European identity: young people raise the question
COMECE co-organised the 8th International Summer School in Austria, designed for internationally oriented students, who wish to deepen their understanding of current European affairs.
For a number of years COMECE has co-organised and co-sponsored a summer university together with the University of Graz and the Diocese of Graz/Seggau in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia, on the edges of a charming region of gentle hills and valleys which earn it the name of Austria’s Tuscany. The summer university, held in the episcopal domain of Seggau, with its imposing castle and former farmyard buildings, now a multi-purpose diocesan resource centre, gathers a hundred or so students and professors from universities and third-level institutions in Europe and further afield. This year the majority of the students were from the eastern part of Europe, with a large contingent from the Balkans.
The 2013 summer university focused on the question of European identity. It laid out the commonly accepted components of this identity (printed in a variety of sizes and colours on a signature post card) under the magnifying glass of analytic scrutiny. Professors and guest lecturers explored models of democratic government (Canada and its federal structures received particular attention), parliamentary traditions, patterns of temporary population movement, long-term migration and integration. And the questions they kept putting to the students and which they asked of themselves and one another: who am I? If I define myself as European, what does that imply for me – and for the Europe of tomorrow?
Michael Kuhn was again this year COMECE’s pivot at the Seggau gathering, while I was a first-time visitor who remained for a very crowded four days. With the EU election coming up, my visit offered a welcome opportunity to take the pulse of young Europe. I share with Europe Infos readers the results of my (often informal) enquete.
Over 90% of the Seggau students were under twenty-six years of age. They were born and raised in the digital world. Facebook is their heimat, their I-pad is doorway to their world. The professors, and certainly Meine Wenigheit, even if we spend eight hours a day glued to our computer screens, are mere tourists, and clumsy ones at that, in the digital world.
All of those students who are EU citizens will be first-time voters in the 2014 elections.
Roberta Maierhofer (University of Graz), Director of the Summer University, has a very practical, down-beat approach to the EU. There is too much “heroic language”, excessive politically correct pressure to accept the EU as a “good idea”, the great narrative of peace and prosperity is overblown, according to Maierhofer. For her, the EU is a structure, a piece of political architecture, but do we have to love it?
With such a sober, pragmatic attitude shaping the gathering’s director’s approach to the EU and European identity, is it any wonder that the students too showed little or no misty-eyed idealism where Europe is concerned? Neither the heroic verse of Schiller, nor the soaring melodies of Wagner nor the moves to raise Robert Schuman to the altars of the Church made the young peoples’ blood course faster.
Pavlos Dimitrakos (b. 1989, Athens, 340 Facebook friends), studies history and international relations at Christ Church, Canterbury, and admits to being Europhile “in principle”. Academic study of the EU institutions has however cooled his ardour. The overly statist approach of the Commission and Council, combined with the lack of transparency in the workings of the Parliament, are a turn-off for this young man who labels himself a “classical liberal”. Pavlos insists that Europe must be semper reformanda and he is willing to accept “more Europe, provided it is better Europe.”
A cluster of students huddled around a coffee table were only too anxious to share their views on Europe. Maria Sandorova and Martin Koller were from Slovakia, while Vladimir Bobu and Andrei Maksymiw were from Moldova and Ukraine respectively. Two students from within the EU, two facing a long-term wait in the ante-chamber. (This group had between 350 and 500 Facebook friends each). The outsiders definitely wanted “in”, the two Slovakian students felt it important to belong to and participate in something bigger. They latter pair intended voting in the 2014 election, yet neither knew the high-profile Slovak MEP Mrs. Zaborska.
Croatia was a mere four-day old EU member-state when I spoke to Ivana Obucina (b. 1988, 170 Facebook friends) and Anja Hardi (b.1991, 250 Facebook friends). Both young women intended voting in the EU elections next year, yet they were holding their breath about how EU membership might improve the lot of their native Croatia. Whatever happens, Anja claimed, “we won’t have a voice.”
George Dirdevic (b. 1991, Serbia) claims to have a thousand Facebook friends: 40% are from the Balkans, the remaining 60% are friends and ex-students from the various summer schools he has attended over the years and from his current Erasmus exchange in Lisbon. George detects in Europe’s media a growing hostility to the EU, while he is personally of the view that age, religion and nationalism make a negative impact on EU society.
Time did not allow me to interview more of these bright, friendly young students, most of them EU citizens already, poised on the threshold of what they perceived as a vast, open labour market, promising opportunity and prosperity. The views I garnered from the few I talked to would not have been any different had I interviewed the entire student body.
Sadly, not one student mentioned religion or the Church as a positive force for change. But that was in early July, three weeks before Pope Francis went to Rio and World Youth Day 2013.
Fr Patrick Daly