BRUGES, Belgium -- In a crowded lecture hall, nearly a hundred students scribble furiously as professor Jacques Rupnik shows a series of maps depicting the European continent over the past century.
As an image of pre-World War I Europe appears on the screen, he explains that the continent was dominated by competing empires. Next comes a map depicting the period between the wars, which Rupnik notes was a period defined by nation-states. Cold War-era Europe, he explains as the next image appears, was dominated by the Eastern and Western military blocs.
Rupnik then tells his audience that the present day's European continent was built largely through the influence of the European Union and its expansion.
But this is not your ordinary history lecture. Rupnik is teaching at one of the most important school you've never heard of: the College of Europe.
Tucked in among the cobblestoned streets and canals of the Flemish town of Bruges, 100 kilometers southeast of Brussels, this small university has produced tens of thousands of bureaucrats, lobbyists, and lawyers since it was founded in 1949.
Every year, approximately 400 graduates emerge with a Masters of European Studies after completing a curriculum taught in English and French. In 1993, a second campus was opened up in the Polish capital of Warsaw in preparation for the impending eastern enlargement of the EU.
The European Commission finances about a quarter of the college's costs, with the remainder covered by private donors, governments of most EU countries, and a 21,000 euro ($30,000) tuition fee.
Rupnik, a French academic who advised former Czech President Vaclav Havel, dismisses the notion that the college is nothing more than a Eurocrat factory. "This is not a homogenous, brainwashed, Europhile group. No, this is a very smart sample of what a European elite could be," he says.
"But not in a bad sense of the word. I know that when you say, 'Euro elite,' you think, 'Oh my God, the commission in Brussels, technocrats,'" Rupnik adds. "At least this is not the way I relate today, but maybe one day some of them will become like that."
Influential Alumni Network
Nevertheless, most College of Europe graduates sooner or later end up in Brussels, where they sometimes are referred to as the "Bruges mafia." The college's alumni boast an extensive network with an uncanny ability to land its members plum jobs in EU institutions or within the web of private companies and organizations seeking to influence the agenda in Brussels.
Among the college's graduates -- who have slogged through courses with titles like "Analysis and Management of Political Risk," "Tax Policy in the EU," and "Diplomacy Today: Theory and Practice" -- are the new Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
A student from Austria, who gives only his first name, Thomas, says he left the Austrian Foreign Ministry to attend the college and hopes to land a job in the European Commission after graduation.
Sitting in a lobby adorned with portraits of European leaders who have addressed the students, he is already smitten by his new home.
"I think the College of Europe here in Bruges has a very particular reputation around Europe," Thomas says. "When I just look at all my colleagues here everyone is very fascinated by this idea that we can overcome these old rivalries between nation-states and find common solutions. This atmosphere here I find really special."
'The New European'
Established after World War II by European leaders including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the college was seen as means to avoid another devastating war on the continent. The idea was to let students, primarily from Germany and France, to get to know each other and exchange ideas.
It soon became a Euro-federalist hot-spot where so-called "New Europeans" who were seeking to serve the continent as a whole instead of narrow national interests could be groomed.
The federalist ideal, however, has waned a bit in recent years. "We don't defend a specific ideology or opinion here in the college," says Thierry Monforti, the director of Academic Services. "It is clear that the college is proactive and hopes, because this is our wish, to better integrate in Europe. But one doesn't know how it will evolve.
"If we in the beginning were supposed to create the 'New European,' one is to consider that now our first task is to educate young people as young democratic Europeans who believe in the future for Europe."
Some 56 nationalities are represented in this year's class, mainly from the large EU countries, but with a growing number from the bloc's neighbors in the east and south.
Among them is Anna, one of 10 Ukrainians in this year's class. "I hope that if I succeed to get an internship in the European Commission, I would like to come back to Ukraine because we also have a committee there which deals with the development of integration to Europe, and try to make my own contribution to my country," she says.
Working For Europe
More then 20 nationalities are represented in the college's "flying faculty," which shuttle from their home countries to lecture.
Rupnik, who usually teaches in Paris, says that he loves coming to the college, since he meets young people there who are truly European in their outlook. And he expects that most of them will serve the EU in one way or another.
"They will be working in all sorts of capacities but they will be working in the European framework and for the European project. That is their common denominator," he says. "They have very different backgrounds, very different professional ambitions, very different political views. But they are united by the fact that they think we have to do this together. Otherwise, what is the alternative? The alternative is simply becoming irrelevant."
Thomas from Austria is in the library after his last lecture and is already preparing tomorrow's assignment. When asked if the current economic crisis, which seems to have put the whole European project in limbo, has made him reconsider his dream of working in the European Commission, he shakes his head in defiance.
"Maybe we need such a crisis in order to have a more integrated Europe," he says. "I think that discussions are going in this direction that we have to give the European Union more competences in budget issues, in tax issues.
"There are a variety of discussions going on right now so we might have a European Union in 10 years from now that is even stronger than nowadays, so I am quite optimistic."