Our visit to the EU Institutions
By Jasmine Mahtani, Ana Thoppil Poyatos, Anna Grech, Gabriella Chipol, Brielle Gafan, Eliza Triay, Mathew Porter, Francis Devincenzi, Adam Rocca, Nicholas Rocca, Jerome Gerada and Leon Wellstead
Brexit has major implications for Gibraltar and it places us ultimately in a precarious position. Therefore, the start of our political journey was ignited by a myriad of unnerving dilemmas. These raised a series of questions involving the fundamental notion that, though being physically in Europe, would Gibraltar form part of the continent in practice?
For instance, a post-Brexit Gibraltar would require visas to visit previously accessible EU countries causing limited travel and polarisation. E111’s would become obsolete which might cause a loss of health benefits. In spite of this, our overwhelming 96% pro-European population remained sanguine and strong spirited against the multifarious challenges.
This confidence was reflected in our group of inquisitive students. It caused us to question the authenticity of the EU and the UK’s stance on their commitment to the protection of Gibraltar against the 300-year-old Spanish claim to the Rock.
Throughout the week, we were able to argue Gibraltar’s cause in several meetings with a plethora of MP’s and prominent political and educational persons each day, and this gave us the ability to share our viewpoint and interpret alternatives that juxtaposed our own.
Experiencing Europe’s bustling political hive first-hand was a unique and memorable experience. Under a hectic travel schedule, the group quickly immersed itself in the impressive EU environment. The first day allowed us to experience the grandeur and magnificence of the iconic, golden European Parliament.
Insightful talks taught us about the functions of the EU institutions, as well as the Parliament’s role in the workings of the Union. Ushered into the plenary room, we were given a detailed explanation on parliamentary operations and were all intrigued by the crucial role of translators within the European Parliament. This highlighted the role of linguistic pluralism in a modern, advancing society.
Despite all the political glamour, our disappointment at Britain’s exit from the Brussels bubble was evident throughout. Following this experience, we were able to gain some insight into the workings of the Commission. We received a particularly thorough presentation from a civil servant on the numerous roles played by the institution, and how they plan on expanding initiatives and extending Europe's reach to a 2 developing globe under Juncker’s Commission.
Although we saw very little of the building itself, the opportunity to discuss the workings of the Union's executive branch did not go amiss; we were able to offer incisive questions throughout, exploring topics concerning cyber-security and how the Commission develops directives.
Although a less interactive experience than our time at the Parliament, perhaps the most enlightening knowledge we gained was an awareness of how much of an impact the European Union has on our day-to-day lives.
Amidst the ongoing political debacle of Brexit, details such as the crucial role that the Union played in supporting workers’ rights and funding higher education through the Erasmus programme go unnoticed. Our visits to the Parliament and Commission provided us the opportunity to gain first-hand insight into the political mechanisms of the Union, and proved a worthy first foray into our journey through Europe’s heart.
On Tuesday morning we were given a guided tour of the House of European History. Not only was the tour interesting, but it also showed how Europe has learnt from its history and formed the EU in order to preserve peace. We were pleasantly surprised at how authentic and genuine the museum was regarding the EU as it also criticised some aspects of Europe by not hiding from the darker sides of its history.
The interactivity of the museum made sure we were taking an active role in our learning - something which took precedence throughout our entire trip to Brussels. Following our departure from the European History Museum, we made our way to Gibraltar House where we were greeted by Sir Graham Watson, EU Counsel to HM Government of Gibraltar.
After some brief introductions about the inner workings of the EU, we were given a most informative presentation centred around the relationships Gibraltar holds with other member states as well as a Question and Answer session based on the current political issues surrounding the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
Darren Ennis, an Irish specialist in strategic communications and government relations and who was most recently Head of Communications and International Affairs at the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission, gave us his opinion on the future of the Irish border and the major problems it will bring to the unity of the UK; arguably one of the greyest areas in the negotiations today.
Fernando Diaz, an Algeciras native with a law degree from La Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, described his previous experiences as a lawyer from Spain and as an EU Policy Officer in Scotland. He also explained to us how EU law and competition law apply to the Spanish border and the difficulties that come with it.
On Wednesday we had the privilege of meeting with three different MEPs who made time to talk to us despite their busy schedule on such an important day of Brexit negotiations. Clare Moody from Labour, Molly Scott Cato from the Green Party and Isabella De Monte from the Italian Social Democrats were all extremely receptive and welcoming and it was incredible to have the opportunity to pick the brains of the ‘front-liners’ of the European Union.
Prior to these meetings, we had researched into their backgrounds, core beliefs and values and around what particular policies or movements they were most passionate about. We then constructed questions based on 3 these findings and, naturally, questioned them on their stance regarding Gibraltar’s position and relevance within the EU Brexit negotiations.
They are all great friends of Gibraltar and the newfound knowledge that we have such allies within the European Parliament definitely invoked a sense of great relief in us all. Furthermore, we now have an even greater respect for our Government and the members of Gibraltar House for tirelessly promoting the interests of Gibraltar on a European ‘Supranational’ stage to gain these allies and defend our rights as Gibraltarian citizens.
We also met two young MEP Assistants and chatted in a more casual way. We learnt about educational and employment opportunities available in the institutions of the EU and asked how they managed to work themselves into the privileged positions they are currently in.
This was highly informative and insightful. Moreover, as young people, it was extremely inspiring to meet with professionals not much older than ourselves in such positions because it proved to us that working hard really does lead to brighter places.
Later that day we explored the entirety of Europe! Not quite so literally, but in its miniaturised form: the ‘Mini-Europe’ amusement park showcases the most important buildings/monuments across Europe and their significance, and offered a more relaxed approach to learning about the history of the EU.
We also visited the Atomium in the same day, through which its creation (in 1958) and architecture interestingly represented the aspiration of the post-war age; humanism, world peace and improved lives due to science and technology.
On Thursday we visited the picturesque city of Bruges, home to the prestigious College of Europe. In meeting Olivia Taveirne, Head of Student Affairs, we were introduced to the array of opportunities available at this institution and given an insight on what student life here consists of.
Having 350 students from 55 different nationalities, we were impressed by the multiculturalism that existed within the college. Multilingualism was highlighted as being vital to unlocking possibilities as most students here knew three or more languages including English and French.
Although growing up in Gibraltar means the majority of us are bilingual, we were made aware that this is not enough if we are to truly expand our horizons. We were also informed of the wide range of courses available in this ten month programme such as European economic studies, EU international relations and diplomacy studies and transatlantic affairs. We were made aware of different scholarships that could potentially be available to us.
Overall, this visit enlightened us on the fantastic opportunity that this college offers which is held in high regard by employers and will give people an advantage when entering the workforce.
Additionally, the medieval architecture and cobblestoned streets of Bruges made the city uniquely beautiful. The town also boasted scenic rivers passing along splendid churches, whose grand age only further emphasised the town’s quaint environment and we fell in love with its charm. This was a different aspect to this politically educational trip but nonetheless just as interesting. Overall, Bruges was well worth the visit.
Friday proved to be a completely surreal day for all of us. After a painfully early start, we journeyed off to visit the newly built NATO headquarters - whose construction finished in early 2018.
Even before stepping inside this colossal beast, we were drawn to two pieces of history: a chunk of the Berlin Wall and metal foundations from the 9/11 disaster on display at the entrance to the building. Not only were these artefacts fascinating to see, it also gave us a better sense of what an organisation like NATO was made to do; to bring together powerful nations and provide collective security and a time of peace.
Following a mesmerising tour of the building, we were brought to the UK delegation of NATO where Air Commodore M S Sexton, the Deputy UK National Military Representative to NATO, with the help of his two assistants, gave us a thorough and interesting presentation on how NATO came to be, the way initiatives and directives are brought forward by the member states and how the UK delegation is run.
Having such a presentation was brilliant in getting a complete understanding of the structure of NATO and how important this organisation is in securing peace and safety in our modern world. Additionally, it made clear to us a common misconception many people have about our position in NATO.
The EU and NATO are two separate entities, run by two independent institutions. As a result, when we inevitably leave the EU come March 2019, the UK will remain as part of the 29 states that make up NATO.
Our visit to NATO was easily one of the best experiences of the whole trip! Following our insightful visit to the new NATO headquarters, we visited the parlamentarium, where we got the chance to (figuratively) step into the shoes of an MEP in the form of an intense role play game commissioned by the EU. The game tackled issues such as water crises and the advent of new technologies, both of which will affect the EU and its member states in the future.
After being separated into four fictional parties (each resembling a real party in the European Parliament) we were set on a rather stressful, yet enjoyable path of consultation, negotiation and finally, legislation.
We were given experience in public speaking as we were all thrown into fictitious press conferences, with sets of reporters asking tough questions about our decisions along the way, as well as having to speak to our fellow fictitious MEPs at rapid-fire plenary sessions, explaining our stance on the issues we faced, answers which were greeted with either cheers or obvious contempt.
The two and a half hour experience allowed us to delve into the process by which EU legislation is formed, experiencing at a smaller scale, just what the MEPs who represent our voices in the EU parliament go through on a daily basis.
This experience will be something that we will never forget. We were able to receive first-hand experience of the world of politics and the complexity of the European Union. We feel that we were well aware of the popular topics, the most important being ‘Brexit’ before embarking on this journey, but nothing could prepare us for the amount of knowledge we received from MEPs and professionals who spend their lives committed to this European organisation.
All in all, we can agree that not only has this trip allowed us to delve into the minds of politicians, but also to mature and show us the importance of the European Union and how our future will be affected in the years to come.
We strongly recommend that people become more involved in current affairs, as it has made 5 us all aware how big the struggle is for Gibraltar to find its place after Brexit; and for younger students from both Bayside and Westside Comprehensive and the Gibraltar College to apply for this once in a lifetime experience as we are the wave of a new generation who will be the voice of our future.