Observations from an outsider

In June and July 2010, Julia Orlov did an internship in the office of Derk Jan Eppink. She is an American citizen with a Russian background and a student of art history at Wellesley College. Upon leaving our office, she left a note with her impressions of the EU.


            While a month and a half may not be sufficient to become acquainted with the finer details of an institution, during my brief stay, I have seen enough to develop a broad view  and an opinion of the European Parliament. It is certainly, for a variety of reasons, a very interesting place to be. With the exception of the silent Strasbourg week, there has always been something to do or see. Here, I have been able to sit in on committee meetings and subsequently, the plenary session, where decisions that will affect the lives of ordinary people are made. I escorted members of a Bulgarian political party to a meeting, shook the hand of a former Prime Minister of Belgium, and attended a successful book launch in the House of Lords itself. This would not have happened to me anywhere else.

             While I am grateful for such experiences, which are indeed exciting in their novelty, I must admit that, above all, I appreciate that this traineeship has enabled law-making to become something more tangible. As much as citizens may be encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, there is still often a large divide between citizens and their representatives. It may sometimes seem as if the political realm is far off or abstract. Yet by having access to a firsthand experience, my understanding of and interest in such institutions increased. This, I believe, is a prime example of the type of education for which many American universities, and certainly my own, Wellesley College, strive. Our educational system focuses not only on pushing its students to engage in so-called field work, but also to confront situations to which they are unaccustomed. As an American studying the history of art, the world of the EU was certainly something out of the ordinary.

            I was often surprised by the way that affairs were carried out in the European Parliament. Although the institution certainly has its merits, I would be lying if I did not mention that at times I was  confused, concerned, or disappointed. The EU is, without a doubt, drenched in bureaucracy and endless paperwork. Something as simple as hanging a picture frame requires an absurd amount of effort. I am still uncertain why the request could never reach the furniture service directly, but had to go through a middleman, or why the service could never give a specific date or time when they would arrive to do their job. It is almost as if it is expected that assistants have nothing better to do than to sit around in their offices and wait! The reality is quite contrary to the initial assumption that even the smallest aspects of a law-making institution would be run efficiently.

            This is certainly an extremely minor grievance when compared to the concern I felt when hearing some of the EU's messages. Upon arriving, I learned of the Culture and Education Committee and became interested in attending. While the first meeting I went to seemed a bit out of theme, its central topic being the issue of new technology and communication, a subsequent meeting on the European Heritage Label caught my eye. It sounded to me like a small-scale version of the World Heritage Label. At the meeting, though, it was clarified that the purpose of the label would not be to conserve sites, but rather to promote a common European culture and identity. The country in which the site was found would be responsible for its maintenance.

            The usefulness of this proposal was lost on me. Wouldn't a Member State be able to promote culture and education on its own as well? Furthermore, a cultural heritage site seemed like another way to promote tourism. Isn't that a responsibility of an individual country as well? There seems to be too much overlapping between the duties of a Member State and those of the EU, exactly the problem which Mr. Eppink addressed in his recent book. The concept of the “European identity” is also something with which I take issue. I am troubled by the promotion of an artificial identity, which I believe is best epitomized by the existence of the European hymn. Admittedly, no national anthem has ever inspired sympathy or nostalgia in me, but that does not mean that I do not take the concept lightly. A hymn symbolizes the existence of a united country. Does the European Union mean to say that it is a nation, rather than an organization for cooperation between European countries? The very fact that one has to rise for the EU anthem suggests that the institution may be aiming too high.

            With this in mind, it is not completely farfetched to say that it appears that the European Union is intent on becoming a European version of the United States of America. Such consolidation works for the U.S., but only because each state shares the same language, culture, and history. That is not to say that America is devoid of multiculturalism, but most immigrants eventually integrate into the American society and adopt its identity in order to guarantee success. Their descendants, regardless of how long it may take, will probably one day identify with the label “American.” That does not seem to be the case in Europe, where Finns will be Finns, or Greeks will be Greeks rather than “Europeans.”

            As much as I respect the European Union and its accomplishments, I am repelled by its excessive idealism. Aside from wasting time and money, such notions also risk falling into the territory of “too much unity.” The absence of differences may indeed lead to monoculturalism as well as a disdain of criticism, which seems to be already present with the majority's rejection of non-federalist thought. While I am not suggesting that the European Union may turn into an authoritarian state, I believe that its officials need to reexamine their objectives. The modern Western world prides itself on its willingness to embrace innovation, efficiency, criticism, and diversity. The EU should continue to uphold these ideals, lest it insults its own heritage.