Position Paper: What Can Students Bring to the People to People Link Dimension of the New Transatlantic Agenda?

Position Paper

AEGEE is an independent, international, interdisciplinary, widely spread association of European students. As such it has always been striving to foster and strengthen the contacts between young people – not only in Europe, but also across the continents. The new Transatlantic Agenda is a very good opportunity for us to start a discussion that will build bridges between the United States and the European Union, especially as far as the youth is concerned. .

We are convinced that students’ organisations can make very valuable contributions in this process and thus should  play a decisive role. As NGO active in the Civil Society, they can help the youth, which will shape the world of tomorrow, to develop democratic structures. As representatives of the young generation, they can help in providing direct links between young people – coming from their midst, they have good knowledge of the students’ desires, of the possibilities and limits concerning future projects.

These links across the Atlantic should ideally be based on the modern technologies of communication, and especially on the Internet standards. This is both an attractive and a very useful tool, the possibilities of which cannot be over-emphasised.

Since 1991 AEGEE started to make intensive use of e-mail for its internal communication. In 1993, already 35 locals had their own web-pages. Today our European-wide network is running 74 communication list-servers. The association thus relies almost completely on the Internet in order to develop ideas, to co-ordinate its administration and to and carry out its projects.

Making use globally of the possibilities which Internet can offer gives NGOs in general the opportunity to extend  their range of action considerably. AEGEE has proven how important cheap and effective means of communication can be in helping to foster democracy all over Europe. In the support of the Beograd students’ movement,  the major contribution of AEGEE was to provide education on how to use the Internet. This permitted the students’ movement to communicate with the outside also without using normal media channels which were controlled by the government, eventually to weaken the anti-democratic government. On the other hand we see the case of Albania, where a primitive electronic system limited the flow of information to the outside.

By using wide-spread electronic networks, the whole Civil Society can improve the effectiveness of its actions by saving time which was previously taken up by slow communication via normal mail. The AEGEE network functions without any national level, consisting only of the local and the European level. But this was only possible thanks to Internet, which made communication, co-operation and administration possible without inserting this extra level. Today we are the biggest European students’ association.

In our internal communication, list-servers are the main tools which help us to carry out projects. With normal means of communication, that would involve much higher costs (communication and travel) and of course much more time. The AEGEE project series Find Your Way To and Within an Open Society which took place in 1996 is proof that is possible to set up a well-functioning co-ordination team of people who live all over the continent without using large financial resources, and without damaging its speed and effectiveness.

The AEGEE Working-Groups also make intensive use of list-servers, making possible real international team-work. Here, the work is not limited to a certain project, but consists of a wide range of projects all initiated by an independent, not locally organised group of members.

Electronic means make some projects possible which would not have come into existence at all without the, mainly by decreasing the expenses on travel and communication, and by offering new opportunities of dialogue and co-operation. For example, this year an exchange took place between AEGEE-Istanbul and AEGEE-Athina, follow-up of a previous project. This was sensational because of its value for peace and progress and was given broad attention in the Turkish and Greek media. It was actually born after some nice ideas, exchanged through a couple of e-mail messages.

The Informatics Society thus has far-reaching influences on the Civil Society.

But it is far from being perfect itself. We also have to face an information-overflow,  thousands of useless messages and documents that are carried by the Net and that need to be scanned by the reader.

The absence of a hierarchy, of a logical structure, makes it difficult to search out the relevant information on the Web causes the user to waste a lot of time once again.

That puts us in need of education on how to use the Internet. This does not only mean basic rules of behaviour, so-called web-etiquette or netiquette, but refers to influencing the habits of every body who belongs to the Internet community: on the one hand those who are offering the information, on the other hand those who are looking for it.  The main point is that the Internet should be a tool  and not a goal in itself. Behind every action we need a structure, a working-plan. The Internet can only facilitate its implementation, but it cannot be the content itself.

In order to be effective, the exchange of information needs to work in both directions. For this reason AEGEE is now implementing the common use of a powerful database system, Lotus Notes©. This means that every user, according to the status he receives when registering, can access common documents, but can also update them, add new information, edit the documents and so on.

AEGEE would like to share the  ideas and principles which permitted us to become what we are: A big network of young-people, avoiding any national level of organisation and the implicit recognition of borders, working for peace, democracy and development. We are proud of the things we have reached and would gladly assist in developing similar structures also in other continents.

A true across-the-ocean co-operation depends on the exchange of information between the two sides of the ocean. So a first step could be to establish a permanent common forum based on the Internet which would then offer a platform for discussion and information.

Secondly, we propose a better developed structure of exchange programmes in higher education between the U.S. and Europe. It should be based on a strong network of people, based on a strong electronic communication network, based on an extensive students’ mobility scheme. One of the success stories in the existence of AEGEE has been the determinant role we played in the initiation of the ERASMUS student exchange project. Based on the experiences gained from the highly successful ERASMUS programme,  we can start a  discussion on new possibilities for student mobility. We regard this as  the key for a new development !

With more intense help for students and Youth NGOs by governments and international organisations, new structures can be developed which could prove to be a similar success. In twelve years of activity,  we demonstrated how much is possible!

According to a famous theory, America developed in the 18.th/19.th century because of an “internal frontier”. In today’s Europe, where the borders are real, and really divide the continent, growth seems to be the result of a similar process. In a more and more globally determined “tomorrow”, Europe and America must grow together by finding ways to overcome the physical border-line which is constituted by the Atlantic.