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Conflicting realities in young Europe–a critical review on the European Youth Event 2018

During the first week of June, thousands of European youths visited the French city of Strasbourg for a two-day trip in the European Parliament. As a leading organiser of a simulation, I tried to engage in as few politically charged events as possible, in hopes that I could observe the participants and other stakeholders with a critical distance.

Throughout this EU-funded flagship event, I had several observations from the interactions among my teammates to the online discourse of the European youths who expressed non-mainstream opinions against the odds. In this reflection, I would like to briefly elaborate how my personal experiences exemplify the EU’s normative power, European integration process and the EU’s “Eastness”.

  1. The EYE as an illustration of the EU’s normative power
“EURUS 2019”, the organising team for Minsk II simulation at EYE 2018. Photo: Heliis Nemsitsveridze

As a pan-European youth event hosted by the European Parliament, it was indeed successful in terms of the richness of events, its sheer number of participants and the diversity of nationalities.

With five themes framed as “Calling for a Fair Share”, “Keeping Up with the Digital Revolution”, “Protecting Our Planet”, “Staying Alive in Turbulent Times” and “Working Out for a Stronger Europe”, the official organisers carefully addressed the EU’s priorities on deepening its internal integration, pushing forward its agenda on creating a Digital Single Market, the EU’s role as an international actor, Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and building an “ever closer union”.

If the EU’s normative power can be simply defined as a power of diffusing its own ideas into third country nationals, then it was indeed a huge success. From introducing how the Parliament works to young people around the globe to engaging them to discuss on issues with a European perspective, these are hands-on examples which I observed during the event.

For instance, along with nine other friends of mine, we organised a simulation of Minsk II Agreement within the theme of “Staying Alive in Turbulent Times”, offering a platform for participants to act as diplomats of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to find out new resolutions. While this is a EU-funded event, it doesn’t take part in the ceasefire deal between Ukraine and Russia because there is hardly a unified EU position on Russia, albeit a de-facto “five principles in EU-Russia relations”.

In spite of the fact that there were no non-EU nationals taking part in the simulation, putting this activity as part of the European Youth Event legitimises the EU’s distant yet crucial role in Minsk II Agreement–the Union is a global peacemaker and it’s the moral obligation of the EU to defend its values by making declarative statements regarding the conflicts in eastern Ukraine.

Anyhow, there are four numbers that speak for the normative power of the EU as shown in this event–8,000 participants, 300 activities, 50 nationalities, and a 19-page long list of organisations who make this EYE happen.

2. The Party Queen, the B-list negotiator, and the silenced debater

Briefing with moderators during the simulation of Minsk II. Photo: Heliis Nemsitsveridze

Without a doubt, the organisers took advantage of the Parliament’s facilities to maximise the entertaining values of this event. The festive mood was all over the places. Leisure activities such as dancing, choir and music performance were less debatable than others, so it is believed that most of the participants were mostly satisfied with the organisers through expressing their position emotions on social media. It somehow reminded me of the EU’s free roaming policy which saved the image of the EU who was often criticised for not making direct impacts of ordinary people’s lives.

When it comes to controversial issues, though, it appeared that the events didn’t touch upon the heart of those issues. As I mentioned, I tried not to engage much with politically charged events such as Brexit, migration and Eurozone because these topics were over-debated in the public sphere. Instead, I was in two talks about quantum physics and challenges of genetics development.

I expected to gain insights on how quantum physics drive further about productivity in different industrial sectors of Europe, but it ended up with a European legislator advocating the concept of Digital Single Market and relevant regulations. The talk on “DNA Revolution” didn’t offer much insight either–what I learnt about pesticide resistance and GMO were not much more comprehensive than what I’ve already learnt during high school. Sadly, there were not much substance on these topics.

Worse still, some participants accused the officials of “silencing” European youths who asked questions which narrated the EU negatively. While I can never verify it because I didn’t take part in the same session of the event, what I observed in the EYE public group was that as long as there is one person expressing controversial/provocative views which are deemed not to be pro-EU, it often ended up dozens of online trolls to attack that person who seemed to be deviant.

In this context, as a nominative claim, I would question whether the European integration process has been fully reflected in the above scenario because it was strikingly obvious that almost every youth enjoyed the party, some disengaged with non-mainstream issues, and a few “defied” the European values by simply raising controversial questions which were “not allowed” to be discussed as a form of conformity.

3. The forgotten histories of post-Communist European countries

The Estonian flag outside the European Parliament, Strasbourg. Photo: Heliis Nemsitsveridze

On my way back from the European Parliament to Camping de Strasbourg, I had an in-depth conversation with an Estonian who is equally critical towards the EU as I do. When I explained what I’ve learn about the necessity for the EU countries to transfer greater extent of sovereignty to the EU institutions in order to complete the integration project, she didn’t seem to bein line with this notion.

She pointed out that the EU’s growing involvements in national politics reassembles the shadow of the Soviet past of her country. True, after the “big bang” enlargement in 2004, Central and Eastern European Countries including the Baltic States and Visegrad 4 (Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia) became part of the EU, implying the sense of “shared history” overlapped less than ever before.

Unfortunately, most of the European participants didn’t appear to be sympathetic towards this part of history when they discussed the future of Europe which requires more harmonisation of rules, movement of peoples and transfer of competence. It didn’t surprise me much because a vast majority of them are from Italy, Spain, Germany and France–these countries tend not to oppose much from European integration.

The EYE event was supposed to show the European unity and how successfully the EU institutions have brought 8,000 youths together to make positive changes. Quite the contrary, the EYE exposed some fundamental issues which Europhiles tend to omit: 1) how much Europeans differ and what sets the boundaries; 2) how far Europeans go for freedoms; 3) how to harmonise the concept of Europe without ignoring the “Eastern” element in the Union.

As I was heading back from Paris to Tallinn with a delayed flight, I met an Estonian-grown ethnic Russian carrying her 9-year-old daughter who stumbled upon Russian and Estonian languages. When I finally had to say goodbye to this little Russian kid who struggled to address herself fully in Estonian, she gave me a big hug–it reminded me of the “good old times” when EU-Russia relation was at its peak ahead of the St. Petersburg Summit in 2003.