The Social Integration of Europe
Perceived divisions in Europe
Nowadays, most political efforts that relate to European integration are directed to institutional integration. Even though this is certainly important, all too often people do not hear that top-down integration is a stuck phonograph record, forgetting that its flipside plays the equally fundamental tune of social cohesion.
In October 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, A boost and clear moral signal for Europe that it should not forget its social dimension . The contemporary financial crisis leads us to think of Europe too much in terms of merely economic, institutional cooperation. This approach has shaped, next to the already existing, historically famous East-West division of Europe, a North-South division with economically weaker southern countries on the one hand, and the stronger northern economies on the other.
Such divisions form a threat to the European integration process, and show a lack of effort in trying to learn and understand each other’s backgrounds, essential to forming a broader idea of Europe. We should be finding and exploring new ways to cooperate both socially and economically, instead of politicizing, polarizing and coming up with bad stereotypes for Europe’s socio-cultural diversity.
A critical attitude
While we stand for more solidarity in Europe to overcome the looming divisions described above, we also find it important to stay critical. We have to be aware that many of Europe’s current divisions, though artificial, have been created and enforced upon us as the heritage of both political traditions and recent history in Europe. We should not forget that traditions such as economic liberalism and socialism and many recent histories of very real and violent authoritarian regimes have shaped the present Europe.
From this point of view, Europe consists of a collection of very young democracies that in some cases are in a turbulent and vulnerable stage of development towards a more stable democracy. In moving towards a peaceful European civil society, therefore, we need to understand the history of the political contexts that shape Europe’s present-day societies.
Our answer: a platform for youth participation
To find such a constructive though critical attitude, we apply a bottom-up approach. To structure our approach, we recognize four areas of improvement for Europe’s social cohesion: international solidarity, mobility, education, and democratic participation. The target group of our grassroots approach is the future of Europe: its youth.
There are many reasons to invest in youths, apart from the battle cry that the young generation are tomorrow’s future leaders, and therefore have to learn how to make wise decisions. Many young people in Europe still lack the opportunities and mobility to come in face-to-face contact with their Europeans peers. If we want to make youths understand why a united and solidairy Europe is important, they should have the opportunity to experience this directly.
The process of exchanging views and information about the situations in other parts of Europe, is an attempt to come to understand the other. In this process lies the nucleus of our solidarity and thorough self-reflection, which are the fundamental capabilities for a critical generation of youths who want to exchange and discuss ideas that form the foundation of our (future) European democracies.
Education shapes a generation into critical and involved citizens, and stimulates young people to look beyond national borders. But formal education institutions often lack the funds and manpower to facilitate a follow-up on the internationally oriented courses in the form of an exchange for the larger part of their students.
There is little room to expand studies beyond the standard curriculum, or for dynamic, international and intercultural learning. This has led to an under appreciation of the value of intellectual freedom—a realization that typically dawns on people when participating in study exchanges. Formal education institutions require external help and expertise to strengthen their offer for international activities for their students. Here, NGO Linking Europe fills the gap in program development, logistics and selection of participants.
Increasing youth’s mobility through offering international activities allows them to develop intercultural awareness and understanding. Learning through peers about the different costs and benefits of growing up and living in different parts of Europe is a powerful incentive to join the process of democratic participation nationally and internationally. It is an important step in the development of becoming active citizens that can voice their ideals in civil society.