When confronted with my Bachelor programme “European Studies” at the University Maastricht there seems to be a reflex in many people that asks, does Europe have a future? And while my answer is continuously yes, there is a prevalent public perception of the European Union as having lost or never had legitimacy, potency and efficiency. Meanwhile, the solution to challenges is more and more believed to be found in national rather than European policies. Particularly, populist parties came to score high in recent polls, advocating views based on nationality, tradition and identity. While certain publishers and broadcasters tend to frame and present news in a sensational way, others even limit their coverage to eye-catching topics. In connection with non-critical consumption of media and the EU’s incapacity to jointly work on managing migration flows, this results in many people tending to support populist arguments.
Does Europe have a future? – My answer is continuously yes.
25 years ago, when European leaders sat down to negotiate the Maastricht Treaty, it was impossible to predict the challenges that Europe faces today. Sometimes, solutions may seem far away, however, I am convinced that building bridges instead of borders helps us to move forward. Not least because of the Treaty, Maastricht citizens are confronted with and certainly more aware of the EU and its values. The international environment at Maastricht University and countless lectures and debates contribute to a strong and constructive opinion on developments in Brussels. Moreover, in Maastricht, the European Union is a daily reality: I, myself, am a German student, studying in the Netherlands. When I go for a run, I end up being in Belgium. However, I am unaware of where exactly I cross the border to the neighbouring country.
This is the experience thousands of people make in the cross-border region of Limburg that connects Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The influence of all three can be felt in various ways. When walking through the city centre of Maastricht a multitude of languages can be heard on the streets. Furthermore, Maastricht is home to businesses relying on skilled workers from across the border and students come from anywhere in Europe. Even the Dutch dialect spoken in Limburg is considered to sound rather German. All of these factors portray the influence and some of the advantages made possible by the European Union. Therefore, perceptions of the Union and its future are generally more positive in cross-border regions, being home to a vigorous public debate on European affairs. This makes it even harder to believe that in other parts of Europe views vary so tremendously, voicing Eurosceptic criticisms. In that respect, I hope that looking back in 25 years, when celebrating 50 years of Maastricht Treaty, European citizens and people in Limburg still enjoy the same freedoms.
Nevertheless, not everybody profits directly from the freedoms we enjoy in the Union. This might not necessarily be due to a lack of knowledge, but might be caused by social and economic inequalities, lack of resources or simply the reluctance to travel. My impression is that the more awareness a citizen has of the benefits, the functioning and the processes of the EU, the more attracted he or she is to the concept as a whole. Believing propagandistic arguments opposing the idea of European unity, is in my belief an easy, yet, non-effective way to deal with current problems. Apart from that, many claims need a “fact-check” anyways.
The more awareness a citizen has of the benefits of the Union, the more attracted he or she is to the concept as a whole.
However, what can be set against propaganda and irrationalism in populist arguments? Besides aiming at objective, considerate and fact-based argumentation, scepticism can be overcome by strengthening the feeling of being European, of togetherness and of the effectiveness of a strong Union. One step towards invigorating European identity, respecting other perspectives and appreciating Europe’s diversity is meeting other Europeans, having vivid discussions and knowledge on the concept of the Union. This is what international conferences and gatherings stand for. They provide a platform for European-wide exchange of ideas as it gathers many young people from various countries, giving them the opportunity to discuss current topics, to get to know each other and to make their voices heard. Today, many perceptions are dominated by presuppositions and stereotypes. In deconstructing these barriers international conferences contribute to an open-minded and unprejudiced style of communication and negotiation. Once we talk with people instead of about people, we start to learn and understand each other and are able to find common grounds.
What distinguishes the students of Maastricht University from Eurosceptic ideologies is a tangible European-ness. Together with the Maastricht Treaty, European citizenship has been established and its effects can be seen in the interaction of various cultures, languages and nationalities becoming routine. Feeling European does not necessarily replace national identity. One can easily feel, for instance, Dutch and European at the same time. Especially in a European environment, which Maastricht enjoys, a double- or even triple-identity is rather common. Therefore, identity and feelings of affiliation are personal and integrative. In this respect, the Maastricht Treaty constitutes a true identity marker for the European Union.