A Summer University for Europe – and beyond
Promoting the dialogue on the “European Project” and its objectives has always been a part of the way COMECE sees itself, but: why a “Summer University”? The initial idea was to offer (young) staff members of COMECE member Bishops’ Conferences the opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge of the European integration process and to discuss it with their counterparts in other Member States in a challenging yet informal manner. After the first three summer meetings in the years 1999-2001, it became clear that there was a greater need for such an exchange in the “future Member States” than in the older ones, and that the discussion was being shaped by their questions and expectations. Consequently, the meetings in the years 2002-2004 were organised in the candidate countries of Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia. The underlying idea was not only to talk about these countries and their problems but also to go further by visiting them and finding out more about them.
EU enlargement as a challenge
The EU Enlargement of May 2004 raised questions about the function and objectives of a Summer University. With the Diocese of Graz-Seckau and the University of Graz, COMECE found two partners with whom these issues could be worked upon further, leading towards the introduction of a programme in September 2006 for a two-week academic summer university for around 80 students in Seggau. Lectures and seminars would deal with EU law, economics, history, politics and European society, as well as art, media, philosophy and religion.
Although the intention was to run “West and East” discussions, it quickly became clear that while interest in the new Member States was strong, there was scant interest in Western European countries. The Summer University thus turned into a meeting point for the “good old Balkan family”, as described by a student from Montenegro. Young students from the countries of former Yugoslavia were able to meet and get to know each other and break down existing prejudices. Therefore a correspondingly high proportion of the Summer University programme was taken up in discussing the war of the1990s and its traumatising consequences.
By addressing the topic of this war, Seggau fulfilled an important role in dealing with and processing the conflict, though this did not always meet with the approval of participants from other parts of Europe: “Too much Balkans stuff!” It was interesting to observe how the political developments, such as the independence of Kosovo, were reflected in the discussions between participants. For some of them, the Summer University provided a stimulus for a “personal change of perspective”: they decided to spend a part of their further studies abroad, even in the neighbouring “enemy” country.
Taking a look at America
From the participation of a number of students from North America emerged the idea of not allowing Europe and the EU simply revolve around themselves but rather to study them in the trans-Atlantic context: what principle unites them and what separates Europe and America.
Seggau has adopted a “trans-Atlantic” orientation since 2013. This affects both the discussion topics and the nationalities of the participants. In addition to students coming from Europe, Asia and Africa, there are also quite a few American students from the USA, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America taking part. A number of academic staff from American partner universities of the University of Graz also attend. In this regard, it is not always easy to select the right 80-90 participants from the large number of applications – almost 400 this year.
In an interview, Prof. Christine Neuper, Rector of the University of Graz, stated with surprise: “Seggau is developing more and more from a classic summer university into an annual think-tank meeting of young and established scientists and academics.” Seggau’s own “alumni network” actively encourages contacts, once established, to be maintained.
Ten years on
The 2015 Summer University was the tenth event in this cooperation between the Church and the University. The Church and faith have a presence at the Summer University through the Bishop and COMECE, as well as through certain accents in the scientific/academic programme and a daily spiritual programme. At the same time, the Summer University does not consciously direct itself solely towards Catholics: from the outset it has seen itself as a “facilitator of dialogue” jointly supported by the Church, as a place of encounter, exchange and discussion about Europe.
So it turns out to be a service provided by the Church in our plural and secular society, entirely in the spirit of Pope Francis, in support of the European integration project and its global dimension, and a service to all future supporters of this project. Within the meaning of this “transcending service”, it is only logical that the topic chosen for 2016 should be “Transgression”.