After a long and hectic 14-hour flight from Singapore, I finally arrived at Brussels in Belgium where the European Union parliament is headquartered.
I was filled with both excitement and a tinge of fear as the plane touched down at the tarmac as it was my first visit to Europe. But the realization that I had reached the capital of Europe to begin a three-month internship to see and learn about how the EU parliament functions lifted my spirits.
Anxiety soon followed, however. The immigration officer refused to believe that I’d come for an attachment to the EU parliament until I’d to finally retrieve my contact details from my check-in luggage to convince him.
The following day, I reported to the EU parliament and was received by a staff of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the third largest political group in the European Parliament, holding the balance of power between the left and right parties.
As the host, the ALDE secretariat went through the formalities, including my formal introduction to other interns, one each from Ireland, Spain, Lithuania, Germany, France, Belgium, Congo, and Italy. I’m the only intern from Asia.
Soon it was business. Together with the others, I attended a hearing for Humanitarian Aid. We were then taken to an EU group meeting on human rights where some resolutions were tabled.
I had wanted to be assigned to a committee that dealt with human rights but because of all the places had been taken up, I was assigned to the Monetary Affairs and Economics (ECON) Committee.
The assignment offered me an opportunity to attend a public hearing on the present financial crisis in which the panelists presented its impact on financial systems and proposed solutions on how to manage it. I was tasked with preparing a summary report on the hearing.
The following is a summary of my report on the proposals as put forth by the panelists:
- have a supranational financial regulatory body,
- focus on the Green technology,
- balance social security and cost of maintaining it,
- have a coordinated intervention by member states,
- reject financial speculations and focus on the real economy,
- and re-channel young people in the education sector away from banking to science.
On the second week, I was tasked with assisting a seminar on “EU Anti-Cartel Policy”. This involved the preparation of a list of possible speakers, putting together a list of major anti-cartel cases, and summarizing notes on the OECD’s proposals on taxation.
I also attended a session on the banking system whose objective was to look into creating an effective financial supervisory body at the supranational level. It was the lack of regulations and supervision that had led to massive speculation on Wall Street, resulting in the 2008 crisis. The debate centred on whether financial information should be made avaialble only upon request or whether they should be automatically available.
In the third week, I attended a series of meetings including a presentation by the Spanish Minister of Economy. Spain is the current president of the EU. The Minister put emphasis on balancing the social, economic and environmental progress of the EU.
There was also a hearing on the social impact of the financial crisis. One of the concerns raised was on youth employment and how this would affect their chances of getting a job and their future earnings.
Being in the ECON committee has been an eye-opener. At this historic moment in which the world is suffering form the repercussions of the financial crisis, being here has given me a wider understanding on the impact of the crisis and the lessons learnt from it. It has also given me a wider appreciation of the economic issues at the supranational level.
On an unofficial level, I had some discussions with the other interns from Europe who indicated that they were quite disappointed with the EU’s democracy. Unlike countries with citizens, Europe lacked a “European public” that causes citizens of the EU to be uninterested in European politics. Politics is still very much focused at the national levels.
Personally, I think democracy in Europe has advanced to a very high level, compared to the kind of politics that we have in Singapore. In fact EU as a supranational body is able to assert its influence in Europe and, through the various treaties and laws, is able to ensure that fundamental rights of the people of Europe prevail.
Compare this to ASEAN which is not able to even function as a coordinated body, let alone protect and defend the rights of its citizens.
Europe went through a few stages to achieve what it is today. The feudal age which ensured that only a certain class was able to enjoy privileges and that power was through inheritance. Then there was the French Revolution, which resulted in the spread of the concept of civil liberties and the ever decreasing role of the monarchy. Europe suffered two World Wars and the continent was in a mess. It was the desire to come together to achieve peace and prosperity that led member states to come together and work under a single body.
Of course, there are national interests, ideological differences, and differences in language and culture. But the EU, through democracy, manages it problems through the ballot rather than through dubious means to justify oppression of the people.
My three-month internship which ends in April is exciting. I will be flying to Strasbourg, France to attend a EU Parliamentary session which has 722 members from 27 states and assist the policy advisors of ALDE ECON Committee.
Shamin is currently attending an annual internship programme organised by ALDE and the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) of which SDP is a member and its current chair. Shamin is a member of the SDP’s Young Democrats.