Mention “the spirit of Bruges” and many British people will think about the famously Eurosceptic speech Margaret Thatcher delivered at the College of Europe on 20 September 1988 and the Bruges Group thinktank that has grown out of it.
The prime minister started by congratulating the organisers for their courage: “If you believe some of the things said and written about my views on Europe, it must seem rather like inviting Genghis Khan to speak on the virtues of peaceful coexistence!”
Yet she went on to warn that “Europe never would have prospered and never will prosper as a narrow-minded, inward-looking club” and also to claim that it was “folly” to try to fit different nations into “some sort of identikit European personality”.
Perhaps the most famous soundbite, however, was Thatcher’s statement that “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
But at the college itself, and translated into French, the phrase “esprit de Bruges” refers to a particular atmosphere that enthusiasts claim makes the institution unique.
Jörg Monar, who took over as rector in September after a long association with the college, first came to teach there for a year in the early 1990s. Even then, he recalls, he had already “heard the myth of the esprit de Bruges and was very sceptical. But I could see over the year how it really transformed the students. At the final session, there were tears in many eyes because this was the last time they would all be together – which I hadn’t witnessed anywhere else.”
The college, a university institute of postgraduate studies whose alumni include Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now takes in 320 students at Bruges, and 120 more at its Natolin campus in Warsaw, Poland, for intensive year-long advanced master’s degrees in areas such as European economic studies and European Union international relations and diplomacy studies. They are taught in both English and French, largely by 180 visiting professors from across Europe and beyond.
Apart from the programmes themselves, Monar sees three additional elements, which are probably to be found together nowhere else, as crucial.
An intensive selection process, focusing on “motivation and personality as well as study results” (and often relying on national selection boards), ensures the calibre and commitment of the students.
Once they reach Bruges, the college’s study environment swiftly “transforms them into quite a closely knit body” through living together from breakfast to dinner while pursuing a challenging academic programme.
And there is also a significant package of extracurricular activities, with frequent visits to EU institutions, opportunities to play simulation games in the European Council buildings themselves and “a constant stream of senior officials, diplomats and politicians who come to the college to address the students”.
Europe, up close and personal
Although Monar spent 18 years working full- or part-time in the UK, most recently as professor of contemporary European studies at the University of Sussex, he claims that the College of Europe experience has an extra dimension that is missing from even the best master’s courses elsewhere: “Students live Europe, with all its tensions, all the cultural barriers they have to overcome on a daily basis. It is difficult for big universities to create a similar framework.”
The new rector has certainly taken over in interesting times. The troubles of the eurozone have led, he acknowledges, to “a fundamental crisis” and “a very reactive and sometimes depressed reaction among political elites in the member states”. A mood of austerity following the economic crash has put inevitable pressures on funding.
So although its graduates no longer go almost exclusively into EU institutions, does the college nonetheless embody a set of values now regarded with increasing scepticism well beyond diehard Thatcherites and members of the UK Independence Party? How can it revivify its ideals while also ensuring its financial future?
On the first point, Monar stresses that “the college as an institution is not aiming at any specific form of organisation of Europe, not committed to a fully fledged European union – there is a perception we are aiming at that, but it is not the case.
“However, since its inception in 1949 it has been committed to lowering the barriers between European countries, to increasing the synergy potential and mutual understanding, because the founding fathers of the college – including Winston Churchill, whose name features prominently on the founding document – realised the potential of Europe,” he says.
But, he adds, this “doesn’t necessarily mean by centralisation and federal structures”. What the college seeks to do is to “understand the challenges of cooperation, how they can be surmounted, in order to arrive at a better deal for all. In that sense, there is an idealistic element in its mission, but it is not committed, for example, to the establishment of a European government – which may be an option but is not something our professors would actively advocate in their teaching.”
Nevertheless, the rector acknowledges, a process of self-selection tends to mean that “someone who has a fundamentally sceptical attitude towards the EU would not even apply”.
Facing the fiscal challenge
Perhaps inevitably, “with the EU facing an austerity context” and higher education “not necessarily a winner in periods of austerity”, Monar sees the most important challenge as financial. He is therefore “seeking more external funding for chairs” so as to “increase in-house capacity for student supervision and research”, provided the money does not come with strings attached that would threaten academic independence. And he is also looking for sponsorship for study grants.
Despite Thatcher’s provocative intervention, the Major government increased the number of grants for British students. Under the coalition, UK support has been cut back to just five full study cost grants from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for those Monar describes as “current fast-stream civil servants committed to a permanent career move into the European civil service”.
Although there are also three further grants from the Scottish government, one from the Welsh and two tuition fees-only scholarships funded by private donors, Monar says he would like to see “more grants for UK students who are not officials, because we think there’s a much wider interest”.
In terms of the actual programme, he points to a number of initiatives now under active but cautious consideration.
One is the development of e-learning. Another, “in the light of the new trade negotiations with the US and other efforts to revitalise transatlantic relations”, is a two-year transatlantic programme in partnership with a US university or universities, in which students would spend the first year on a taught course in the US and the second writing a dissertation with “a traineeship element” in Bruges. The third is a move towards more transdisciplinary programmes, in law and politics for example, to build on the success of existing MAs such as the one in law and economics.
The appointment of the first professor of European civilisation on the Natolin campus also illustrates a desire to bring a richer cultural element into the programmes. Monar hopes, for example, to invite European Nobel prizewinners for literature to give talks “so they can tell the students what Europe means from their perspectives”.
Yet, for all these necessary adjustments, the new rector stresses the continuing relevance of the “idealistic element” in the college’s mission – and the role he believes its graduates can play in getting Europe back on track.
“Their response to the crisis has not been to surrender arms,” he explains, “but to say, ‘Let’s try together to find a response to these challenges.’ ”
Monar adds: “There are a lot of challenges Europeans have in common – the welfare state, ageing populations and so on. What makes our student body distinctive is that they come with the idealism to find solutions. That is very much part of their esprit, well beyond the core teaching. It makes the Collège d’Europe a nice place to have responsibility for.”