This past spring I traveled outside of the United States for the first time in my life. I was on my way to Freiburg, Germany to spend four months in the IES European Union Program. I chose this program because of my interest in international politics and travel, and this opportunity afforded me a lot of both. I learned more about the EU than many European citizens know and I traveled to 13 different countries. It was an amazing experience in every aspect. I made great friends and had lots of fun traveling and visiting cities like Rome, London, Copenhagen, and Tallinn. I went sledding down an entire mountain in the Swiss Alps and I went hiking on the cliffs of the Mediterranean Ocean in Cinque Terre. I visited the UN in Geneva, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the Reichstag in Berlin, and even interned at the European Parliament in Brussels for a month.
My internship was probably the most exciting and interesting aspect of my study abroad experience. I lived in Brussels for a month and went to work at the European Parliament in the office of Zita Gurmai. Mrs. Gurmai is a socialist member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Hungary whose main interests are women’s rights and gender equality. While compiling information for Mrs. Gurmai’s visit to the U.S., I realized that gender issues are basically nonexistent in American politics right now. I also learned that socialism is a legitimate political ideology in Europe, and although it is a dirty word in American politics, many democratic positions are closer to socialism than democrats would care to admit. Europe as a whole is further left on the political spectrum than the U.S., although many social programs that Europeans take for granted are in danger of being cut by austerity measures. The Socialist & Democrat Party (S&D) that Mrs. Gurmai belongs to is strongly opposed to these cuts.
My friend and roommate worked for a Christian Democrat MEP in the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) who is also focused on women’s issues, which made for an interesting side-by-side comparison. Although these two women are from opposing political parties, they work together and respect one another, in contrast to the hostility of American politics. In the European Parliament there is always an urgent need for compromise in order to get any legislation passed.
Unfortunately the recent economic crisis has made the two major political parties (the S&D and the EPP) more entrenched on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and the crisis has even spawned extremist Eurosceptic groups like Europe for Freedom and Democracy*. Political conflict is not only present between parties in the Parliament, but also within parties. And outside the Parliament, the European Commission and all 27-member states also have to agree on anything the EU does. There are a whole lot of interests represented at every level, including national, regional, foreign, environmental, business, labor, women, immigrants, etc. In a democracy this big legislation is often based on the least common denominator. Consequently everything gets watered down and the EU never seems to take a strong stance on anything. Needless to say, this is a frustrating process to witness firsthand, when there are so many pressing problems like the Greek debt crisis, unemployment, social unrest, etc. Studying abroad and interning in the European Parliament was an invaluable experience because I gained an insider’s view into one of the world’s most interesting and unique political structures during a time of crisis.
*This YouTube video was a sort of an inside joke in my program, and it shows how heated things can get in the EP between politicians: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dranqFntNgo My fellow interns and I also met the politician in the video, Nigel Farage, who is the chairman of EFD