A Summer Journey into the European Union: Some Reflections

By Karol Gil-Vasquez

After a semester marked by a great faculty-led trip to Greece, I had the great opportunity this summer to pack my suitcase and board several planes to visit, once again, the historical, beautiful, and troubled lands of the European Union. This time, although the flight was a little shorter, the entire journey was longer.  My destinations, despite their proximity to one another, were worlds apart from each other: Spain and Norway.

This summer trip was not only a great opportunity for professional and scholarly development, by connecting with former colleagues and friends, but also a magnificent learning experience to panoramically observe the political transformations taking place across the Western Hemisphere. After all, following the mantra of the globalized world we live in, one could agree that the world is more connected than ever; technology has allowed us to disseminate pretty much anything we want to distant parts of the world through a simple stroke on a keyboard. However, we must be mindful that the world is not only sharing the benefits that accompany a market, but also, the political challenges involved in free trade.  Specifically, there are disputes that have to do with the free flows of labor, an economic term linked to the immigration and refugee crises, and controversial topics raised by ongoing political debates in the EU and the US.

Bilbao, Spain
BasqueUniversityIn Spain, I attended the Association for Social Economics 13th Summer School organized by the University of Basque Country’s Department of Economics. The program included seminars and sessions on theoretical themes. Personal conversations with former colleagues and the ASE school’s participants focused on Brexit, Trump, the Spanish and Greek crises. According to economics professors from the University of Leeds, the Brexit debate took an unexpected turn that placed immigrant workers as well as refugees at the center of Britain’s political debate. Our exchanges shared the surprise at how the global financial crisis has not been directly identified by the British government, let alone British citizens, as the engine behind British economic debacle and the social instability experienced by the European Union right after the collapse of the banking industry in 2008.

Bilbao, Spain is located in the province of Biscay within the autonomous community of the Basque Country, in the north central part of Spain. A relatively young city when compared to other Spanish destinations, Bilbao is located a short driving distance from the Cantabria region, known for its peculiar Basque culture and mysterious deep-blue ocean. A vibrant and artistic metropolis, Bilbao allows tourists to contemplate historical and modern works of architecture, the Guggenheim Museum being one of its emblems. The city’s scenery is harmonious and elegant, adorned by streets portraying expensive retail stores, Starbucks, and neat architectural sanctuaries that for a moment, make it difficult to believe that Spain has one of the EU’s highest unemployment and poverty rates after Greece. As of 2016, the Spanish economy has a 20 percent unemployment rate, the rates increases to 45 percent among youth, and 20 percent of its population is at risk of destitution.

SpainEuropeanUnion While walking through these streets, I saw middle-aged men requesting diapers and formula for their infant children while sitting right outside of the luxurious stores that put a real picture to the staggering economics statistics that I have read. More so, the commotion generated by desperate whistles of African immigrants running along the streets after packing up their merchandise when police cars approached them, reminded me of similar encounters in the impoverished cities of southern Italy. The contrast to the beautiful scenery of this European city has a lot to do with the massive income inequality throughout the world. The pattern is the same: people who are able to spend their earnings, buying expensive goods, coexist with those who are unable to buy or sell the necessary goods for survival.

Bergen, Norway
During my visit, Norway was in the middle of its summer solstice, which allowed me to appreciate the darkness of the night, as the light of the sun illuminated my entire week’s stay. Bergen, once a center of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire, is located on Norway’s southwestern coast, surrounded by mountains and fjords, including Sodnefjord, the country’s longest and deepest. After accepting an invitation by Prof. Hans Offerdal, a former colleague at the University of Central Missouri, I presented my research on the Political Economy of Mexico’s Organized Crime at the Global Seminar Series organized by Cantabricothe University of Bergen’s Department of Latin American Studies. The academic exchange was productive and stimulating, and even more so, the conversations that followed with Norwegian and Mexican professors and students. Unsurprisingly, it was brought to my attention that the semi-socialist Scandinavian region that prides itself on holding the world’s highest human development index, is currently experiencing a political and social transition. Such transition comes as a response to the EU’s economic turmoil and the constant inflows of refugees and economic migrants.

While walking through the streets of Bergen’s city center, these flows become evident as the picturesque streets of a Nordic town were adorned by restaurants offering Indian, Pakistani, and Vietnamese food. I was surprised to find a small Mexican restaurant on the first floor of a well-maintained medieval looking building, right next to the city’s port. During the city square’s tour, the world became even closer for me the moment I encountered Doctors without Borders. The non-profit organization was running a tolerance awareness campaign by performing Middle East dances to an attentive crowd. It was a pleasant surprise to come across the very same organization that took care of the refugee children at Idomeni, near Thessaloniki, Greece, the refugee camp where Nichols students and I saw the non-profit in action in the Spring. The tolerance campaign was running in an attempt to prevent repeats of the violence that took place in Swedish and Danish communities where the refugees were relocated. After the continuous arrival of refugees, Norwegian’s community organizations have taken steps to prevent the rise of a nationalist front that claim Norway for Norwegians, my colleague Hans explained.

Returning home
Greenland1On my flight back to the U.S., the captain made an announcement: “it’s your lucky day,” requesting us to open our shades and look out the window. The sky was clear and Greenland’s virgin land was in front of our eyes. I gazed through the window, seeing mountains capped with snow expanding miles into the distance. This moment was a time to reflect on what seemed to be scattered dots during my journeys throughout the European Union. When thinking about the current U.S. presidential debates on the immigrant issue, I could see this controversy as not an isolated phenomenon that pertains exclusively to the U.S.  There is without doubt an ongoing transformation in the Western Hemisphere. This transformation has involved an economic crisis generated by an unrestrained, unregulated globalized financial market, which eight years after, people appear to forget. In the aftermath of the economic crisis, some countries are being challenged to absorb the masses of people who have become obsolete and disposable for a globalized world. The obsoletes and disposables, as Zygman Bauman—influential social thinker—calls them, are the thousands of economic migrants (illegal immigrants) and/or war migrants (refugees) that continue to pour over the borders of the European Union and the U.S. In the last decades, these borders have remained wide open to the incessant flows of goods, services, and capital. But somehow, remain half-way open to the free flows of people. This is precisely the political arrangement that makes the global market work for some, at the expense of a majority Other.


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One Response to A Summer Journey into the European Union: Some Reflections

  1. Boyd Brown III says:


    What an amazing trip. I would love to have the opportunity to return to either Norway or Spain someday.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and the opportunities it presented to you.

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