College of Europe
Some Personal Memories
The college was a very interesting place for a number of reasons. It was my first long stay away from home; I was overawed by the idea of attending a European postgraduate institution; my school french was about to be put to the test; it was effectively a mixed boarding school, even if the odds were 3:1 in favour of the girls.
Before I got to go I had to pass an interview. In theory it was a bit daunting given the personalities involved. In practice, it turned out to be a doddle and eventually irrelevant as I was the only candidate remaining for the two places on offer. My fellow applicants, including a future Minister for Finance, pulled out to take up other offers. Nevertheless I take great pleasure in telling certain people that I had to pass an interview in three languages to get to the college.
First in English. Denis Corboy, Head of the EEC Commission office in Ireland, and Paddy Lynch, my former Professor of Economics at University College Dublin, took the English language slot. Tomás Ó Floinn was a senior official in the Department of Education, which was funding the two places. I had met him often before and had never spoken to him in English. He used to adjudicate interschool Irish language debates and as my school was also an Irish language medium school we always spoke in Irish. No problem there.
The final panel member was Donie O'Sullivan, then, I think, Irish ambassador to the Court of St. James. I had never seen, let alone met, him before. As I remember, he was dressed in flamboyant diplomatic attire. In other words, he was wearing a colourful dickie bow. He contorted his face, shrugged his shoulders, waved his hands and said: "C'est un meli melo de charbon et d'acier! Qui a dit ça?"
"What the hell?" thought I. Whoever said it was most likely French and was clearly sceptical about European federalism in general and the Coal and Steel Community in particular. There was also something familiar about the gesticulations. So I took my fate in my hands and said "de Gaulle".
Bingo! So, even though it only consisted of two full sentences, I can claimn the third language for my interview.
Incidentally, despite the College requirement that students be fluent in one, and have a working knowledge of the other, of the two languages English and French, the level of competence varied enormously across the student body. There were students who were proficient in neither of the two languages. This upset me when I found out as a colleague, who didn't have any French, had asked my advice about taking up an offer of the second Irish place in the College that year. In my innocence, I advised him against it as I felt he would effectively be cut off from half the course. Had I known then what I subsequently found out I am not sure how I would have advised him.
My first European experience involved accommodation. The residence had been a hotel with luxurious suites of rooms. It was now being renovated, from the top floor down and the suites were being converted into the equivalent of monastic cells. The work was still incomplete so students were faced with a wide variety of quality. This was solved by each student choosing a room by lot. When you arrived you were presented with a hat containing the room numbers; you chose your room and got either a suite, a medium room or a monk's cell. All very fair and logical.
I was only there a week when I noticed that the rector's corridor was exclusively female. This posed a dilemma. Either the statistics I had learned in UCD were so much rubbish or there were other forces operating here. I finally asked straight out. UCD and John O'Connor were vindicated. There were two hats, one for the boys and another for the girls. Hello Eurostat.
My next hurdle was an inferiority complex regarding the continental European education system. For some reason I felt these guys were all fierce intellectuals and I was coming from a learn by rote system by comparison. This illusion was quickly shattered after the first set of exams, six weeks into the term. One of the subjects was the rector's book on the evolution of the concept of Europe, l'Idée Européenne. In traditional "these islands" mode, I joined with the Brits to swot up past papers, with an underlying feeling that this method was a bit below the level required by my new European calling.
One of the questions in the rector's exam asked for the name of the author of a particular biography of de Gaulle. None of us got it right, all the more amazing as some of us, not me, were fierce swots. We combed the rector's book for the answer. Finally somebody found it in a footnote on page something or other. Given that we had five or six subjects to swot up in six weeks and this was only one of them we thought it very unfair to have been posed such an obscure question. So we went to the administrator to complain. We got short shrift from him. He had the same problem when he came to the college and his advice was to read, and reread, and reread the rector's book to the point of ultimate saturation. Thus died my awe of the "continental" system and it has never recovered. I'm still a solid "past-papers" man.
The rector, Henrik Brugmans, was an odd sort of person. A dedicated European Federalist, a former minister in the postwar Dutch government, he reminded me of a head Christian Brother and he ran the college in a very paternalistic way. If relationships developed between male and female students and he thought they were suited to one another, he encouraged them, or at least passively blessed them. If he thought they were unsuitable he tried to break them up.
He had a system of "confessions" also reminiscent of the brothers. In my case he had just been to Dublin and had met my UCD professor, Louis Smith. Now, Louis was an intellectual beyond my ken and I was not the most assiduous of students. "I met your professor in Dublin" says the rector " I wonder have you any idea what he said about you?" I thought for a minute. Louis was a straight talker so I went for broke. "He probably said I had brains to burn but was a lazy student" said I. End of interview. I had stolen his best line.
We had some American [US] students taking a semester for external credits. They were all very nice people. Two things in particular struck me about them.
For us, Europe was a big place, full of many countries and languages. Political and linguistic distances were vast. Not for the Americans. At Eastertide they "did" Europe. Distance was no object. An attitude they took with them from the vastness of the US. This was a positive feature of what they brought with them to Brugge. It was not all positive, however.
Where I come from, you learn by argument. The corollary of this is you don't have to know everything before you enter an argument, provided you are prepared to learn along the way. The Americans' approach was different. If you argued with them on a particular subject, they would ask how many pages you had read on the subject and if your answer was insufficient pages they would not engage with you. This must be some carryover from the way their teachers deal with them in school but you could sure lose a lot along the way in the real world.