The rector of the College of Europe in Bruges, Federica Mogherini, has come to the defence of her students, who hit the headlines several times in past months for taking part in lockdown parties.
The prestigious college is attended by graduates from across Europe and the world, each looking for a diploma in European administration, law or economics. Those who succeed are scattered throughout the higher echelons of the EU institutions themselves, and the private businesses that deal with them.
The problems started in June last year, when students took part in a party to celebrate the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, in breach of coronavirus restrictions in place at the time.
Yet despite the fact that such gatherings were taking place elsewhere – such as at Place Flagey in Brussels on the same evening – Bruges police chief Dirk Van Nuffel used the incident to make a particularly pointed political statement: “Young Europeans in Bruges should be an enrichment for the city, but this is less and less the case,” he said.
“The college is being abused for political games,” explained Mogherini in an interview with De Zondag. “Critics want to attack the European Union by attacking the college. These are often extreme right-wing politicians and other Eurosceptics. They want to give the college a bad image. That's why they keep saying that only conceited rich kids study here.”
As she explains, the 345 students of 43 different nationalities are all young graduates, living in Bruges in four large residences, and unable, unlike most Belgian students, to go home at weekends.
“So yes, in the evening they drink a beer together in the common room. Is that a lockdown party? I don't approve, but I can understand. Anyway, we tell them not to get together, not even in their own residences.”
But are the students not in fact poor little rich kids, the paper asked?
"No. The young people studying here come from all kinds of backgrounds. The majority are even scholarship students. The home country pays part of the registration fee [€26,000]. Many countries are happy to do this because they know that those investments pay off. Besides, I wouldn't link conceit to financial background.”
Closing the residences was not considered a possibility, as it would essentially have meant sending the students home to their own countries, since alternative accommodation in Bruges is simply not available for 345 single people.
That would have been even worse for the students,” she said. “They need to build a network. That's a crucial part of our course. It would also not have been good for Bruges. Don’t underestimate our economic value. We asked government for each residence to be treated as one bubble. Unfortunately that turned out not to be possible.”