Spending some time in Brussels is always an invaluable opportunity for any EU researcher. I first arrived at KU Leuven on January 6th, 2020, a little over a month since the new von der Leyen Commission took office. At the time, COVID19 was only news in China and Western mainstream media was preoccupied with issues such as the coming into effect of Brexit on January 31st and the potential implications of the Soleimani incident between the US and Iran. Those were the days.
As a researcher in EU-China relations working on Chinese strategic narratives, their formation, projection, and reception in EU member states, and their effect on domestic spheres, I had come to KU Leuven to spend three months finalising my research design and developing ideas on how China’s interests and influence may be understood and studied through the many lenses of contestation in the framework of the CONNECTIVITY project at the Centre for Global Governance Studies (KU Leuven). Upon arrival in Leuven, I was introduced to a stimulating academic environment provided by the interdisciplinary team of researchers at GGS, whose varied backgrounds and areas of interest were a perfect fit for my own and where I was welcomed to explore different approaches to research and scholarly production in general and more specifically to issues central to current debates in IR and EU studies, such as the nature of contestation and the conditions under which it takes place. My own research studying Chinese discursive power as a form of contestation of established EU narratives, GGS’s work on contestation was a particularly fitting environment to be immersed in. It allowed me to develop and refine my conceptual framework and to get started with the empirical part of my work, by discussing different methodological approaches with my colleagues at GGS.
Coincidentally, as an example of the internal facet of contestation, the UK’s departure of the EU on January 31st made pre-Covid19 Brussels was a very interesting place to be. On that particular day, I strolled through the Grand Place after stepping out of Central Station on my way back from Leuven to find it lit with the colours of the Union Jack. It was a parting homage, a reminder of a shared history for those whose feeling of belonging to the EU had been overpowered by the effectiveness of populism.
Being so close to Brussels, my time at GGS was intertwined with the hyperactivity of the EU’s epicentre. During the first two months of my stay, I attended several workshops and seminars both in Leuven and in Brussels and I was able to expand my network of contacts on EU-China affairs, both in the academic sphere and the EU institutions bubble, which is proving to be instrumental in the advancing of my work. I was also gratefully welcomed to participate in the Connectivity seminars and the Leuven International and European Studies (LINES) sessions. By early March, however, Covid-19 had already driven half of Asia and the southern part of Europe to a halt, including my hometown of Barcelona and the rest of Spain. As Belgium seemed -at the time- spared in comparison, and I still had almost a month left on my stay, I remained in Brussels and continued to work from home. This would mean that I would be shortly locked out of my country and dependant on the increasing ticket prices of the very few flights or trains back to Spain. On the bright side, I was happy to navigate the online transition in the company of the GGS team and was allowed as per the Belgian government Covid measures to go on runs through the beautiful Cinquantenaire Park, which is more than my Spanish colleagues could do under strict lockdown measures. My NORTIA scholarship was strongly marked by the events that have shaken us all in different ways. I experienced first-hand the temporary undoing of the Schengen area, and witnessed how the far-reaching political, social, and economic implications of the corona crisis were perceived differently in several EU member states, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain, the latter having an even greater stake in the subsequent EU budget and crisis response negotiations for obvious reasons.
Despite its unexpected ending circumstances, I am tremendously grateful to NORTIA and UACES for granting me the opportunity to step into another academic bubble, which is something I highly recommend any junior researcher to do for it will be an invaluable learning experience. I am also grateful to Dr. Kolja Raube for welcoming me to such a varied and vibrant community of researchers. Special thanks to PhD researchers Eva Claessen and Franziska Petri for their companionship and the many interesting conversations on and off research topics, to Siqi Zhao for the stimulating conversations about all things China, and to everyone else at GGS for making Leuven my home for three wonderful months.
Claudia Rives Casanova, PhD researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona