council of Ministers, the Committee of the Regions, and others. We had been encouraged to prepare questions for each meeting, where we also had the opportunity to learn about how these people have made it to Brussels and what their daily jobs are like. While we might have been a bit intimidated at the beginning, we found that our speakers were all very friendly, and sometimes there was not enough time to ask our questions and provide our comments!

The trip was arranged for the beginning of the second Teaching Period, so that we would have gained sufficient knowledge about what we were going to see and developed questions and interests. Moreover, it gave us an opportunity to strengthen our friendships and spend time together in a lovely city beyond lectures, presentations and group assignments.

Untitled2“Overall, I found the study trip to Brussels very impressive and based on my personal experience it is an excellent opportunity for master students to complement their theory based learning of the EU and its key institutions, with an interesting and informative insight into day-to-day EU policy making, right at the heart of the EU” (Eyerin Jesuthasan, MA in the European Union and International Relations).

Want to find out more about our trip? Here is our travel journal.

Monday 31st January

In order to arrive in Brussels we took a Eurostar train from London. We checked in at the Bedford Hotel, not very far from the city centre and after a small nap we all headed off to explore the city. Some of us ended up eating the Belgian national dish, moules frites. We were very excited to see the most famous Grande Place and Manneken Pis. Even though it was late evening all of us were amazed at how marvellous the Grande Place is!


Luckily our hotel was in a great location as we were able to admire the Grande Place and the old town every morning.

Traditionally, the Manneken Pis is dressed in different costumes several times each week. However, this time he decided to wear no clothes, even though it was a cold winter evening!

But, unlike the Manneken Pis, we were cold and hungry. Our next destination to experience Brussels was the most delicious waffles in the whole world –Gaufres de Bruxelles! Yummy!

We could not have left Brussels without trying Belgian beer. The Delerium Tremens bar has the ‘’biggest beer list in the world’’, as you can find 2000 different types of beer! Of course we tried the most popular one called Kriek (cherry flavour). Even people who do not like beer liked it a lot. People in there are so relaxed and friendly and it made us feel comfortable and have fun!

Tuesday 1st February

The first visit we had during our study trip was at the Visitor’s Centre of the Commission. We had a lecture from Jo Vandercappellen, from DG Education and Culture, followed by a question and answers session. He spoke about the functions of the EU institutions, in particular the functioning of the European Commission post-Lisbon Treaty.

Malcolm Harbour

Despite the fact that the main institutions of the EU are the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers, there are so many other institutions that are crucially important for the EU to function. After visiting the Commission we were able to visit one of these; the European External Action Service (EEAS). This is an independent department and its main purpose is to manage the responses of the EU to different crises. It is like a foreign ministry for the EU. The first speaker, Alar Olljum, told us in detail about the mission and objectives of the EEAS and about his long experience in the field of external relations. The second speaker, Tereza Novtona, told us about her experience as an intern at the EEAS and about the application process, which we found particularly interesting.

On Tuesday afternoon we met Helen Bower, Diplomatic Civil Servant at UKREP, the UK Permanent Representation in Brussels. She explained that the main aim of UKREP is to represent the UK in all policy areas in Brussels. Within UKREP, there are permanent representatives known as Ambassadors. These Ambassadors attend COREPER meetings (Committee of Permanent Representatives) and present the UK’s views on EU policies and legislation. Under the Ambassadors are the “Secretaries” or Policy Makers who draw up and negotiate policies with the other member states’ representatives.


Ms Bower told us that the UK’s current interests lie in the internal market and economy. Therefore, the UK attaches most importance to policies such as the issue of internal energy infrastructures, the implementation of the Services Directive, the protection of consumer rights (particularly online), the emergence of trade partners such as India and China and finally the enlargement of the EU with respect to the Western Balkans and Turkey.

Wednesday 2nd February

In the morning, we walked to the European Economic and Social Committee. It is one of these not very well-known European institutions, which made this visit all the most interesting.


We were invited to have a seat in a small circular room, a very ceremonial room with computers and microphones on everyone’s desk. Then, Jean-Pierre Faure, director of the Single Market Observatory, welcomed us. He talked to us very simply about his job, making numerous digressions and delivering several funny anecdotes. Thanks to him, a very formal environment became friendly and when he finally spoke about the possible internships at the EESC, all of us were very interested in doing one!

In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to visit the Council of the European Union. The information visit consisted of a talk given to us by a Council Official, Mr. Jeremy Rand, the General Secretary of the Council in the Directorate-General responsible for Agriculture and Fisheries. The talk consisted of a general introduction to the Council, during which we were informed about its structure and key functions as well as the institutional framework within which the Council operates as the EU’s main decision-making body. In addition, the talk was followed by a question and answer session in which we were given the chance to ask questions relating to more specific topics. Overall, the information visit to the Council was very interesting and informative.

And in the evening…Moules Frites, waffles, and lots of beer; hardly imaginative and not enough to excite this particular palate. It is however much more than that. The steaming bucket of moules (mussels) is a sensation to any seafood lover, though the frites (fries) on the side are rather dull. Which is every reason why you must dash over to one of the city’s countless friteries and gawp at the vast array of condiments. A quick peruse of the supermarket shelves and I deftly grab the cured horse meat and the baby octopuses. Delicious, washed down with beer bought from the ‘250 Beers’ store. I kid you not- 250 varieties. The apple beer was remarkably exquisite. The highlight? Chez Leon on the famous Rue de Bouchers, pricey but settled at the behest and invitation of our dear School. Despite trying to locate the lobster, I was drawn to two enticing words that (quite literally) evoked a raw urge- steak tartar (forgive the cliche). So eat the moules, eat the frites, and by god lose your conscience at the chocolate store. But let Brussels bring out the adventurer in you too.

Untitled7Thursday 3rd February

In the morning we went back to the shiny Bâtiment Jacques Delors on Rue Belliard to attend a briefing at the Committee of the Regions (CoR), where we were welcomed by Chris, a British official working in the Communications and Press Unit. Chris gave us a clear presentation of the structure and main functions of the CoR, which provides a platform for regional and local authorities of the member states to express their views on policy developments and EU proposals in areas that affect the regional or local level. We found out that Chris is one of the only three British citizens supporting the work of the Committee members, and that the relative number of UK nationals working for the EU is low, one reason being perhaps that Britons are likely to be less proficient in foreign languages than their colleagues from other European countries.

In the afternoon we got the chance to attend a conference at the European Parliament about Integrating the Wider Europe after the Lisbon Treaty’ organised by the Wider Europe Network. The opening speech was made by the President of the EP, Jerzy Buzek, who talked about the relationship between the EU and its neighbours. The following speakers, specialists from different countries, focused on enlargement issues, on the prospects and difficulties of the European Neighbourhood Policy and also on the new External Action Service that we visited on Tuesday morning. We even got the chance to try the tea and coffee like real MEPs!

Friday 4th February
In the morning we went back to the European Parliament for the second day of the conference. The third session was entitled ‘Widening the Union’. The first speaker Christophe Hillion in his presentation ‘the Policy of the Union’ gave an overview of the accession policies and its issues, the second speaker gave a statement about the ‘nationalisation of the EU Enlargement Policy’, and eventually Nathaniel Copsey gave a talk on ‘What do Europe’s citizens think about enlargement?’ We attended the fourth session as well concerning the ‘Association Agreements and DCFTAs as tools of integration’ where Philippe Cuisson talked about the ‘Deep and comprehensive integration with the EU’ and Professor Alan Mayhew gave us a presentation on ‘the economics of integration’.

In the afternoon we walked one last time through the streets of Brussels to catch our Eurostar train at the Gare du Midi station. What an unforgettable trip! We hope you enjoyed reading our blog.