Exploring the European Union through a Dutch Lens

Professor Willem Maas Featured image for story on European Union course
Professor Willem Maas Featured image for story on European Union course

“Most courses about the European Union (EU) focus on Brussels and tend to miss the member states,” said Professor Willem Maas, but that’s not the case for his Glendon summer course, “The Netherlands and Europeanization.”

The summer seminar course offers an in-depth look at the political, social and economic transformations the EU has wrought and the ways the member states have been affected through an in-depth study of one particular state, the Netherlands. It also fits well with one of the goals of the Building a Better Future:2020-2025 University Academic Plan, advancing global engagement.

Although it was originally designed as an intensive study abroad course, it took place virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Professor Willem Maas story image for Innovatus story on his EU course
Willem Maas

“Even though we had to pivot quickly to an online format, which was difficult, I was nevertheless pleasantly surprised at how well the course ran,” said Maas. “It was also great that we had such strong guest speakers to supplement our readings and discussions.”

Maas is one of York University’s two Jean Monnet Chairs, positions funded by the European Union to promote excellence in teaching and research in the field of European Union studies. His field of study is European politics with a focus on migration and citizenship, and the course syllabus is chock full of readings on those topics, along with others pertinent to an understanding of Dutch political issues past and present: EU and Dutch history; border controls; colonial legacies; race; the environment; populism; war and foreign policy; inequality; law, and more.

In fact, the course wasn’t lecture-based; it was reading-focused, with Maas making himself available regularly online to discuss the topics or answer questions students had.

“Professor Maas was very reachable and responsive and the readings were very structured, so it helped keep me on track,” said Elyana Dakwar, a fourth-year political science major at Glendon.

Although the students couldn’t travel to Europe, Maas brought Europe to them in the form of guest speakers:

  • Jeremy Bierbach, an EU immigration lawyer who spoke about Dutch and EU immigration policies;
  • Michael O. Sharpe, a professor who spoke about the Caribbean Netherlands and issues of race and ethnicity;
  • Salima Belhaj, a member of parliament, who spoke about freedom, the idea of a European army, and other subjects;
  • Laurel Baig, a Canadian litigator at the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague who spoke about her work and impressions of the Netherlands;
  • Samira Rafaela, a member of the European parliament, who spoke about women’s rights, international trade, employment and social affairs, overseas countries and territories, and related subjects.

The course was originally designed to combine readings in June and July with an intensive travel component in August as a way to make the travel more affordable. Given the need to offer it remotely again in 2021, Maas plans to lengthen it to a standard, 12-week summer course. The expanded time period will allow for more discussion, additional speakers and a more relaxed reading schedule.

The course gives students a good understanding of the Netherlands and the EU and provides them with a chance to compare what they’re learning to Canadian institutions and policies; it also gives them a framework for evaluating any country’s systems.

“I explicitly ask them to compare the Netherlands to Canada in many cases to ensure they understand that there are other ways to design policies or look at the world,” Maas said.

Maas also wants them to get a sense of not-so-ancient history, exploring how the EU was formed to prevent another large-scale war on the European continent.

“This has been the biggest achievement of the EU,” he said. “It has been a massive change, a world historical change.”

He is currently recruiting students for the longer version of the course, which will be offered in summer 2021 (http://www.yorku.ca/maas/4400summer2021.pdf). There is a March 1 application deadline and the course is open to students in any faculty. Previous political science courses or knowledge of the EU is not required, although commitment to doing the reading analysis papers and final reflection paper is necessary.

“This course ran so well virtually last summer that I’m looking forward to offering it again this coming summer and then adding the travel component starting in summer 2022,” said Maas.

Students from the class seem to agree, if feedback is any indication.

Reid Springstead, a Glendon political science student graduating this spring, said he was disappointed not to be able to travel abroad, but learned a lot from the course nonetheless. “Professor Maas did an amazing job of moving the course online,” Springstead said. “For me, the coolest part was talking to EU politicians and others who were very involved with policy. They helped give me a good outside perspective on North America.”

Although Dakwar was also disappointed to find that the course would be held online, rather than overseas, she finds she benefited from the decision, given the lockdown and the fact that the entire university pivoted to online learning in fall 2020. “It was a surprise to be studying online at the time, but it prepared me well for other online courses,” she said. “It’s just you and your own initiative to get the work done.”

In addition to expanding her knowledge of the Netherlands and the EU, Dakwar found that it was an opportunity to build her reading comprehension skills and hone her writing to make it more precise.

“This was an awesome way to gain an international perspective of politics abroad and a great way to have new experiences,” she said. “This class was a great experience, and I learned a lot about the EU. Professor Maas did a great job. It was awesome to be able to stay safe and still take the course.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, Innovatus