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Jan 25, 2023

Canada and the EU: A week at the European Union

Photo Mr CarricatoIn an effort to help the rest of the world better understand the European Union (EU), its institutions and values, since the 1970s, the EU has been offering mid-level professionals from around the globe the opportunity to visit Brussels and Strasbourg and meet with the people who make the EU a reality and a success. At the invitation of the former EU Ambassador to Canada, Peteris Ustubs, I was given the opportunity to spend a week at the EU and participate in this experience known as the European Union Visitors Program (EUVP).

In the weeks before my departure, staff at the EU were in touch to get a sense of my professional interests, and experience, so they could build for me a unique program that will benefit both me the participant and the interlocutors from the EU I was fortunate to meet throughout the week. While I was visiting the EU, I was joined by other participants on their own unique programs from around the world: a Member of Parliament from Kosovo, the Chief of Staff to the President of South Korea, a senior researcher from the US Congress specializing in the Balkans, a journalist with more than 1 million followers from Columbia and a journalist from Belarus currently living in exile in Lithuania.

Given my role as Director of Outreach and Events responsible for diplomatic and international relations in the Office of the Speaker of the House of Commons, my week involved meetings with both public servants across the EU Parliament, but also Members of the European Union (MEPs), including Her Excellency Roberta Metsola, President of the European Union (House of Commons’ Speaker Anthony Rota’s counterpart). This proved to be an excellent opportunity to not only learn more about her role in the EU Parliament, but also develop a personal relationship with my counterparts in her office that will no doubt improve the collaboration between our two parliaments.

My week began in Brussels, where most of the EU public service is based, with a tour of the buildings and the city that was deliberately chosen to house most of the EU institutions given its geographic location and proximity to several of the Members States. While most Canadians might know that Brussels is the home of the EU, under the EU’s founding treaty, Strasbourg (located 440kms away, in southeast France near the German border) is the seat of the EU Parliament and there is a legal obligation for the EU to meet in Strasbourg at least 12 times a year. More-or-less once a month, thousands of public servants, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and their political staff board-chartered trains to Strasbourg and work in-and-out of the EU’s second parliament building, equally as beautiful, yet very different from the buildings in Brussels.

In both cities you will find very distinct Chambers (known as the hemicycle in the EU) where the MEPs gather to represent residents from their Member States based on population. Germany, the most populated country in the EU has the largest number of seats with 96, while Malta, the smallest populated country in the EU, has the least with 6. In total, there are 705 MEPs representing 27 Members States, down from 751 when Great Britain was a part of the EU.

Fortunately for me, I was in Strasbourg the week that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the Union Address on September 14, 2022. As a sign of solidarity and support to the people of Ukraine, President von der Leyen invited Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine as the wife of President Zelenskyy to sit next to her for her address to the EU Parliament. I watched with great intertest as MEPs were given the opportunity to respond to her address and raise concerns from the energy crisis, food insecurity and the need for the EU to be more compassionate to asylum seekers and refugees arriving on their shores.

I enjoyed flipping through the headset and listening to the debates being simultaneously translated into the 24 official languages so the MEPs can express themselves comfortably in their native language and everyone else can understand.

I sat in awe watching from the public gallery the civility and decorum in the hemicycle we Canadians can only dream of, despite very contentious and hotly debated issues being discussed, such as the debate I attended later in the week on the state of democracy in Hungary. Throughout this debate, MEPs from the 7 political groups from the far-left end of the spectrum to the far-right were discussing whether to chastise Hungary and potentially withhold EU funds for not respecting the EU’s core values. Despite the passion in the Chamber, MEPs were very respectful of one another and there was no chirping or heckling on the floor.

For someone fascinated with not only political process and parliamentary procedure, but also the physical spaces in which parliamentarians carry out their work, it was particularly interesting for me to see the buildings in which the EU functions. One of the most impressive aspects was the amount of open space and casual “bars” where MEPs and staff could meet informally and conduct the business of the EU. There are several of these casual meeting areas throughout the building that lend themselves to organized meetings or impromptu meetings without the burden of having to set a time, reserve a board room, etc.

Another impressive aspect of the buildings are the state-of-the art press theatres and TV studios so the news coming out of the EU Parliament can be broadcast across Europe from Bulgaria to Portugal. In stark contrast to the meagre facilities and resources offered to our Canadian media on Parliament Hill, the Secretariat of the EU Parliament responsible for communications supports journalists from across the EU to ensure they have everything they need to report on the EU Parliament. I met with the Director-General for Communications and EU Parliament Spokesperson, Mr. Juame Duch Guillot (from Spain) as well as one of his senior directors Ms. Marlene Chaucheprat (from Denmark) who together lead a team of 900 communications officers that ensure news coming out of the EU can be transmitted to every citizen in the EU, whether they live in Latvia, Italy, or Poland. Seeing the diversity among the public servants working for the EU in Brussels and Strasbourg as well as their commitment to Europe was a highlight of my week and in a way, it reminded me of Ottawa where Canadians from across Canada from coast-to-coast-to-coast come to serve our country.

Following my visit, there is no doubt in my mind that Canada and the EU share a special relationship – a bond that sets us up well for enhanced cooperation on likeminded issues such as the energy and climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, diversifying supply chains, critical raw materials and combatting disinformation and fake news. Most of my meetings involved MEPs and public servants working hard to further the EU’s relationship with Canada, on trade, defence and sustainable development. Our common values are the foundation of our relationship and the message I heard loud and clear throughout my visit was that the EU wants more of Canada. My response to them was simple: what are we waiting for?

Anthony Carricato is the Director of Outreach and Events for the Speaker of the House of Commons