Who would have thought it? This liberal finally travelled to Brussels, Belgium. However, this was no ordinary weekend escape. instead, I attended the LYMEC Summer Academy, situated at the European Parliament with Liberal Youth.
To clarify, LYMEC originally stood for ‘Liberal and Radical Youth Movement of the European Communities’, but now it’s generally shortened to ‘European Liberal Youth’. Essentially, LYMEC is a community of the youth wings of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party. The President of this community is Guy Verhofstadt – Prime Minister of Belgium.
(Got it? Good).
Seeing as this was my first time in Brussels, let alone the EU Parliament, I have definitely learned a lot of lessons over the past few days. In this blog post, I’ve decided to summarise my political, social, and cultural experiences, mostly to reflect on how I’m growing, but also to pass on lessons to Britain as we (unfortunately) leave the European Union.
When assessing the political lessons I’ve been taught, I should point out the skewed nature of this experience. The people who I mostly interacted with were young liberals and democrats. Despite the plethora of cultural differences inevitably presented by different EU nations, ‘young liberals and democrats’ is a demographic in itself, and of course does not represent the general EU population.
With that in mind, it was definitely interesting to ask different representatives what they thought of Brexit and the reputation that Britain has across the EU. I must admit, the results were mixed: some were expected, but some surprised me.
For instance, I cannot count the amount of times I was asked about Boris Johnson. From France to Germany, and Denmark to Lithuania, Boris Johnson as our Foreign Secretary is an international embarrassment. Or at least, everyone I spoke to felt sorry for us in that regard.
What they didn’t necessarily sympathise with us for, was Brexit in itself. Understandably, a lot of them are frustrated that the vote for Britain to leave the European Union has threatened its values which has allowed countries to prosper in peace for the past few decades. In fact, some went as far to argue for a ‘hard’ Brexit upon us, because they cared about the prosperity of the European Union much more than a country who was willing to stick two fingers up at it. One panellist took one look at us in the debating chamber and joked ‘Britain are sat on the right, as usual!’
It seems the viewpoint of British opinion is transmitted through the European Union is that of the government – campaigning to leave the single market in preference for strict and illiberal controls on immigration. As someone who voted for Remain, this surprised me. It seems that the world has forgotten that 48% of the UK have a different world vision.
They didn’t only comment on the government, however. The entire Remain campaign itself was discussed, and concluded to be a failure. This, of course, was not news to me. They were further dismayed to hear about the lack of Labour support for the single market, and demanded the whereabouts of a credible opposition.
Sadly, I had to agree with them. The ‘don’t blame me, I voted Remain’ rhetoric hasn’t exactly transcribed over to the continent, because they were convinced everyone involved in the Remain campaign – Cameron, May, and Corbyn alike – were neither dedicated nor strategic enough.
Furthermore, it definitely surprised me that they were shocked Theresa May had actually campaigned for Remain, as they viewed her as an ardent Brexiteer. Alarm bells rang around my mind as a UK friend of mine showed them a photo of Theresa May clutching a ‘Vote Remain’ placard.
In conclusion, politically, we’re an embarrassment to the liberals and democrats of the EU. Understandably, they are hurt that Britain would abandon the values of unity, freedom of movement, and acceptance of diversity. Despite this, I don’t wish to argue that ‘the EU hates us, and this should fuel a harder Brexit’. In many ways, we need to resolve the cracks in the continent which Brexit has created, which means, preserving the values of the EU. We need to respond to this positively, because they love Britain, its culture, and its peoples. They recognise that not everyone voted to Leave, but the British government aren’t exactly in their favour at the moment.
People and Culture
Of course, this experience was certainly not a negative one in the slightest. I found it incredibly insightful to gain so many different views from around the continent, and to get out of my ‘social liberal’ bubble which I’m used to debating. Everyone was so open and willing to get to know you – a value of other people I will always treasure, because it makes you more open as a result.
I made so many new friends during my time in Brussels. In fact, on the final night we had a farewell party (in a beautiful art gallery, complete with a live jazz band!). My friend Hannah secretly told every young liberal and democrat in attendance that ‘in ten minutes, it’s my friend Amy’s birthday, sing happy birthday when it strikes twelve!’
This ultimately meant that one minute I was gushing over my love for Chopin to a Spanish guy, the next I was being sung at and kissed on both cheeks by drunk liberals. It was honestly an unforgettable experience, despite the glass of champagne which was thrusted into my hand after about three glasses of Prosecco beforehand (bloody liberal elite).
In terms of exploring Brussels, on both days, I went out into the city with people who I’d never met, but made it an amazing experience nonetheless. I ate in ‘Tonton Chami’ with a Northern Irish and Polish guy, where I finally had Belgian chips. I also chilled in the Grand Place with them while the sun was setting. The atmosphere was so warm and relaxing, full of hearty conversation and laughter.
I also went and had Belgian waffles and sweet beer with a group of Danish liberals, where I was surprised about how much they knew about Oasis and The Inbetweeners. Essentially, they said they tended to learn more English through our cultural exports rather than their education system. But, they have still been taught English since their first year of school. I’m still surprised they start school two years later than us Brits!
Speaking of languages, I managed to practise my French! Admittedly, it was better at some points than others. For example, when I initially arrived at Bruxelles-Midi from London St Pancras, I asked a man for the quickest metro line to the European Parliament; in every coffee shop I asked for a latte in French, and while wandering around Parliament I had various conversations in French.
Not all of them were successful. Unfortunately anxiety cropped up when I was trying to ask a Frenchman if he was the guy in charge of travel refunds. (He was not, but it took ten minutes of awkward silences and Google Translate – embarrassingly – before I finally realised). But still, it proves I’m not fluent and I’ve got a lot to work on yet!
Overall, my experience in the European Parliament was one of the best of my life. I learned so much, from how debates work in the European Parliament, to putting together a LYMEC manifesto for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. The range of panellists were full of experts who spoke wonderfully about their fields. We had an MEP who used to have a pharmaceutical business, a representative of Google, and a centre-right Spanish politician who had a few things to say about the ‘essential preservation of Judeo-Christian values in the EU’.
Personally, I feel a million times more confident now. Interacting with so many people was challenging, but I managed to do it. I didn’t have one panic attack, which I was really proud of. I’m proud of everything I did in Brussels, and it was a fantastic opportunity for my professional development! Does this make me want to enter politics? Not necessarily. I still was only one out of three scientists in attendance. But it has helped me gain a lot of skills and learn from a field which is completely different to my own. I love to learn, and I will seize every opportunity to.
If I can debate in the European Parliament, what can’t I do?