Bells Tolling in Europe: Reflections On The Harvard World Model UN Conference, Rome

By Soon Hao Jing

One Saturday evening, I heard bells tolling in the streets of Florence, Italy, just outside the Piazza della Repubblica. A pale blue sky, tinged with pink and orange, hung high above the narrow streets, flanked on both sides by tall, storied buildings. All around me, people continued their shopping, but some passers-by were making their way to church. I imagined the same scene had played out evening after evening in past centuries, and would carry on endlessly….

I had set foot on the tarmac of Fiumicino Airport, Rome, the previous morning, after flying 10,000km from Singapore via Doha. Fortuitously, I completed all my midterms before this trip, and managed to wrangle a deadline extension for an essay before setting out for my trip.

Together with a score of NUS (and USP) schoolmates, we arrived in Italy to attend one of the world’s largest international youth conferences. Harvard and Sapienza Universities put up the 25th edition of Harvard World Model United Nations in Rome from 14 to 18 March, drawing over 2500 university students from all continents. Together, we took on the role of diplomats and political leaders in debating solutions to international crises and negotiating agreements between different states.

I think few participants were under the illusion that our debates and make-believe politicking would actually solve real life international problems (I discussed the European refugee crisis as a representative of the United Kingdom.)

But at least it would help us better understand the issues affecting the international community. Coming to Europe in person to debate and explore issues would also give me different, more direct insights into my topic, which was Europe-centric. I think I ended up with glimpses into a more varied kaleidoscope of events but my first and strongest impression was that everything in Europe was headed downwards.

In his opening address to the conference participants, Italian premier Matteo Renzi struck a defiant tone against the right-wing, xenophobic, demagogic populism spreading in the West, accusing unnamed politicians of capitalising on such fear for political benefit (while boasting that he himself paid scant regard to his own poll numbers), and spoke out against terrorism, saying the West would not give in to fear. Memorably, he said that for every euro spent on security and counterterrorism, one euro should be spent on promoting culture and the arts.

Yet what I saw in Florence were armoured vehicles parked right outside its main cathedral (topped by that iconic red-brick Duomo), red-bereted paratroopers standing guard outside with sleek, long guns. In Rome, soldiers stood guard outside every subway station entrance, and some stood on the platforms too – one of them reminded my friends and I to watch out for pickpockets.

Italy, if not Europe, was on high alert – the week that the NUS team were in Italy, two bomb blasts ripped through Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. To think some of our delegation had wanted to pay quick visits to Istanbul before the conference. Shortly after the conference, Brussels was hit; one of our team members had just passed through Brussels airport a day or two earlier on her way back to her exchange university. These incidents brought home how close the threat of terrorism really was to the lives of Europeans.

During the committee debates on the European refugee crisis, every country stepped aside when it came to assuming more responsibilities, taking in more refugees. Of course I did as well, since I faithfully stuck to the UK’s policy on refugees and the fact that it had secured a legal exemption for itself from taking in refugees currently stuck on Greek islands. All the representatives in my committee agreed to was to splash a few hundred million euros on funding NGOs to care for refugees. But otherwise, the committee was the definition of disunity.

Some fellow delegates declared their countries should reinstate border controls and end freedom of movement to stop terrorists from sneaking in together with huddled masses of war refugees. Poland’s representative even declared, in the final hour of debate, that Poland would quit the EU so it could not be compelled to take in refugees. (It amused me that this representative, acting as ‘Poland,’ had beaten the UK to exiting the EU, and I wondered at the time whether he wasn’t giving vent to some fantasies, given he was studying at Greenwich, London.)

Even the only positive outcome we clinched was technically a negative one – we rejected a proposal that was passed, around the same time in real life, by EU leaders and Turkey, stating that the EU would pay Turkey to take care of refugees, in return for less of them coming over to the EU’s shores. At least we rejected it for legitimate reasons – is Turkey actually a safe country that also respects human rights.

Yet it was telling that European leaders would agree to what mere students like us would not accept – basically bribe an authoritarian government so that Europe would see less of Syrian refugees, no matter how Turkey achieved that. (You can Google news of what Turkey has done to Syrians trying to cross its border.)

In between bouts of debate, the members of my committee spent time chatting and I enjoyed some personal conversations too. Some were fraught with concern – like a Greek law and business student considering seeking her future outside her home country, or a Belgian shaking her head at the many fault lines dividing her city Brussels when I asked why it had produced the radicalised Paris attackers. Yet some were decidedly more tranquil – descriptions of Finnish saunas, enjoying a Baltic cruise en route to Stockholm, or catching cheap flights, buses or trains that allowed one to commute across EU borders with ease, without border controls.

On 29 April, at a lecture delivered by Singaporean ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan, I asked for his assessment of the European Union and the future of its human rights advocacy. He described his view of the future EU as a ‘humbled’ and ‘shrunken’ one. Now even a humanitarian crisis involving well over a million refugees and migrants scattered across Europe can only play second fiddle next to the recent Brexit referendum result, which has placed the EU’s integrity and future under an existential threat.

Thinking back on the sound of Florence’s tolling church bells, they no longer remind me of some kind of picturesque Renaissance past preserved in European modernity, but a darker period from which Europe tried to walk away at the end of the last world war.