European Legal Studies Masters: a College of Europe Insight
Inside a quaint, cosy cafe nestled into a cobbled street, my friend and I settle into chairs, amid the hubbub of English, French, German, Dutch and Flemish currently steaming up the windows. We’ve joined locals and tourists indulging in brunch dates, family catch-ups and an escape, far from their studies. In spite of our English conversation, the waiter asks whether we speak French, ‘Oui ça marche’ comes my casual reply, glad we seem to blend into this multilingual crowd. We take off the several layers we’ve donned to combat the Belgian cold, our eyes scanning the bagels on offer. Brugge was the medieval beating heart of trade in Flanders, decorated with stone streets, canals and bridges, filled with the enticing scents of waffles, chocolate and frites, alive with languages and culture. This quiet haven is far from the bustle of London, or even Brussels. Life seems to move at a slower pace, probably limited by the charming yet uneven cobbled roads, slippery under the February drizzle. Though the whole city (indeed, the whole of Belgium!) seems international and lively, one aspect of Brugge seems almost founded on these principles and it’s what’s brought me to this Sunday brunch hotspot: the College of Europe.
My companion is Denise Osei - a UK Citizen and Dutch national - a friend I studied alongside in Sheffield. We’ve had a weekend to catch up, she’s patiently endured me dragging her around her new home, drooling over waffles and snapping away with my camera. Much of the weekend has been spent trying to delve into and catch up on our latest adventures, my life in London, and hers, completing a Masters at the College of Europe, here in Brugge. I’m keen to introduce you to Denise, to share a flavour of what international postgraduate study entails and the opportunities it offers.
As Denise’s veggie bagel arrives and she whips out a tell-tale vegan-wannabe bamboo straw to poke into her orange juice, and I dig into my distinctly non-vegan bacon, avocado and egg feast, washed down with an espresso, let me invite you to join us...
Denise, tell us a bit about what you’re doing here in Brugge.
I’m studying a Masters in European Legal Studies at the College of Europe. The programme consists of several modules which are compulsory (for example, the internal market, competition law, external relations and judicial remedies) and some modules, usually seminars, which I get to select myself. I’ve chosen things like data protection and studies on the digital single market along with one French module, droit penal, not to mention a thesis of 15,000 words (including footnotes). What’s quite cool about studying here is that everyone is doing the same masters (either in law, politics, or international relations and diplomacy), but there’s still the opportunity to personalise and tailor your study to explore your own interests, with some opportunities for interdisciplinary study as well.
What made you choose Brugge and the College of Europe?
I was torn between the College of Europe here in Brugge and the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. I would have loved Florence but I’d already spent a year in the South of Belgium for my year abroad whilst studying in Sheffield; I knew and liked the culture, I can speak English and French and the location in the centre of continental Europe is fun if you have the opportunity and time to travel. I got a scholarship to come here, and the opportunity to learn Dutch, as a Dutch national, was something important for me.
I looked at universities in London, but decided that the experience I would have in Europe would be different and was something I wanted to experience, rather than staying in the UK - I wasn't wrong!
You’ve chosen the College of Europe over the bustle of London, and Flemish and Dutch over the easier and sexier Italian (Dutch is an impossible jumble of letters and sounds and we’ve already joked that Flemish is probably labelled as such because it sounds so flemmy!) – waffles over gelato… so what are you actually doing here?
My course covers everything from the four freedoms (internal market, capital, establishment, movement of services and people), to the evolution of the acquis communautaire from the Treaty of Rome to Lisbon, the birth of the institutions and of course the Court of Justice (and its sometimes questionable interpretation over time!), areas of shared and exclusive competence and the evolution of EU citizenship (how it has been recognised and defined historically and presently). You can really see the evolution of the Court of Justice in all of my modules, which has been cool. You could say I should be an expert on EU legal affairs after this Masters!
Alongside study, I’ve done things like mooting, study trips and things like compact seminars (an opportunity to consider different perspectives on topics covered in class or not at all, delivered by external speakers) which offer not just further insight into your study, but sometimes an element of interdisciplinary study, to delve deeper into specific topics. They are all great at if you have the time to go!
What does a typical day look like for you doing your Masters?
I guess I’m normally up at 07:15ish, usually do the morning routine: reading my bible and getting ready for the day and catching up with friends in my residence at breakfast. Meals are communal here, so breakfast starts at 07.30-9.00ish when we all eat together. Typically, class starts at 09:00, but sometimes it can start earlier, more like the time we’d all have to get to school for (if you can remember back to those days!) and lasts for four hours (you usually get a break, but how many breaks and for how long just depends on the lecturer!). Campus is quite small; we have two main buildings and less than 400 students altogether, so it’s not like a regular university. Students are from all over the world and range in age. After class is lunch, which is, again, provided and communal (menus are provided before the start of every week). I might have class after lunch, or have some time to prep for class, read for my thesis (since this is the season I am currently in), make notes etc. Dinner is communal at 18:00-19:30 and after that I might have Dutch class, do work, relax with housemates, or I might have class until late. Most days I have contact time, I even had class on a Saturday and Sunday once, but some weeks are quieter than others, with the occasional day off.
I’ve been struck by just how international Denise’s experience is. The College of Europe seems like an international little bubble of happiness and unity! It’s more social even than my English experience, and far more so than my experience of French university. Here, each week a different nationality is celebrated, I’m told. Over breakfast on Saturday, a bucket of Nutella is brought out and Denise explains that last week was Italian week, so Ferrero donated 6kg of Nutella for students’ breakfasts, students enjoyed a cheese and wine night, and pasta seemed abundant across campus. No wonder Denise seems happy to be here!
I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of a Dutch national enrolling in Dutch language class, which apparently was some cause for embarrassment for Denise. She’s diligently taught me the basics. The language is actually hilarious; I’ve stuck to romantic languages in my learning so I’ve laughed my way along Brugge’s streets cheerily chirping “bedankt” “dank je” and “alstublieft” as walk along, or reading my way through children’s books in the book shops we’ve browsed, much to the amusement (and I fear slight embarrassment!) of Denise!
Dutch isn’t the only language Denise is here to work on…
My classes are bilingual, taught in either French or English, and as a result of the language rule you're able to try your hand at both, another reason why I wanted to come, to continue to improve my French. Most people here are at least bilingual if not trillingual (some can speak up to five languages! Of course, I realise this might not necessarily be representative of the whole of Europe) and can chat in whichever language is being spoken, or is preferred. Since my thesis is on Brexit, I was given the option to choose which language I write in, and have opted to stick with English – 15,000 words in French seems a lot, even after a year abroad, and my Masters, to improve my language skills.
When you say lectures and seminars, are those very similar to lectures and seminars in the U.K.?
Lectures, ha lectures, usually they last four hours, you will have breaks, in between which are the lecturer talking at you, mostly. Sometimes there’s a chance for interjection or questions, but it is very much you taking notes and the lecturer talking. There's a lot of rote learning. Sometimes they may use PowerPoint presentations, but that shouldn’t be expected! Seminars are kind of the same to be honest, they’re smaller groups and can involve some dialogue but can also be a lecturer talking at you.
This is definitely something I noticed even doing a year abroad in France; I had wondered whether it would be different at a Masters level, but it seems largely the same. In the UK (and US, to the best of my knowledge), law students are usually treated to engaging lecturers, PowerPoints littered with a few words, phrases and perhaps even pictures! This was exceptionally rare in France, where a lecture consisted of a professor (sometimes wearing bright red robes, like a barristers’) sitting down and reading notes for three hours. Different teaching learning styles are definitely something to be aware of if you’re considering study abroad!
You also mentioned a thesis, what does that consist of?
It will be a 15000-word piece (including footnotes) which I research and write fairly independently. I’ve chosen to do it on the legal implications of Brexit on residence rights for EU nationals within the UK. Initially, I thought to do it on UK nationals in the Union, but I think this would be too much for the word count although I probably can't completely exclude them so I’m currently planning how I will go about writing about these two respective positions.
Denise looks slightly overwhelmed by the thought of 15,000 words, whilst I try my best (unsuccessfully) to bite my tongue and stop myself from moaning that the 3,000-word piece I’m currently writing for my own LPC/MSC really isn’t enough to explore and express everything I would like to commit to paper. She smiles and I remember the advice and faces of my final year lecturers as they implored me to saw out chunks of my drafting and focus my work. The reality of a Masters, Denise tells me, is that some programmes can be more research-heavy, others more study-focussed. She’s opted for a melange, but this can easily be tailored to your own personal preference and interest.
What made you choose a thesis based on citizenship and Brexit?
Why citizenship? The passion started because I began studying EU law and discovered citizenship in my first couple of years at university back in Sheffield (probably helped by the fact that one of our undergraduate university lecturers specialised in supranational citizenship, was absolutely epic in her research and delivery, and we’ve essentially been fangirling her ever since!). As a UK Citizen and Dutch national, and with Brexit, citizenship is something which piqued my curiosity and which I’ve always had a personal interest in, I guess because it personally affects me. I’ve always been interested in immigration and civil procedures, the question of citizenship and why some passports have more value than others. I find listening to judicial reviews on deportation orders fascinating (although, don't get me wrong, equally heart-breaking). If I’m in a big city, like London, I usually go to the Courts for fun, but immigration tribunals are probably one my favourite places *smirks from me, who can think of nothing worse than voluntarily sitting in a court to watch the tedious performance unravelling in a courtroom* My background in being international myself, and studying EU law at an undergraduate level have just fuelled an interest and the project.
You mentioned some study trips as part of your course, what did they consist of and how did you find them?
Yes, there have been two study trips, firstly to Flanders fields. It was at the start of the course and quite fitting, it related to the whole EU project: why the EU exists, where the EU came from, a past of war and eventual unification of countries of Europe and an end to war. It was quite a prevalent motive and quite valuable to set the scene before the courses really began.
The second trip was more career-focussed, looking at institutions. We went to the European Investment Bank (EIB), where they outlined the work they do and pitched about how and why we could/should work with them. We learned about what the Court does, the work of referendaires, what assistants do and what life in Luxembourg would be like if we worked for the Court of Justice. We also visited the EFTA court, the organisation which inter alia Norway and Switzerland are part of, which exists for the economic free trade area.
I went to EPRS (European Parliamentary Research Service), which is basically a think tank (note: think tanks are research-based organisations which undertake research usually for States, and produce reports almost half-way between the detailed, but long-term project nature of academia, and short-term but briefer analyses of news reporters); it helps the Parliament research areas of policy; this work is used to assist daily workings as well as background research work. I’m quite into research and writing, so it was fun to learn about internships there.
We went to the Council as well. Not the Council of Europe, or the European Council (confusing I know!); it’s the Council of Ministers, where the heads of State meet to decide on pressing European issues.
It was interesting to see the institutions, rather than just study them on paper, and hear a bit personally about what they do. I was fascinated by translation services and how important this is; there are 27 Member States and everyone speaks a different language!
Over the weekend we’ve joked about my classic-Kim 5- and 10- year plans, but what are you thinking you’d like to explore over the next year or years?
The second study trip I mentioned really got me thinking about what I might like to do right after the college, to get a decent amount of professional experience to apply for a BPTC (the LPC-equivalent if you’re looking to become a barrister in the UK) and eventually pupillage. I'm thinking it might be nice to stay in Belgium a bit longer, once I’ve finished. We’ll see, I'm applying for a few positions here and taking advantage of the career days! I got to do some networking during the second study trip, and ask more about what people do, which has been really useful and has given me more networks to keep in touch with!
I’d like to get some experience in the legal sector, whatever that might look like - I'm very open, whether policy-based, legal policy associated with the EU commission, getting a job as a paralegal, internship, traineeships, research-based initiatives, you name it! I think it’s important for me to get some more experience, with the view to taking the BPTC and becoming a barrister and now's the time to explore - I love to read and write and where possible showcase, so anything that allows me to do all of this is, in my eyes, fantastic.
In the UK, doing a postgraduate course in law seems to be a step towards specialism or academia. I know it’s not necessarily the same in mainland Europe, so in general, what are other students looking to do after their postgraduate study at the College of Europe?
Generally, some students have applied to the bar in their respective countries and are planning to be lawyers. Several others would like to apply for the EPSO which is the concours you need to succeed in in order to work for the EU institutions as a permanent employee, there’s a lot of competition to get a traineeship and from what I've seen and heard the tests consist of abstract reasoning and literacy tests - perhaps similar to what you get at a test centre. You can’t do EPSO if you’re British unfortunately, but if you have dual-nationality, you could do that or think about that (there are other ways to get internationally qualified, if that’s something students are interested in; it’s usually easier once you have qualified in English and Welsh law, and may involve time practicing abroad and possibly further exams and language tests, but it’s possible!). Others are already lawyers, sponsored to be here, to be more educated and go back to their previous jobs, there are people who have come from the civil service, sponsored by civil service, to learn more about EU law. Some people are looking to do further study at the EUI in Florence, that seems to be quite popular for people in the College of Europe.
Career days and networking are coming up now, where we can meet people currently working in the industry, usually College of Europe alumni in the public or private sector. I met someone from a Magic Circle firm in Brussels and had a fun conversation seeing how your work for a firm in London might compare to life in Brussels! I’ve met people from Deloitte and a Spanish law firm and had similar conversations about opportunities and insight. I've considered perhaps some experience in corporate law is warranted for the sake of commercial awareness, but, I still think I’d largely leave the commercial side of things to you ;)