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How to create a European consciousness and avoid its deadlocks

By Wessel Reijers

Ringo in his office at the University of Twente

Ringo in his office at the University of Twente

Youth mobility is one of the main themes of Europe on Track. Very simply seen, youth mobility just means that young people move a lot around in Europe. So much for the obvious version, cause it might be more interesting to ask where the idea of mobility in Europe comes from and how it impacts young people in Europe. I have discussed these issues with Ringo (Marinus) Ossewaarde, who is a sociologist by profession at the University of Twente for the European Public Administration programme. His courses put emphasis on the idea of Europe, the character of European societies and the influence of globalization on our ways of life. In his research, he focuses amongst others on European values, European thinkers and European democratization. His latest book, “Theorizing European Societies” deals with the idea of Europe and the conception of European societies. I met Ringo on a very non-European sunny winter afternoon in his university office and started off with discussing the so-often mentioned and so little understood “idea” of Europe.

“The idea of Europe implies that ‘Europe’ has a certain meaning”, says Ringo.”This meaning was firstly articulated by the Greek Athenian Rhetoric Isocrates (436-338 B.C.), who used it to create a contrast with Asia. By doing so European, Greek, values were contrasted with the Asian, notably Persian values. Originally therefore, being European was being Greek, being Athenian and most of the values we attach to the idea of Europe originate from that time, from Athens. Democracy and freedom were key values for the Athenians though the rule of law was mostly related to the later Roman experience. Isocrates, as a patriot, promoted the superiority of the Europeans and their values vis-à-vis the Asians and their values.”

“Being European means: having Greek habits of mind, having a Roman attitude towards law, living in a Romanized culture, being Christianized and having a Christian idea of love.”

So “Europe” was firstly conceptualized in Ancient Greece, but where does our current conception of Europe come from? “This idea of Europe re-emerged from intellectual circles after the First World War, from thinkers like the French writer Paul Valery and the German philosopher Georg Simmel. During the First World War, Simmel wrote a famous essay in which he stated that against the threat of fascism and communism as anti-European forces there was the need of re-articulating what it means to be European. Very explicitly, Valery stated that being European means: having Greek habits of mind, having a Roman attitude towards law, living in a Romanized culture, being Christianized and having a Christian idea of love. People like Valery and Simmel especially argued that communism is not European, but Asian.”

“During the cold war, people like Vaclav Havel in Prague argued as well that communism is a non-European force, meaning that Europe was occupied by a non-European force. In 1990, after the dissolution of the USSR, Havel, who was president of the Czech Republic at that moment, argued during a speech in Warsaw for a return to Europe. The idea of Europe would therefore again be central in public decision making and involved an inclusion of Central and Eastern European states into the EU that at that point did not exist yet. But especially after 1992, the EU has also been established with the Maastricht treaty to include the Central and Eastern European countries into a joint project of European integration.”

At this moment, students are traveling around the continent more then ever, intermingling with different cultures and languages. First of all, I asked Ringo about the influence of this mobility on the idea of Europe. “The idea of Europe as part of ones identity originates from the European aristocracy. The members of the European aristocracy were very mobile and frequently switched places through intermarriages and diplomatic arrangements. Kings and queens, lords and ladies travelled across the continent and created a European consciousness that was obliterated by the decline of the Feudal systems and the rise of nation states. Nowadays, the increasing mobility of vast amounts of young people creates such a European consciousness, which ties people to the European culture. What happened to the European aristocrats in the past now happens to European students. In that sense, I certainly support this phenomenon.”

“There seems to arise a divide between the students that are part of mobility programmes and those who don’t”

I asked whether the EU mobility programme has side effects as well, because of its focus on higher education. “Indeed, there seems to arise a divide between the students that are part of mobility programmes and those who don’t. This creates a gap between the, mostly higher educated, Europeans who travel and those who don’t. The first group is able to create a European consciousness by being confronted with different European cultures and people who speak different languages. However, the latter group does not have this opportunity and might feel distanced from the first group. This creates the need for an alternative identity and often makes people reside to their national identities.”

Apparently, the European mobility programmes like the Erasmus programme create a two-sided effect, both creating a European consciousness and strengthening a non-European consciousness for those people that are not included. Inclusion leads to exclusion. I asked Ringo how we could overcome this problem. “One of the ways to solve this”, Ringo asserted, “is to enlarge the mobility programme beyond higher education. Though this might be difficult because others leave school earlier, before their twenties, the EU might focus on work exchange programmes. Including the people that are not enrolled in higher education will include a greater group of people in the European consciousness.”

And how would we need to change the EU itself in order to create this change? “The EU”, Ringo argued, “is a clear product of rationalization. Its institutions are calculating, quantifying and standardizing entities. Many officials in the EU think along those lines, of rational, calculative policy making; creating systems of hard numbers and goals. However, we ought not to forget that behind these policies still lay the values that created them. The European values are the basis of most of the policies being implemented in the EU. Just as the European mobility programme is ultimately based on European values. I would also say that we should especially take into account their relevance for the emergence of a European culture.”

The conversation with Ringo made clear that whenever we look at EU policies and their influence on our conception of Europe, it is important to take in account the background of European values and their historical origins. This includes youth mobility, since it is not merely a set of policies that make young people move around but the realization of a European idea. We need to be aware of the origins of the idea of Europe, its values and our European culture in order to have a good idea about the real effects of EU policies, the advantages and deadlocks of mobility programmes.