Earlier this year, I published a blog on LinkedIn about the importance of cooperation between the EU and Russia in a time of political tension. I entered this blog in the #EUInMyRegion Blogging Competition, organised by the European Commission and it ended up landing in the top 3 of all the entries received. As a result, I was flown to Brussels with 2 nights accommodation, given a press badge and allowed to cover the European Week of Regions and Cities (EUWRC) as a fully accredited journalist. Sounds pretty incredible, but what did that actually entail? Let me introduce you to the life of a journalist in Brussels…
What is the European Week of Regions and Cities?
The EUWRC (formerly known as the Open Days) is an annual event that brings together policymakers, researchers, students and journalists interested in European Union (EU) Cohesion Policy. For those not in the know, EU Cohesion Policy is a policy that aims to improve the situation of regions within the EU. Massive amounts of funding are devoted to improving the competitiveness, economic growth, transport, research, infrastructure and other key areas of European regions, with a particular focus on less developed regions. It’s a big event; this year, over 120 sessions were attended by over 5000 people.
The four-day event aims to create awareness of the importance of regions and cities to EU policy-making. As a result, it showcases success stories of how EU funding has improved the lives of communities and individuals across Europe and is a chance to exchange best practice in different areas, including economic development, innovation, social inclusion and cross-border cooperation.
It is also a forum for for discussion about how to address pressing issues facing regions and cities in Europe, such as migration, ageing populations, the rise of self-employment and gender inequality. I was determined to find out some of these challenges and to find out what was being done about them.
Brussels served as the backdrop to the event. I’ve visited the city on a couple of occasions, the first time when I was a kid and once more when I was backpacking through Europe in my early twenties. It’s safe to say that I remember neither occasion very well, so this time round I was determined to get a feel for the place. While attending the various sessions of the EUWRC I spent most of my time in the European Quarter, where you’ll find the various buildings of the European Commission, Parliament and other bureaucratic structures. There’s a lot of glass and the vibe was polished, cool and clean.
Don’t let these exteriors fool you though, Brussels isn’t a boring place by any meas. On any night of the week you’ll find people out and about. And these people come from everywhere. On the metro, walking down the street, during every session I attended, I lost count of the number of languages I heard around me. Everything from French, Dutch, German, Swedish, Russian, Arabic, Polish, Italian, Romanian and many others – often blended together and chopping and changing without so much as a pause for breath. The presence of so many cultures and languages in the one place made me feel very welcome. I stayed for several days after the event concluded to explore more of the city and also managed to take some trips to the Pajottenland countryside, Luxembourg and Dinant.
A Day in the Life of a Journalist at the EUWRC
My first day at the event began with meeting the other winners, the competition’s organiser Mathew Lowry and Matteo Salvai, Communications Officer at the European Commission, at the entrance of the Committee of the Regions Building. Before entering, I was met with men in military uniform and subjected to a security check. This would be the first of many security checks in the days to come. Once inside, I collected my press badge and my official accreditation (so that I could take photos and video during the event), and headed upstairs to meet the other journalists.
On Monday 10th October, a special program for the media involved a welcome gathering, a roundtable with the Commissioner for Regional Policy Corina Crețu and other policymakers, followed by the official opening of the event and an evening reception. On the following days (Tuesday 11th-Thursday 13th October), we could choose either to continue following the media program or to attend sessions of our choosing.
Each day was intense. I would wake up early and Google Map where to go for my first session (the sessions are held in various buildings all over the European Quarter). I’d spend most of my day inside, venturing out into the fresh air only to change venues. Some days there would be a ‘networking lunch’ (code for ‘free food’), during which I would wolf down some sandwiches and down some orange juice before hurrying off to another workshop.
Covering an event such as this one requires you to be constantly be switched on. I took my laptop with me so that I could grab interesting quotes from the various sessions, and equally as important, to update my personal Twitter feed. I also brought a notepad and pen with me to note down things of importance, contacts and snippets. When I had a chance, I’d look up to observe the other journalists, who were usually tweeting, scribbling on pads of paper or running back and forwards with giant cameras.
Then there was the socialising. At the EUWRC, there were always lunches, coffees and receptions. The latter basically meant that you got to dress up nicely and enjoy limitless amounts of Belgian beer, wine and food while networking with other journalists, project participants and members of the European Commission.
One of the great things about this event is that it draws a lot of people who are interested in similar issues and I was lucky to have some friends in town. There was Sarah, a PhD student currently doing some fieldwork in Brussels, who introduced me to a hilarious table of colleagues from the European Commission. There was also Jorge, a researcher whom I’d met at a Regional Studies Association conference last year, with whom I spent an evening enjoying some tasty Belgian fries.
Overall, each day consisted early mornings, late evenings and minimal sleep. Not that there was any time for the latter; I was either thinking, scribbling and searching for hashtags on Twitter, or running around trying to carry a handbag, laptop, notebook and pen while balancing a glass of champagne. Yes, it’s a hard life.
The Opening Session in the Hemicycle
Undoubtedly, one of the highlights for me was sitting up in the media gallery in the hemicycle of the European Parliament, watching the Opening Session of the EUWRC. The Opening Session itself, involving speeches and ‘interventions’ by various MEPs, was a little dry at times, the experience of being there was definitely worth it. Just check out this view.
As exciting as it was to sit in the hemicycle, I preferred the smaller workshops and the opportunities that we got to learn about specific projects and hear from people who had benefited from them. These sessions brought a more local, personal perspective to the table. I attended workshops on entrepreneurship, cross-border cooperation at the EU’s external borders and the integration of migrants into the labour market. I’ll be writing about what I learned in these sessions in upcoming posts, so you’ll get to hear a bit more detail about those.
I preferred the smaller workshops and the opportunities that we got to learn about specific projects and hear from people who had benefited from them. These sessions brought a more local, personal perspective to the table.
A final highlight was the opportunity that we journalists received to interview the finalists of the Regio Stars Awards. On Monday 10th October, 23 projects from all over the EU that had been shortlisted were available for us to interview. I talked to Project Managers from two different projects from Germany and Croatia. For me, this was a lot more valuable than listening to policymakers harp on about statistics; it was a chance to see what EU Cohesion Policy had really achieved in practice.
The Regio Stars Awards Ceremony and Reception
Then we had the Regio Stars Awards on Tuesday evening was an exciting event where the winners in each category were presented with a prize. Unfortunately my favourite projects didn’t win but there were some excellent ones that took home prizes, including the Academy of Social Policy from Poland, which brought together individuals from marginalised communities or in difficult situations and organisations which could help them re-integrate into society. After the presentation of awards at the BOZAR gallery, there were some delicious Belgian food and beverages to enjoy.
Overall, the week was very full on but a valuable chance to learn more about EU Cohesion Policy and how it is impacting the lives of individuals throughout Europe and beyond its borders. For me, it was an opportunity to learn more about what it’s like to be a journalist in the so-called ‘Brussels Bubble’ and to practice some skills in multi-tasking, note-taking and interviewing that I can now apply to future events I attend. I now hope to take what I learned in Brussels and use the experience to pursue my passion for writing and researching.
I’d like to thank the European Commission for sending me to Brussels to cover the European Week of Regions and Cities. It was truly a memorable and inspiring experience. I’ll be writing several more detailed blogs on some of the sessions I attended so stay tuned for more!