Project assistant at the JEF-Europe Secretariat in Brussels. Originally from Germany, she just finished her Master’s Program European Studies at Maastricht University.
What is the point of a European study program without young Europeans from outside the EU borders?
This question came up to my mind when I did a Master’s Program in European Studies at a university in the Netherlands that claims to provide an international classroom and a global perspective. It was a very important aspect of my studies to share classrooms and lecture halls with people not only from the European Union but also from other countries on the European continent such as Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Kosovo and Moldova. I had the opportunity to meet people from these countries, to discuss with them and exchange views about the academic topics of our studies. But the exchange was not only limited to the classrooms, it went far beyond. There was an exchange even more valuable for the personal development: During various informal meetings and ’get-togethers’ we had the possibility to learn more about each other and our cultures by discovering similarities and differences. For example, I was invited to celebrate Christmas on January 7. In Ukraine and Georgia (amongst other countries) the older Julian calender is used by the national Orthodox churches in order to mark religious feasts. I was able to experience Christmas with traditions that were absolutely new to me, such as songs and different types of food. It was an inspiring experience and certainly not the only one.
However, it is possible to find out how Christmas is celebrated in Eastern Europe by other means, such as research for example. But it is completely different to be actually part of it. Indeed, it would be even better to travel to this country to experience Christmas and all other aspects of the culture, but that works best when you already have friends in there. By becoming friends with Ukrainians, Moldovians or Armenians, my interest in getting to know more about these countries increased naturally and therefore the cultural exchange proceeds and can be compared to a spillover effect; once the interest arouses, it will further grow and cover more aspects, cultures and countries.
Lots of Western Europeans seem to lack basic knowledge about other countries in Europe that do not belong to the EU. Numerous reasons for this lack can be found, but what can be done in order to change it? Increased European cultural exchange that is not limited to the borders of the European Union for example. Of course, not all the people living in Western Europe are interested in getting to know more, maybe they don’t even know which countries exactly do belong to the EU and which don’t. But I think, at least the people that have decided to start a program such as European Studies should have the possibility to meet and exchange with other students from all European countries.
The liberalisation of visas is a crucial step to enable and encourage mobility in Europe. It is necessary in order to provide study programs with diverse nationalities and to enhance a true cultural exchange.
So, what is the problem of putting this into practice?
The answer is very simple: In order to travel to or study in the EU, almost all citizens of the European countries that are neither member of the EU nor the Schengen zone have to apply for a visa. This long, complicated, expensive and sometimes even humiliating administrative procedure is an enormous obstacle for cultural exchange. Even students that have been enrolled in the same one-year Master’s Program had to apply for a new visa every three months. This is a totally unacceptable practice and not reasonable! A one-year visa for the entire duration of their studies would have been appropriate. Moreover, the students wouldn’t have to fear not to be able to continue their studies in case the visa wasn’t granted. The liberalisation of visas is a crucial step to enable and encourage mobility in Europe. It is necessary in order to provide study programs for different nationalities and to enhance a true cultural exchange.
A welcoming European Union
It is crucial that the EU represents itself as being more open towards other countries in Europe. The EU should not be perceived as a closed entity that hinders a considerable part of Europeans to study and travel within its borders. Young Europeans from the Balkans, South Caucasus, Ukraine, Turkey and all other countries on the European continent should have the possibility to discover and to enrich the European Union with their experiences, views and cultures.