Max Roger Taylor is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Bath, funded through the ESRC’s 1+3 studentship on a politics and international studies pathway. His doctoral research focuses on the extent to which the EU is practically coordinating and integrating its values into EU-China diplomatic dialogues.
All opinions expressed by the author are solely their own and do not reflect those of the Economic and Social Research Council or the University of Bath
- Introducing Brussels
While the most glamorous and challenging portion of my fieldwork to organise was in China, May-June 2017, my primary target for research interviews was Brussels, due to its status as the capital of the EU and home to most of its key institutions. More specifically, in concert with their colleagues at the EU delegation to China in Beijing, the diplomats that orchestrate and participate in EU-China diplomatic dialogues (namely those from the European Commission and the European External Action Service) are based in Brussels, largely concentrated in the (unofficially named) European Area.
For those unfamiliar with Brussels, if one is honest, it’s not the most immediately attractive city in the world. There are some beautiful parts and some impressive examples of historical and modern (read Art Deco) Belgian architecture, but overwhelmingly it appears grey and gritty to the visitor. Like many examples in the UK, Brussels has expanded in the post-War period in a functional manner, as historical buildings were ripped down in favour of non-aesthetic, yet practical alternatives. The European Area itself is somewhat awe-inspiring for someone like myself that studies the EU, but I imagine that others would find what is ultimately a concrete-financial-district-type-vibe, a bit oppressive.
For myself, after completing visit number five to Brussels since beginning my 1+3 programme with the SWDTP (I visited Brussels twice during the MRes for very short periods), I am still a bit ambivalent about the city. There is a superb buzz about the European Area. It is very much a HAPPENING sort of place, as you turn on the news and see live reports being recorded just a block away, or take part in one of the many events hosted by think-tanks, NGOs and EU itself, or in my case, conduct interviews with individuals involved in diplomatic dialogues with China. In effect, you are at the cutting-edge of European politics, as I imagine you would be at the cutting-edge of British politics if you were going in and out of buildings in Whitehall. History is being made around you as Eurocrats, international diplomats and lobbyists flow in and out of the various institutions.
In this context, it is interesting for an EU nerd like myself just walking around and observing all the different EU buildings (let alone having the privilege of conducting research fieldwork within them). Geographically, while the main Commission and Council buildings, along with the European External Action Service (EEAS) headquarters are clustered around the Schuman roundabout, the majority of Commission departments (called Directorates General or DGs) and the European Parliament are dotted around an adjoining diplomatic district, with two four lane (very busy) roads running through it.
However, you can always find solace in the European Area. Parc Cinquantenaire lies at the far side of the Schuman roundabout and behind the EEAS building. It is a rather beautiful park populated by green and yellow Parakeets, crows and avid runners, as well as being adorned with a stunning triumph arch, acting as a centrepiece to the Parc and its significance in celebrating 50 years of Belgian Independence (in 1880). There are also a number of other little park areas spread out amongst the grid-like mass of the European area between Parc Cinquantenaire and Parc de Bruxelles, my personal favourite being Parc Leopold next to the rather nice European Parliament building (many buildings are pretty grim looking in this part of town), which is home to a very nice lake, complete with ducks and (rather large) geese.
It is worth noting that Brussels has been heavily militarised since 2015 for the purpose of counter- terrorism. Around the town centre, in key train stations and patrolling around the European Area, you will see groups of soldiers in woodland camouflage and fully equipped. As a Brit, unused to seeing armed police, let alone the military, it’s quite a shocker. Up until my final trip to Brussels, you would also see soldiers guarding the doorways to key EU buildings – from what I understand Brussels is gradually seeking to demobilise the military presence.
For tourist purposes, the Grand Place should be your key destination. The historical square is genuinely impressive, populated by fairy-tale like buildings, covered with unique detailing, such as the hundreds of statues on the Brussels Town Hall, with its very tall (315ft) and slightly leaning spire, the gothic Museum of the City of Brussels and the surrounding buildings which were once the HQ’s for the city’s guilds, adorned with golden sculptures and friezes. Pictures definitely tell a thousand words on this one. From the Grand Place you can happily explore around, poking around the many shops, working your way through Belgian beers at the bars or treating yourself to the famous Belgian frites (chips fried, allowed to cool, then re-fried, accompanied by an impressive choice of sauces) or the very delicious Belgian waffles (cream and fresh strawberries option recommended). The food in Brussels is one of its greatest attributes in fact, you get the full continental food experience and supermarkets are mind-blowing for a Brit in terms of the range and quality of produce (hats-off particularly to the cheese, cold meat, beer, chocolate and fruit & veg).
In honesty, having visited a number of sights in Brussels during my trips, from a tourism perspective, the real treat with being located in Brussels is your proximity to Bruges. The stunning ‘Venice of the North’ is a beautiful medieval town only a 1.5 hr train ride away. If you are visiting Belgium for pleasure this should be your principal target. I am yet to explore other Belgian cities, but from what I have seen and heard, Ghent and Antwerp have some lovely parts, while the University town of Leuven, just 20mins from Brussels also comes recommended.
- Preparation and acclimatisation during overseas fieldwork: A Brussels case study
My first piece of advice for embarking on research fieldwork abroad would be to plan well in advance, make a physical list of everything you could possibly need and spread the necessary shopping trips/packing across multiple weekends. However, this is what I did and the weekend before I left for the first Brussels trip was still utter chaos. I found that time just sped up as my departure approached (this also happened with the China trip), with all the practicalities of living in another country, while being as prepared as possible for the interviews in advance, being a heck of a lot to concoct.
Nonetheless, the travel all took place according to plan for both trips and I had everything I needed in Brussels. I travelled domestically, from Bath Spa to London St Pancras and then took the rather wonderful Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels-Midi. The Eurostar is particularly excellent because there are no weight limits for your suitcases and you can carry two large suitcases and one piece of hand luggage (such as a laptop bag). The only downside is that lugging about all that luggage yourself is not much fun.
If you’re curious, the train enters the Channel tunnel about 40mins into the two-hour journey, lasting about 10 mins or so. The reason I mention this, is because without this knowledge you’ll probably be like me and assume that every time the train enters a tunnel you are going under the English Channel. It’s very anti-climactic when the sun quickly reappears, and you realise you are still in the UK. It’s also a pretty grim experience. Who’d have thought that between London and the Channel, it’s largely packed with featureless industrial warehouses. It is genuinely liberating when you emerge into French countryside and sleepy farms/villages on the continental side of the Channel Tunnel.
After arriving at Brussels-Midi, it is just a 10-15min train journey to Brussels-Schuman, the train station at the heart of the European Area. For those who have not experienced it before, it is pretty epic as you emerge from the underground escalator to be right in front of the cross shaped Berlaymont building (the European Commission’s central building) and see the rows of flag poles and fluttering EU flags (one for each member state). My short-let accommodation for both blocks of fieldwork was a mere 10-minute walk up Rue Franklin, a (relatively quiet) tributary road stretching out from the Berlaymont building. What’s interesting is that you are quickly swept away from the typically manic and fast paced European institutions and surrounded by traditional Belgian aristocratic terraced housing (the European Area is located in the historical Upper Town, where the aristocracy lived). The architecture is genuinely quite romantic with these old Brussels houses (often each one differs to some extent in style and detailing) and fortunately, the flats I stayed in for both of my visits to Brussels in 2017 were in one of these historical properties. The latest studio flat I stayed in for example had a rather lovely (original) mosaic floor. Crucially, the property came with a fully equipped kitchen, bed linen and towels.
While you are always limited in what you can bring abroad, in the Brussels context, I’d certainly bring what you can in terms of day-to-day necessities as things are either as expense as the UK or (often) more so, a situation not helped by the post-Brexit rate of the Pound to the Euro.
In terms of buying food in Brussels, there were a range of supermarkets nearby providing the full Belgian culinary experience. As already mentioned, food tends of be of a higher quality than in the UK, but it is generally more expensive than in the UK overall. Alcohol is a notable exception, the gorgeous beers and wines are notably cheaper, and in the case of the former, also far stronger (8.5%-9.5% is the norm) than is typical in the UK. However, if eating out, the quality is not only consistently better, as you’d expect across much of continental Europe, but you tend to pay a bit less than the UK.
Lastly, it is worth noting that it is quite a shock to the system appearing in another country, particularly, if like me, your grasp of the local language (ostensibly French in Brussels) is relatively weak. Even basic tasks like buying food and travelling become more complex and ultimately frustrating/stressful. Expect that it is going to be difficult to adapt and give yourself a good 3-5 days to properly acclimatise. Having done a lot of travelling this year, I can say it does get a bit easier and your adaption period becomes quicker as you know what activities you need to pursue to settle in as quickly as possible. Reflecting these dynamics, as also mentioned in my China blog, carve out a good couple of days free of any fieldwork commitments so you can focus on adjusting to your (temporary) new home.
- Conducting EU research fieldwork in Brussels using the elite interview method
What follows below are my experiences in pursuing research interviews in Brussels with the EU institutions, with a focus on how I carried out the elite interview method. While I am focusing particularly on the EU context, I feel that anyone conducting elite interviews will find my reflections useful. Using the below techniques, I have successfully conducted 45 interviews throughout my fieldwork in Brussels (x2) and Beijing this year, which typically lasted 1-2hrs each.
For my first block of fieldwork in Brussels, I started contacting interviewees about a month in advance, while this period was reduced to two weeks for my subsequent visit to Beijing and my return to Brussels. When it comes down to it, diplomats, like many elites are very busy, undertaking fast and furious jobs, where events change on a daily basis. As a result, even a couple of weeks’ notice can be hard for them to pin down specific dates/times, you’ll often get a contact me when you arrive in city X. Dates are often finalised at a week’s notice, so don’t panic if you don’t have 20 interviews arranged in advance of your trip. The majority of my interviews during all of my fieldwork visits were organised on the ground, at relatively short notice. Your interviewees can contact a colleague on your behalf and you can find yourself speaking to them the same day or the following morning.
In terms of identifying and securing interviews, it gets easier over time as you build networks and utilise the so-called snowball effect, as you ask interviewees for further pertinent contacts. Your history of interviews also serves to increase your scope of access as you emphasise the institutions/departments that you have already approached about your research, highlighting the project’s value to other prospective interviewees. It is important to also emphasise that the EU is unusually open and transparent in this context (contrary to the negative portrayals of a closed off and out of touch bureaucracy pedalled by many Eurosceptics) and there is an institutional culture of engaging with civil society where possible. You will have a harder time getting comparable access to individual EU member states.
One additional point – I’d recommend focusing your attention on working level officials as far as your topic allows. These individuals are most closely involved with the day-to-day action in a specific policy sector or bilateral relationship than those at the highest strategic levels, who also tend to be (unsurprisingly) harder to access and (necessarily) less open due to their more sensitive and ultimately political roles.
In terms of the interviews themselves, there is no magical formula, their success is largely dependent upon your own social skills and your capacity to display your expertise and build credibility. In-depth preparation is essential. In the context of my own research, which assesses the extent to which EU diplomats are practically coordinating and implementing the EU’s values in EU-China dialogues, I ensured that I knew in advance all of the latest developments in the policy sector in question as well as the key policy documents. You want to get straight to the point in terms of your research questions as quickly possible in these exchanges and avoid discussing any information that is publicly available, so as not to waste you or your interviewee’s time. However, it is always worth inquiring briefly about your interviewee’s background, which not only helps build rapport and context, but can often lead to you uncovering interesting new avenues for ad-hoc questions (e.g. if you discover that your participant worked in another pertinent past role, which is common in the EU and its tendency to rotate officials every four-years).
Interviews should ultimately reflect compelling conversations for both parties and you should internalise your questions (i.e. memorise them) and ask them where and when they fit naturally into the flow of the discussion. In my experience, I rarely looked down at the written questions and read them out. That being said, I tended to begin with a bit of structure, asking the broadest questions before the discussion takes a life of its own. Similarly, it is important to ensure that you maintain some control over the structure of the interview and ensure that the discussion stays relevant to your questions and crucially, that you cover all your areas of interest.
The compelling conversation interview dynamic is arguably the most rewarding for both parties and you’ll find that the more you progress with your fieldwork, the more your expertise and findings to date will be valued in discussions. As noted at the beginning of the section, my interviews tended to last from 1-2 hours on average. I’d recommend that you always type up some bullet points after each interview and built up some tentative findings as you go, this allows you to further sharpen and improve your questions in future interviews and probe interesting points made by your interviewees – the last thing you want is to discover lots of interesting questions you didn’t ask during the post-fieldwork analysis phase!
Beyond the interviews, I had the great privilege during my last trip to actually attend an EU-China dialogue as well as being invited to present my research at an internal event connected to the future of another high-profile dialogue with China. These rewarding opportunities particularly highlight the value of conducting social research based on the elite interview method, as you create networks and build interest in your research amongst the very target audience you wish to impact.