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Friday, 06 April 2012 08:41

Get to know your neighbours!

Written by  Jan Stöckmann

Ever heard of Council Regulation 36/2012? Wondering what 2011/782/CFSP refers to? Exactly. EU-Officials are struggling to foster people's interest in European affairs. Meanwhile, young people have become fully fledged Europeans on quite a different level. 

The founders of InterRail got it right when they initiated the Europe-wide train pass that allows young people to travel conveniently across our continent. In 2012 they celebrate InterRail's 40th anniversary and still carry some 250 000 travellers each year. The idea is simple: Get young Europeans to explore their neighbouring countries. This is not only an affordable way to spend enjoyable holidays abroad, but it furthers the travellers' awareness of what binds people together in Europe. A conversation with a random foreigner tells you much more about a country than any political communiqué or travel guide. Exploring the similarities and differences between European countries through travelling is the most obvious way to find out what Europe really is. At the end of the day, a European identity can only grow from within the population, not through regulations and policies. 

While governing politicians across Europe are pushing for further integration in order to overcome the debt crisis, the people are not necessarily so enthusiastic, as the success of Eurosceptic parties demonstrates (in the upcoming elections in France, Eurosceptic parties from the extreme right and the left are expected to gain about 30%). Worse, most European citizens know little or nothing about what is going on in Brussels. European representatives lead a shadowy existence, remote from the public. Apparently, the EU is an attempt at European governance without a people that is interested - without a "European people." This unbalanced situation does not exactly help to increase support for the European project.

But the European project needs support if we want to preserve our values, economic strength and international security. The equation we have in mind is fairly straightforward: a stable and internationally successful Europe needs public support; public support can only be generated through popular acceptance and European identity-building from the bottom. Collecting international experience is one of the best ways to develop this European identity. 

When you go out and ask young Europeans what they like most about Europe, almost everyone responds: travelling and the plurality of different cultures so close to one another.

Interestingly, young people have followed this strategy for a long time. When you go out and ask young Europeans what they like most about Europe, almost everyone responds: travelling and the plurality of different cultures so close to one another. Even if knowledge about European politics is important, we all agree that the really important thing is knowing each other. This argument is hardly a demand for political action. Politicians can set incentives (for example, why not extend the concept of Erasmus to young people not studying, as Umberto Eco suggested?). But it is up to young Europeans themselves to take the opportunity. Students who have spent a semester abroad with Erasmus tend to be more ready to express solidarity on a European level. People who learn foreign languages have a more widely reflected concept of what the driving political, cultural and social movements are. So there are good reasons to encourage the upcoming generation to further this kind of grassroots integration. 

Overcoming the debt crisis is certainly crucial to regaining confidence in Europe's capacity to act. But unless young Europeans grow closer together through genuine international exchange, every ambitious vision for further integration is flawed: without profound knowledge of one another, any crisis like the current one will make us likely to fall back into nationalist prejudices again. To get to know Europe in all its fascinating dimensions rather than by reading dry EU directives we advise you: travel, Europeans, travel!

The author of this article is co-organiser of the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.  

Last modified on Friday, 06 April 2012 14:54

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