As can be seen on my photo gallery, I’ve recently added some albums of photos from the ECC in Brussels. Since several people have asked me what it was all about, I thought I might as well explain a bit.
It started earlier in the year when I got an email from a market research organisation asking me if I’d be interested in taking part in what was described in the blurb as “an exciting major European project, The European Citizens’ Consultation 2009″. The intial offering was the possibility of being invited to a weekend in London, all expenses paid, to take part in a focus group on the subject of Europe and the EU. I didn’t particularly expect to be selected, since the number of places was limited, but I’m always up for a jolly at someone else’s expense so I decided I might as fill in the form.
A couple of weeks later, though, I got a phone call from Involve (the organisation running the event) telling me I’d been selected. So, on Saturday 21st March I pitched up at the Grange Hotel in London to take part. The primary aim of the event seemed to be to try to develop some recommendations that we, as citizens of an EU country, would like to out to the EU legislatiors for consideration. To do this, we worked in small groups round circular tables – around ten to a table, along with a facilitator, and the expectation was that we would come up with a couple of proposals for futher discussion. I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the process!
Following on from the London event, ten of the participants were to be selected for a pan-European event featuring people from all the participating nations. Again, I didn’t expect to be picked, but it seems that my name came out of the hat and so I got another call telling me that I was off to Brussels. Cue a short panic as I remembered that my passport had expired, but I said I was going anyway (they needed to get a firm yes or no straight away, presumably so as to give time to contact those on the reserve list if I’d said I couldn’t make it), then sent off my passport renewal application and kept my fingers crossed. Fortunately it turned up in plenty of time, so I needn’t have worried.
Saturday morning on 9th May, therefore, saw me catch the train to Birmingham airport where I boarded a flight to Brussels. The event started on Sunday morning with a second round of small group discussions, similar to those in Londond, and then on Monday we all decamped to the Palais d’Egmont (part of the Belgian Foreign Ministry) to use their conference hall for a pair of debates featuring first the leaders of the main European political parties and then some of the key members of the European Commission (including the commission president, José Manuel Barroso). I have to say that the politicians were almost uniformly irritating in their refusal to address any of the points made from the floor – they just semed to want to attack each other and their policies and discuss the forthcoming elections – but the commission members gave a much better account of themselves.
The British participants had been invited to meet the British Ambassador to the EU after the close of the event, so we spent about an hour at the residency sipping tea and eating home-made cake before making our way home. Since I was one of only two who had flown there (the others had travelled on Eurostar), we had the benefit of being chauffered to the airport in one of the residency’s official ambassadorial cars, more commonly used by diplomatic staff and visiting membersof the government! Turning up at the airport in a car with CD plates did make me feel a little smug.
Finally, on the Wednesday after the event, some of us went to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall for a debriefing with some FCO officials, followed by a meeting with the Minister for Europe, Caroline Flint, at the Houses of Parliament.
So, that’s my brief foray into the European political process over and done with, at least for now. It was certainly interesting to see things from a different perspective, and the Brussels meetings in particular genuinely felt worthwhile (although whether it will make any real difference is another matter). In fact, I was sufficiently impressed by it all to want to get more involved in politics, and EU politics in particular, in future – although I’m not sure quite how that might happen!