A centre for European excellence in the heart of the United States
2015-11-15 15:16:54 -
World News

Michael McGowan


I have just returned from the United States, where I was invited as guest lecturer at the European Union Centre at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was extremely impressed by the depth and scope of interest and enthusiasm there for the study of the European Union, and the high standards of scholarship and student participation.


After a nine-hour flight from London Heathrow to Chicago and then an hour’s flight to Champaign, I arrived late evening at Willard Airport, which is owned by the university and is named after its president from 1934 to 1946. The local airport has served the campus and the East Central Illinois region since 1945.


The European Union Centre at Champaign was established in 1998 with support from the European Commission as one of 10 original EU centres in the United States, and in 2011 the EU designated the centre as a European Union Centre of Excellence. Today the EU Centre has become the focal point for teaching, research, and outreach programmes on the EU.


The centre attracts more than 40,000 students, a quarter of which are international students including more than 5,000 from mainland China. The large Chinese student presence at Champaign enjoys receiving sports commentaries in Chinese on the campus radio station.


Students overall benefit from an attractive university campus. The trees were at the peak of their golden splendour of the American fall during my visit, and the student union facilities include excellent libraries, first-class catering and even a bowling alley. At the heart of the campus is the impressive Lincoln Building, named after the former law student who went on to become president of the United States. Another celebrated son of Champaign is James Tobin, the American economist of the famous ‘Tobin Tax’ principle, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1981.


Champaign is basically the whole university campus, a veritable island surrounded by vast stretches of cornfields in the heart of the American Midwest, with the state of Indiana to the east and the Mississippi River to the west. Often known as the ‘Prairie State’, Illinois is marked by farmland, forests, rolling hills and wetlands. To the north-east of Champaign on Lake Michigan is the ‘Windy City’ of Chicago, one of the largest in the US, famous for its skyscrapers and where President Obama was a community worker as a young man. 


Among the main issues during my visit to the EU Centre were the refugee crisis in the EU, the Greek crisis, the Euro, the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the potential British referendum on membership of the EU. I was surprised at the interest in British political parties and especially the detailed knowledge among students about the election of Jeremy Corbyn the new leader of the UK Labour Party.


Anna Westerstahl Stenport, native of Sweden and director of the EU Centre, leads an impressive international team of scholars in Champaign. I was extremely impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm of both scholars and students for the study of the EU and received a lively and positive response from students from whom I have learned so much. Indeed, I learned of the university’s Centre for African Studies, which was established in 1970 and is one of the largest in the country, with a language programme that offers a wide range of learning opportunities including Arabic, Swahili, Wolof and Zulu.


There is no doubt that the European Union Centre at the University of Illinois has developed a centre of excellence for the study of the EU, which is a model worthy of adopting elsewhere in the United States, Europe and beyond.



Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.

TAGS : United States European Union Chicago Champaign Refugee Crisis Tansatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP Illinois
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