At the beginning of January, the Dutch newspaper NRC published a story under the heading The Brussels bubble is emptying, about the European capital city with a mainly pessimistic slant – because what will be left of the city after the COVID-19 crisis? Brussels is “the city to meet up with its headquarters for the EU, NATO, NGOs, and lobby offices,” the newspaper wrote. “The thousands of hotels, restaurants, pubs and conference hall facilitate this lively Brussels bubble of international bureaucrats.” But now the meeting halls and rooms remain empty, catering businesses are going under, EU civil servants will in the future have to work from home more often.
Maastricht University opened a campus in Brussel in 2010. Civil servants who work for European institutions, had a need for additional training which the UM could supply with all its Europe-orientated programmes, such as European Law School and European Studies related activities. For students, it is a unique operating base for a study trip. Alumni who work for the European Commission, for example, stop by to give or attend lectures or seminars, as well as to meet the current cohorts of students and share tips on how to make it in the ‘EU bubble’. As such, the Campus acts very much as a UM Embassy in the European capital. Another important pillar is the Research Community Hub. Researchers find each other through workshops or other meetings. Brussels’ location is favourable; it is easier to reach by aeroplane than Maastricht.
For Mariolina Eliantonio, professor at the Faculty of Law, who became Campus Brussels director a few months ago (together with Paul Stephenson, assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), there is no doubt at all: as soon as the COVID-19 measures are relaxed, Brussels will be full of life again. “Policy-making in the European Union is done partially informally. Meeting up in pubs and restaurants is almost as important as formal meetings. Maybe in the future, people will work more from home, but many will still have a need to meet up with others. Social life will return.” As the NRC quoted the founder of a Brussels lobby office in its article: “For lobbying, it will continue to be important that you can smell, see and feel the other person.”
The Campus board is therefore not worried about the future. The move to a larger building in 2018 was badly needed, because “we grew tremendously”, says communication manager Melissa Beltgens. In the 2018-2019 academic year, they had a record number of events: 156. Last year, despite the crisis and the rushed transition to online, the counter still reached a hundred activities by March 2020.
Almost half of those was education-related, such as the annual Data Protection Officer Certification Course, the European and International Tax Law course (both by the Faculty of Law), and a series of Art and Law training courses (part of the executive Master’s of Cultural Leadership by UMIO).
There has been a huge desire for years to expand the education branch. So not just courses or training sessions of a couple of days, but a minor or even a master’s. So far, however, that has not been allowed (yet) because of Dutch legislation that prohibits education in another country than the one in which the mother institute is located.
“The pandemic has of course taken its toll. Many events have been postponed,” says Beltgens. “Had they taken place, we would have had a new record.” Beltgens, who is working hard on PR and a new “proactive campaign”, is focusing on the positive, on what they have learned: “Our flexibility has been put to the test. We went from in-person to online to hybrid and back to online again. We now know what we are capable of when it comes to successful digital or hybrid events and that is where we can provide useful help to organisers."