Thalia Beaty, Lindsay Gellman, Arielle Kaden, Robin Liu, Emily McDermott, Lauren Mobertz, Julianne Rolf, Carlos Pereira Di Salvo, Jesse Siegel, Andrew Vierra
The Fulbright Commission in Brussels welcomed nearly 50 American Fulbright grantees to 19 countries across Europe for the thirty-sixth annual Fulbright Seminar to the European Union and NATO (7.2.2017– 11.2.2017).
Belgium and Luxembourg are revealing places to learn about the U.S. relationship with Europe. Historically, the countries remember American troops fondly, and images of the destruction of Belgian cities and towns during World War II are a measure of how far Europe has come since. Today, Brussels is the seat of the European Union (EU) and NATO, and Luxembourg City of the European Court. But all of these institutions also currently face existential questions: What are they meant to do and are they accomplishing those missions?
Ten Fulbright grantees from Germany participated in this year’s seminar, making us the largest delegation from any single European country. While these questions about the future of the European Union ran through the seminar, the other defining experience was of meeting the Fulbright grantees based in different countries. They included researchers of climate change policy in Sweden, teaching assistants in Bulgaria, and social scientists studying EU agricultural policy in France. Their perspectives enriched our understandings of how and where the EU system works and doesn’t.
The final defining theme was of self-reflection on our own Fulbright country. At two U.S. embassies, we spoke with Foreign Service Officers and former ambassadors about the change in the administration. In brief, policy change is expected but not clearly defined. But these government officials and the Fulbright alumni we met were certain that the ongoing exchange of researchers, teachers, and students between the United States and Europe was one of the most important ways that our countries relate to each other.
Below, the Fulbright grantees from Germany reflect in detail on the different aspects of the seminar. Our overwhelming impression is that this up-close look at EU and NATO institutions as well as our conversations with our peers in other European countries was of great value to us as individuals and to our understanding of international relations.
An Evening in Luxembourg
Our week began in Luxembourg City with a walking tour of the city center. We took in the main sites—including the cathedral, government buildings, and the state archives—and even had a chance sidewalk encounter with the nation’s Prime Minister, who waved hello to the group.
In the evening, we visited the U.S. Embassy to Luxembourg—an early highlight of the trip, both for the helpful overview of the workings of the European Union and for the chance to get to know fellow Fulbrighters and alumni. The two briefings, the first by Dr. Jerome Sheridan, an academic, and the second by a current Foreign Service Officer, addressed European Union history and what the implications of current events might be for the institution’s future. Fulbrighters were eager to dive in with questions about how Brexit could affect the EU’s global standing and how U.S. President Donald Trump’s stated equivocations about NATO could raise tensions within that body.
Fulbrighters then enjoyed a cocktail reception and the chance to chat with alumni, some of whom participated in exchanges as far back as the 1950s. Many remarked on the variety of fields of study—including plant genomics, conflict resolution, and water management—represented within the group.
European Court of Justice
On Wednesday morning while still in Luxembourg, we visited the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest ranking court, akin to the Supreme Court of the United States. Students from American University joined our program, which included the briefing of a case regarding the rate of Latvian music royalties, followed by the case’s hearing. After the court proceedings, we met with two Fulbright alumni: ECJ President Dr. Koen Lenaerts and Judge at the General Court Dr. Paul Nihoul. Among many facts discussed, one specific piece of information stood out: approximately sixty percent of the ECJ’s budget is allocated to language-related tasks.
During the case hearing, judges and lawyers spoke a mixture of French, English, Latvian, and Spanish. More than eight translators lined the courtroom, simultaneously translating the entire hearing into each represented language. We learned that internal affairs at the Court of Justice are conducted in French and that every law passed must then be translated into twenty-four languages—the number of official languages spoken throughout the EU’s twenty-eight member states. In an attempt to bring this concept into American terms, one speaker asked us to imagine if a case was submitted to the Supreme Court in Spanish and the Court’s ruling was only issued in Spanish; would the law be implemented in all regions of the United States? The answer would almost certainly be no. Because the ECJ is tasked with interpreting and ensuring equal application of EU law across all member states, each of the Court’s publicly issued statements must appear in all of their official languages.
Bastogne War Museum
On Wednesday afternoon, the Fulbright delegation travelled from Luxembourg to Belgium and had the chance to visit Bastogne War Memorial and Museum. The town of Bastogne has gained fame for being the site where the Ardennes Counteroffensive, or as many call it “The Battle of the Bulge”, took place during World War II. The Battle of the Bulge is famous for being one of the most pivotal battles in World War II history - it was by far the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States armed forces.
Taking place between December 16, 1944 and January 25, 1945, the Battle of the Bulge was the last major effort offensive lead by the German army to expand their Western front territory. When the Germans lost this battle, their army was greatly depleted and in time, it would prove that their army could not recover. For many Fulbrighters, the visit to Bastogne was an emotional and educational experience. It once again showed us how much the United States has sacrificed to help protect and defend a peaceful world order. Over 11,000 American troops were killed in this battle. Approximately 47,000 Americans were wounded and 23,000 Americans went missing in action or taken as prisoners. In addition, we learned that over 13,000 German soldiers were killed in the Battle of the Bulge, 39,000 were wounded, and 30,000 went missing in action. In addition, there were around 3,000 civilians killed from Belgium and Luxembourg.
Visiting the Bastogne War museum was a humbling experience for many as we learned more about the history of World War II, in addition, to learning about the stories of everyday Belgians who either lived through the war as civilians or decided to serve in the active underground resistance. While the memorial itself was dedicated to the American soldiers who fought during the war, the museum told the stories of American soldiers, German soldiers, Belgian school children and resistance members who all did what they could to survive the bloody war and stand up for what they believed in. The museum was very well put together and the Fulbrighters were impressed by the museum’s videos, displays, and interactive nature. Overall, the museum and memorial visit was very much enjoyed by the Fulbrighters and was viewed as a highlight of the EU/NATO trip.
On Wednesday, following our arrival in Brussels the night before, we continued our seminar with a visit to the European Commission. The visit consisted of three events. First, a general introduction to the European Commission and its role within the institutional structure of the European Union, led by Ludo Tegenbosch of the Directorate-General for Communication. Second, a presentation on “The Development and Cooperation Policy of the EU,” led by Jose Angel Becerra Marta of the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development. Finally, a presentation on “Foreign and Security Policy,” led by Ricardo Borges de Castro, former Fulbrighter and member of the European Political Strategy Center.
Mr. Tegenbosch’s presentation provided us with a working understanding of the sui generis institutional architecture of the European Union. Those of us who were already familiar with the EU were afforded the opportunity to gauge the self-understanding of the Commission. For instance, Mr. Tegenbosch emphasized that the Commission, as the political executive, represents the general interests of the EU. Commissioners may therefore not take policy direction from member states, even though they are often drawn from the political elites of those states. Mr. Tegenbosch was also keen to point out that the distribution of governing competences within the Union follows the principles of subsidiarity: namely, that EU institutions ought to undertake actions only where member state actions would prove ineffective. It is understandable why the Commission would be keen to remind us of these institutional features in the present political context, in which the rhetoric of the “Brussels monster” has gotten electoral traction in the UK and other member states. It is worth highlighting in this context that both Mr. Tegenbosch and Dr. Borges de Castro seemed optimistic about the ability of the Union to weather Brexit.
For those of us rooted in the American federalist tradition, the status of the Commission as an executive is puzzling on its face. On the one hand, it is the guardian of the treaties. It ensures that the treaties on which the EU is based and the laws made in accordance with them (regulations, directives, and so on) are implemented by the member states. On the other hand, it lacks a monopoly of the legitimate use of force. Military and police forces remain under the control of the member states. Nevertheless, EU laws enjoy widespread compliance. Mr. Tegenbosch presented some remarkable evidence to support this. Italy, the country against which the Commission brought the most infringement cases in 2015, was subject to only 89 such cases. On its face, then, the Commission (and the European Union more generally) represents a challenge to a statist understanding of executive power and its role in maintaining an effective legal order, which many of us, as Americans, are likely to take for granted.
U.S. Mission to the European Union
Thursday afternoon we took a scenic walk through Brussels to the U.S. Mission to the European Union. Upon arrival, we divided into small groups to discuss our experiences as Fulbright grantees. We learned about our peers’ projects, and, perhaps more importantly, about the challenges they have overcome and the standout experiences they have had living in their host countries as a foreigner. To give just one example, one Fulbrighter from Italy shared his experiences working to manage the immigration crisis. In addition to heartbreaking stories of families arriving by traversing great distances on foot, he told us about a penguin that made it all the way to Italy in a box. The penguin apparently became quite the celebrity and was eventually sent off to a zoo in Austria.
After finishing our group discussions, we met with two Foreign Service Officers from the U.S. Mission to the EU. They spoke openly about the challenges of adjusting to a new administration and added some of their goals for the coming years. One of these goals, which appeared to be shared by many of the officials we met, including the former Ambassador to Brussels, was passing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Many officials seemed to be in agreement that the trade deal would be beneficial for everyone involved and were surprised by the widespread public opposition.
After our discussion, the mission hosted a reception for conference attendees, U.S. Mission to the EU Officers, and donors to the Fulbright program. It was heartwarming to meet so many people who genuinely believe that Fulbright is the most cost-effective way to improve foreign relations. We were also glad to have the opportunity to meet with donors, so they could see firsthand what it is they are investing in and why it matters for the future.
NATO’s Role Post-Cold War
With origins going back to the Cold War, the security alliance NATO has been deemed as obsolete by the Trump administration. Coming into the NATO session, the group had varied knowledge about the history of the organization. Despite the varying backgrounds, many of us were aware of the current push from the Trump administration asking the European allies to contribute more to the NATO budget. The representatives of NATO sought to address the topic of member state contributions and with that the greater question for what the organization post-Cold War stands.
We were given briefings on the history and current status of NATO by Allison Hart (Executive Officer Public Diplomacy Division), Jaffar Diab (Deputy Public Affairs Advisor), and Angélique Burnet-Thomsen (Political Affairs and Security Policy Division). While the briefings were extremely informational, the most interesting parts were the question and answer sections. The representatives spoke openly about controversial topics, many of which were brought forth by Fulbrighters, such as the fact that only 5 of the 28 NATO countries meet the organization’s goal of spending at least 2% of the GDP on defense. At the end of the lively debate, it is fair to say that some of the answers were thought-provoking.
One point that sticks out is how the representatives inside NATO generally view the organization’s work differently than those of us outside of it. As most of us only hear about NATO from media sources, we often think of the organization’s only role as a military one. However, it seemed that the representatives viewed the organization’s role as an evolving one. For them, NATO’s strategic concepts cover a wider range of issues that protect global stability. We walked away realizing that this disconnect between what people believe NATO does and how the alliance views itself is one of the issues that needs to be addressed.
The European Union and the Efficacy of the Fulbright Program
After the morning’s visit to NATO, attendees were shuttled to the picturesque city of Bruges to gather for an evening of knowledge exchange and closing remarks at the College of Europe. In what was certainly a standout session, the 2016-2017 Fulbright Schuman grantees were given the floor to present their work.
Kicking off the session was Dr. Christie S. Warren, the Fulbright Schuman Chair at the European University Institute in Italy. Christie specializes in international rule of law and mediation and has experience as a Supreme Court Fellow and a member of both the United Nations Department of Political Affairs Mediation Support Unit Standby Team and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's Constitution Building Processes Programme at The Hague. She has advised on constitutional issues and processes in Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Somalia, Sudan, and Ukraine and served as a legal advisor to the Darfur peace talks. In her talk, Christie not only painted a picture of what it’s like to enter the devastation of a post-conflict zone and advise political leaders still reeling from the destruction, but also of the tangible, humanitarian value a Fulbright grant can help produce. Through her current work under her Fulbright, Christie aims to facilitate more effective collaboration between lawyers and advisers from different legal systems so that they might better serve the complex problems people face in post-conflict zones.
Narintohn Luangrath is applying her Fulbright grant to examine the labor integration of refugees in the European Union. By asking hard questions and refusing to take the status quo at face value, Narintohn is uncovering the complex webs refugees must navigate in order to integrate. With quite a few of this year’s grantees studying the refugee crisis through different lenses across Europe, Narintohn’s research thus far galvanized deeper thought into how we, as Fulbright grantees, can contribute to easing refugee integration, whether that is through research, reporting, or volunteering in our host countries. The Fulbright Schuman presentations were a thought-provoking close to the weeklong seminar. After the session, we could not help but to look to our left, then to our right, and consider the range of work our Fulbright grants are helping us accomplish. Whether we are studying nuclear waste management in France, researching the effects of denomination of origin in the French Basque, or teaching English in Bulgaria, the fruits of our year-long placements will be widespread and truly unique. After the Schuman presentations, we headed to our good-bye dinner with a deeper appreciation for the value of the Fulbright program.
Dinner with a former Ambassador
During our last event of the conference, we enjoyed a catered meal by Julie’s Lifestyle in Bruges at the College of Europe. The meal was vegan, gluten-free, and semi-raw. For many of us, it was our first time having such a meal, and it had mostly rave reviews. Two of the people I was eating with grew up on mostly European diets admitted to wanting meat after our dinner. While this meal put some people out of their comfort zones, it was inspired by the fact that several members of the group had a food allergy and/or dietary restrictions. This meal ultimately satisfied everyone’s needs and was delicious.
After the dinner, we had a “fireside chat” with the former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Anthony Gardner. He was one of the most open presenters/guests from the week because he no longer works for the government. His former staff said they were surprised he decided to stay in Belgium, which was not customary of a former ambassador. Gardner’s candid responses were refreshing compared to some of the other U.S. officials’ comments. Mr. Gardner not only shared his uncensored opinions about the Trump administration and what is happening in the United States, but he also gave us great career advice. He advised us to take risks in our careers. People called him a “cowboy” at the embassy because he went after projects that most people disregarded and took chances that most in government would not. As long as we have no regrets then he believes we should keep going down the path we want.
The EU-NATO Seminar gave us a privileged opportunity to visit the supranational institutions of the European Union and NATO as well as make connections with Fulbright researchers and teachers across the continent. For some, this was the best opportunity of the grant period for researchers of different disciplines and in different regions to meet, share interests, and explore together the institutions that have reshaped and continue to shape Europe.
While our many conversations with officials at U.S. Embassies, the European Commission, and NATO reflected the uncertainty caused by President Trump’s foreign policy and Brexit, they were also suffused with optimism. This attitude came not only from necessity but also confidence in the long and successful history of the Union and military alliance as well as an ability to adapt and change. Speakers touted the future, whether in President Juncker’s reorganization plan and 24-language program to the new NATO building that will welcome next year’s Fulbright grantees. The conversations with officials also increased our appreciation of the ability to speak candidly about the current, delicate situations, best represented by academics and former officials who took time to meet with us. Their lack of restraint by official capacity produced some of the best talks of the seminar.
The seminar made clear how the transatlantic relationship has shaped these institutions. The President of the EU Court of Justice noted with pride his classes at Harvard from now-Justice Breyer alongside now-Chief Justice Roberts, and how this affected his view of comparative law between the EU and the U.S. Luxembourg City historical markers. The Bastogne memorials reflected how the history of World War II and the American role as liberators of Europe are still very much alive and celebrated. U.S. Embassy officials in Luxembourg and Belgium showed their deep knowledge and interest in European Union and how its continued development will affect the United States. Additionally, meetings with American NATO officials highlighted our direct involvement in the defense of Europe and shaping its recent history in armed conflict and humanitarian crises. Former Ambassador Anthony Gardner was able to meet with us because he had accepted a teaching position at the College of Europe, where he will share his knowledge and expertise as a former American diplomat with the future leaders of European countries and the EU. The processes of academic exchange and general diplomacy between the US and Europe are very much a part of Europe’s history and its future.
Finally, this seminar was an opportunity to see ourselves in the next chapter in that transatlantic relationship. From the Schuman Scholars studying the Union from agricultural policy in everyday lives to current crises and legal structures, to the student teachers in remote areas of Europe teaching the next generation of Europeans, we represent an important bridge among academics and the public that will continue to shape Europe and the United States. The lessons we learned and the connections we made at the seminar will have a profound impact on the future in ways we today can only predict.