The trip was organised so that stagiaires could attend the Parliament’s Open Day on 19th May, with the Sub-Committee also arranging for stagiaires to attend an afternoon plenary session at the Parliament on 20th May. After the plenary, stagiaires had the opportunity to meet Finnish MEP, Nils Torvalds (from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), and Cypriot MEP Antigoni Papadopoulou (from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), Rapporteur for the European Year of Citizens 2013.
The Parliament’s Open Day was a hive of activity, with hundreds of people exploring the impressive Parliament building. Political parties, the European Court of Auditors, the European Ombudsman and the European Central Bank, all had stands lining the corridors of the Parliament, raising awareness of their work and answering questions from members of the public. A number of stands had been set up with interactive games, quizzes, and even a small football tournament, run by the Parliament’s Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.
The evening, and most of the following day, was set aside for stagiaires to explore Strasbourg, before attending the Parliament’s plenary session at 17:30. During the plenary, stagiaires watched from the public gallery of the hemicycle as MEPs from the Sub-Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, debated the issue of renewable energy within the EU. The debates focused primarily on a recent report by Research and Energy Rapporteur Herbert Reul, on the current challenges and opportunities for renewable energy in the European internal energy market.
After attending the plenary, stagiaires listened to a talk from MEP Nils Torvalds, who discussed the current economic crisis. Mr. Torvalds stated that the economic problems in Europe cannot be solved by Member States on their own, as many of the issues faced by Europe stem from technical shortcomings of the euro. The MEP pointed out that in the 1950s, when Europe began the process of integration, economic development was stable, and there was a steady growth rate of 4%. “One fundamental problem, was that we all thought that this would continue… Increasingly, budgets were eaten up by the future, so that states could only use around 10% of their annual budgets." According to Mr. Torvalds, when the 1973 energy crisis led to Member States devaluing currencies aggressively against each other, the euro was designed in order to stop this practice and the resulting economic instability of the 1980s. However, not enough attention was paid to the economic problems that could stem from a single currency.
Mr. Torvalds then took questions from the stagiaires. The first question concerned how often MEPs voted against the interests of their Member State for the sake of following their Parliamentary group’s policy. Mr. Torvalds stated that it was a fairly normal occurrence for MEPs to ‘rebel’ against their group, and that MEPs were rarely ostracised as a result. For the most part, MEPs trust their political group and only rebel over major issues. "However," he said, "it is important to pick your battles.”
Another stagiaire asked whether he had a positive view of Europe’s immediate future. The MEP emphasised that Europe has a moral duty to assist countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, even if there were low levels of confidence in the politicians of those countries and in EU institutions. The main difficulty is about how to help. “Europe is heavily divided” said Mr. Torvalds, “and its values are varied and changing… It will always be conflict, but ultimately no Member State can get through the current crisis alone."
The next MEP to speak, Antigoni Papadopoulou, also took questions from the stagiaires, as she was needed for a Parliamentary vote. She was asked by stagiaires why there is a lack of trust in the EU, and how the rise of populism will affect the political situation within Europe in the coming years.
Mrs. Papadopoulou spoke passionately about the need to communicate the benefits and added value of European citizenship to the 500 million citizens of the EU, especially in the European South, where the far-right is increasing in popularity, and in the UK, where David Cameron has promised a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Most importantly, however, “we must reach out to young people over the issue of unemployment.”
On the issue of trust, Mrs. Papadopoulou highlighted the lack of participatory democracy within EU decisions regarding the economic crisis. She pointed to the example of Cyprus, where the Prime Minister was forced to agree to an unpopular bailout deal, or face bankruptcy. Whatever the merits of the deal, said Mrs. Papadopoulou “decisions taken by technocrats in Brussels are not democratic. Where was the voice of the Cypriot people in the bailout decision? This is not what Europe is about. Europe is about discussion, solidarity, compromise, not blackmail.”
Mrs. Papadopoulou stated that austerity measures do not provide a comprehensive solution to the economic crisis, because they are not accompanied by measures to stimulate growth, and do not tackle social problems: "they do not solve the issues of tax havens or tax avoidance, which are also needed to win back trust. Neither does austerity solve youth unemployment." Mrs. Papadopoulou criticised the popular train of thought within Europe, that young people from countries with poor economies should move to those with better job markets, stating that this is not a solution. If highly educated young people cannot stay in their own country, there will be no growth, no innovation, no investment, and a ‘brain drain’ on those countries. “Europe must assist in the development of an economic model which will tackle these problems, otherwise we will have a ‘lost generation’ of young people. Is that what Europe is about? Absolutely not!”
The trip overall was a great success, with stagiaires being able to spend time in Strasbourg as well as seeing the Parliament and meeting MEPs. After Mrs. Papadopoulou finished speaking, the stagiaires had a short break for dinner before piling back on to the coach to return back to Brussels. Using the internal coach microphone, stagiaire Ruth Watson thanked the Politics and International Relations Sub-Committee for organising the trip, on behalf of the rest of the stagiaires, who gave the Sub-Committee a round of applause. “We know you all worked very hard to bring us to Strasbourg,” stated Ruth, “we’ve had a brilliant time, so we just wanted you to know we’re all very grateful!”
The Politics and International Relations Sub-Committee is made up of Ioanna Demosthenous, Gabriela Belmar-Valencia, Kristina Muur, Martin Ambrozi and Henna Martikainen. It seeks to raise awareness of current affairs within the intern community in Brussels.
Gabriela Belmar-Valencia is a stagiaire in the European Commission in DG Justice. She is also an active member of the Politics and International Relations European Commission sub-committee.