NYU Abu Dhabi students go on the Brexit trail

A handful of students visit Britain and Europe, rubbing shoulders with former prime ministers and politicians, in a bid to unpick Brexit

March 28, 2019: Ronan Harris, Vice President and MD UK & Ireland Google, speak To NYU Abu Dhabi students at the Google headquarters in London. Photo courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi
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Whatever the issues at stake, there can be few periods that rivals recent years as a learning experience for students of International politics.

To grapple with the complicated ruptures that are splitting Europe down the middle is to interpret history as it unfold. To gain the first hand assistance of high level practitioners takes the experience to an altogether different level. A group of students at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus has spent the last few weeks learning up close from decision makers confronting the challenge of Brexit.

Under the guidance of Frank Luntz, political consultant and former Republican party strategist, the UAE-based team met former UK prime ministers, current cabinet members and veterans of politics on both sides of the European divide.
The depth and breath of guest speakers speaks for itself, Mr Luntz told The National.

“From former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to the chief Brexit negotiator for the EU. The president of the northern region of France to Michael Gove, a leading candidate to replace current UK PM Teresa May. Altogether the students had heard from two dozen speakers over nine days --  all national and even international leaders,” he said.

The timing of events meant each day provided a glimpse behind history’s curtain.

“It was the chance to be an eye-witness to history as it is being made. They were in Parliament at the moment the final Brexit agreement was being debated. They were in the European Parliament at the moment Europe was deciding whether to give the UK more time. They were in the government VIP meeting room as the leader of China was arriving for talks with his French counterpart,” Mr Luntz went on.

"Important decisions were being made, the students were there."
The excitement was palpable and the level of engagement immense.
"What I loved most was the 24/7 student interaction," added Mr Luntz.

"The debates and discussions between students were truly global in scope.  The questions the students asked of the guests were the most professional and intellectual that I've ever heard from college kids, and the respect they showed each other was unprecedented.  I learned a lot from them, and they learned a lot from themselves."
The expertise of the leading US polling expert has been called on by major broadcasters and academic institutions for decades. Even so he cannot help but sound a breathless note about his latest project.

“This could only have happened at NYU Abu Dhabi. There is no university on the face of the global that is more global, more professional and more impactful than NYU Abu Dhabi,” he said.

“I thought the class we did in America last year would be the best of my professional life, but the Brexit class was even better.  What made it the best was the diversity and intellectual curiosity of the students.”

After weighting the presentations, the students had a surprising degree of unanimity in their perspectives on the British decision to quit the EU.
Tingxuan Zhu, a 21-year-old student from China, enjoyed the Europe in Crisis class and was surprised at the openness politicians had towards the students.

“We saw many top politicians. We saw the European perspective on the Brexit debate and we got the French domestic perspective, meeting with Macron’s advisors, governors etc,” said Zhu.

“We have met so many inspiring politicians and we learnt how EU politicians drafted negotiations for Brexit and what could change. People were so candid in acknowledging their failures but posing hope to the future.”

In her own mind, Brexit is “a mess”, and most definitely the “biggest political episode” she’s ever witnessed.

Ahmed Meshref, 22, from Egypt, says the Europe trip brings a new generation out of what can sometimes be a sheltered academic environment.

“I’ve been learning a lot about the insiders perspective, how do people think, how people make decisions based on their daily experiences. We aren’t exposed to this in an academic setting usually, we can’t relate directly with people’s experiences so we are appreciating that and understanding that a bit more with this class,” he said.

“I’m learning from both sides and developing the skill to what people say and why they say it, rather from a left or right perspective.”

Meshref thinks Britain to ‘remain’ in the EU is the better choice at this juncture. But he understands that the Leave campaign was “much more clever on capitalising on people’s experiences” when the referendum took place in 2016.

“I still think the EU is a project and a work in progress, but it’s a wakeup call for it,” he adds.