Thursday, April 22, 2010

What the European Union Means to Me

A months or so ago, a friend who is also studying abroad (but with significantly less email access) and I had a brief email exchange in which we attempted to summarize the vast breadth and nuance of our respective experiences into a few paragraphs.  I told her that I had been basically just been taking classes having to do with the European Union.  She said that she thought it must be cool being learn about the EU while experiencing its impact on my day-to-day life.  At the time, I didn't really think much of it.  I was mostly learning about the complex treaty-based history of what was and is an extremely non-transparent and sometime deliberately confusing institution*, so it was a bit difficult to see its direct impact on my life.  However, after a few months, I thought about it again and decided that, being that this is my sole academic focus while I'm here, I should take some time to consider that question.  I present you with:

6 Ways the European Union Affects My Everyday Life
By Evan Rolfe

1.  Things cost less now then when I arrived in Spain.  When I got here, one euro was about 1 1/2 dollars.  Now it's about about 1 1/3 dollars.  Why?  The EU (or at least the eurozone) is a complete monetary union, but only partially an economic union.  They sort of halfheartedly put controls on national fiscal policy, in that there are a ton of rules without any enforcement mechanisms.  Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, among others, have massive deficits in direct contradiction these rules, but there's nothing anyone can do about it.  So, when Greece's problems came to the surface, Spain's currency depreciated.  Now, things cost less for me.  In fairness, Spain will face a similar crisis soon, but I'll probably be gone by then.

2.  Everywhere I go, I see a European flag.  It's EVERYWHERE.  On my money.  At my university.  On some of the traffic circles.  It's funny, really, because since the EU doesn't really have a lot of symbols (or even a unified name due to language issues), so they just stick the flag all over the place.  The result is perhaps even more striking because Spanish people (except the most conservative ones) don't like putting up their flag.  I think they're all a little too wary of nationalism.  In the autonomous communities with stronger identities, they just put up the regional flag, but in Madrid, they generally put flags up in groups of two to four (European, Spanish, Madrid community, Madrid municipality) just to show that they aren't trying to make a political statement.  It really just warms the cockles of my heart and it's probably pretty good for instilling a European identity in the next generation.  Soon, we will live in a world of freedom and consolidation!

3.  Everyone under 30 is dating a foreigner.  I'm sure whoever thought up the Erasmus program, the EU-wide study abroad system, had education in mind as the primary purpose.  Today, however, it is a way for Europeans to party for a semester in a foreign country in a manner that looks good on their resumes.  Part of this partying involves varies sorts of romantic contacts.  Whatever it is about the experience, everyone seems to end up dating someone they met during Erasmus even after the semester has ended.  Eventually, it seems, they all get married and/or live together, thanks to the EU guaranteed free movement of workers (or, as the case may be, free movement of systematically unemployed people).  It seems like these relationships are disproportionately between Spaniards and Italians.  I think it has to do with the language similarities.  It's also why my internship office mostly speaks Italian (much to my confusion) when our boss is away.

4.  There are some non-Americans in my economics class.  Officially, my econ of the EU class is full of Spanish kids.  For some reason, they don't show up.  Almost everyone (sometimes everyone, depending on the day) is foreign - half American, half Erasmus.  I guess if it weren't for the EU, it would just be like being in a Spanish class in the U.S.  My EU politics class is probably about half non-Spanish, but has near complete attendance for some reason.

5.  There's a special EU section of the propaganda they put on the metro TVs.  The newer metro cars have little TVs that play a loop of news, mostly showing all the great things the various levels of government have done today to make Madrid a wonderful place.  Every once in a while, a waving European flag briefly flashes across the screen and we are treated to a segment on all the things the EU has poured money into.  It's a good time.  Sometimes, I even see the back of my friend's head.  She works in the Madrid office in Brussels and they don't have a ton of stock footage.

6.  Cell phone calls in other EU countries aren't that expensive.  When I went on the tour of the European Parliament last spring (in Brussels - I'm still hoping to see the seat in Strasbourg), the key accomplishment they pointed to was the mandatory ceiling on roaming charges for cell phones within the EU.  Over spring break, I spent much less than I expected to on cell phone charges thanks to the European Parliament.

In other news, the man who lives above me has started to get loud again.  Two days ago, he started playing bad heavy metal very loudly before repeatedly dropping things and screaming.  He woke me up yesterday morning by dropping things again.  I mentioned this to Pilar, and she said that she regularly complains to the building supervisor about it.  The man is apparently not only involved in drugs, but was also abandoned by his parents at the age of 18 (does that count?) and has some issues.  I told her not to worry about it and that it doesn't really bother me since I sleep with earplugs (this was pre-being woken up).  Pilar then told me how she always tells her friends when they ask about me how tolerant I am.  I was shocked.  I've never been called "tolerant" in my life, though variants of "intolerant" have been used semi-regularly. I guess it just goes to show that social norms are relative.   Since there's no Spanish social norm against complaining too often (actually, it seems the opposite sometimes), I come off as nice and tolerant.

*For example, the EU "Constitution" is called the "Consolidated versions of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union".  It is about 400 pages long with clauses such as:
Where, pursuant to the Treaties, the Council acts on a proposal from the Commission, it may amend that proposal only by acting unanimously, except in the cases referred to in paragraphs 10 and 13 of Article 294, in Articles 310, 312 and 314 and in the second paragraph of Article 315. (Article 293 TFEU)
By the way, in reading that, you should be realize that "Council" refers to the Council of the European Union (also unofficially referred to as the "Council of Ministers"), not the European Council (a similar EU institution also governed by these treaties) or the Council of Europe (a non-EU body that is still occasionally referenced).

 I am so psyched for Europe Day!

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