Sunday, 24 February 2013 13:33

The Europe we want for our future

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Imagine travelling across Europe for one month by train to talk to people, and find out young people’s vision of Europe. It's not as impossible as it sounds. Last December six people travelled the old continent to meet students and young people and discuss their thoughts on the future of Europe, on topics such as politics, education and sustainability. The project Europe on Track was created by AEGEE-Europe (European Students' Forum) and sent out two teams of young people (the Red Team and the Blue team) to travel over 9000km in 27 days. The Red Team was travelling mostly through Western Europe, while the Blue Team was travelling towards the East all the way from Brussels to Istanbul. E&M interviewed Mathieu Soete, member of the Blue Team and experienced youth activist in AEGEE, to get an insider view of this adventure.

Photo: AEGEE Europe
Mathieu Soete, 26, tells us about his adventure

E&M: Mathieu, what motivated you to spend one month travelling across Europe by train?

MS: There are a lot of moments where you can talk with people in certain environments like the one that exists in a European youth organisation such as AEGEE, but there's never enough time and you're always in a sort of "European bubble", where you don't meet with people in their own realities. You get to learn much more about people when you go out to meet them. This project had two aspects: travelling and discussing. For me it was not the travelling that attracted me, it was not to see that part of Europe that I decided to go to, but it was because I thought with my prior experience I really had an idea of the topics discussed and could get into some great discussions. Visiting people, finding people, and giving them the opportunity to talk, not only to us but to everyone who is listening – this was my main motivation.

E&M: What was the main idea behind the Europe on Track project? And by the end of it all, do you feel that you've reached your goal?

MS: The main idea of the project was to link young people in Europe with European policy-makers in Brussels, to give them the possibility to speak up and reach "Brussels". We'll see how many policy-makers we can reach in the end. There is a real need for them to get to know the opinions of young people, more than they can learn from surveys or opinion polls. In that respect we have succeeded in collecting a good number of stories of people on their experience with (non-formal) education, politics and sustainability, what is working, what is not working. What I really wanted to do was to go ahead with an open mind and gather the real impressions of people, not just steer them towards what we already believe in, but rather record what people are really thinking. I think we've managed to do this.

Photo: AEGEE Europe
Ideas scrapbook from one of the workshops

E&M: So what are young Europeans thinking these days?

MS: Young people are largely in favour of European integration, because it makes life much easier: for travelling, no more visas, you don't have to change currency so much etc. Also people are moving more and more which enables you to communicate and connect more easily as well.

We've been talking mainly about the specific topics of politics, education, and sustainability. There's no real general trend, except that on most of the topics, people are saying education is not working as it is now. We've had this whole reform of the Bologna process, and we have Erasmus, but the basis of education is not good. Quality varies from country to country, university to university, but the content of it not so much. People feel that you learn too much theoretical stuff which you hardly ever put into practice. In Sofia for example we were doing a discussion on non-formal education, where one of the participants said "It's like you have a handicap - you have the knowledge but you don't know how to use it in practice." That's why so many people turn towards other forms of education, because there you learn the skills and get to practise them. Someone told me for example that when he attended a NATO summer school, he learned more things in 12 days than in 7 years at university. Because of the setting, they were talking to professionals, high-ranking officials; different settings, different ways of teaching.

I think that's maybe not the most remarkable thing I have noticed, but the most widespread one: people are not happy with their education. Also because it does not teach them much outside a particular area - you don't learn about politics, about sustainability, about participation. Some people say it teaches you most things you need for a job, but life is more than just a job. If you want to use that knowledge to start on your own, you don't know how to do it, you don't know how to get the information.

E&M: Did you have a favourite topic of your own?

MS: For me sustainability was the topic that I knew most about before we started. But I really liked discussing with people on all the different topics.

E&M: Do you think there is a chance that Eastern European countries will become more environmentally sustainable in the way Western European countries are?

MS: We asked people this as well. The answer was mostly that at the moment people are busy with other things, finding a job, moving around, bridging the gap between their countries and the rest of the EU before they have spare time to be sustainable. Sustainability is a luxury for a lot of people. It's having enough money and enough time to take public transport instead of your car, to buy more sustainable products. Will they ever be sustainable? They will have to be, whether they want to or not. I know sustainability is not a traditional topic, but it's not one that can be left only to the environmental organisations anymore, that's why we are also trying to work on it within our organisation.

Photo: AEGEE Europe
The Blue team recording a workshop session.

E&M: Will these collections of ideas and thoughts truly be appreciated? We already know we can express our opinions quite frequently, but how much is it being taken into consideration?

MS: We always hope we are being taken into consideration, that people are just waiting for us to speak our minds, that they cannot do their job without listening to us. Fortunately sometimes that is the case, they have to listen to us before deciding on something. But it doesn't mean they are taking into account what we are saying; I've seen this on many occasions. I hope this time young people's opinions will be presented in a way that makes policy-makers listen, that will make them watch; not in an aggressive manner, but rather in a fresh way.

E&M: So what's the plan now? You have a website, a blog, a Facebook page, and a lot of other information gathered from this trip. What are you going to do with it?

MS: Our idea is to take our information, gather conclusions and present them to relevant stakeholders. There will be a documentary with all the footage gathered from our trip. Manuel, our cameraman, was already working on a short film for an EESC Video Challenge 2013 where we asked people what they thought about the EU and European citizenship. The longer documentary, which will be around 25 minutes, is something we want to present during a session at the European Parliament. We will also prepare a results booklet containing more concrete opinions of young people, descriptions of what we've been doing, and our specific actions in each city.

E&M: When can we expect to see them?

MS: The documentary and the booklet should be ready by end of March, and the short film has been published already. We also plan to fit our results into other processes within AEGEE, in our future projects such as a European Parliamentary elections project, our working groups, and our internal network structures. There's a lot of information gathered from this project which will not end with just a result booklet or a documentary.

Photo: AEGEE Europe
Interviewing a young European.

E&M: So tell us, what did you actually do in the cities you visited?

MS: Our first objective was to have discussions with groups of young people, mostly AEGEE members, which we managed in a few cities. Next to that we had planned to interview several young people, from AEGEE but also regular university students. For this we went onto the university campus. We were also involved in other events at the same time. For example, in Vienna we went to a students' protest against rising tuition fees and in Katowice we visited a debate about online hate speech. In Istanbul we participated in a workshop concerning visa restrictions, while in Cluj-Napoca we attended a cultural evening with traditional dancing and food after which we went on to have a discussion.

E&M: Your travel route took you all the way from Brussels to Istanbul. You must have seen some great differences in scenery to say the least. What were the most impressive things that stuck in your mind along the way?

MS: The most obvious was a black and white difference - the first days in Brussels everything was wet and black, and the last weeks everything was snowy and white. It changed in Vienna where it went from raining the first day and then we had snow all the way.

But more seriously, another big difference is the speed of travelling. In most Western countries like the Netherlands, Germany, even Poland and the Czech Republic it was quite fast, whereas once you get to Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, but Hungary as well, it just goes much slower. It's not just the speed of the trains but the frequency of connections, the possibility of really getting somewhere by the end of the day rather than just spending the whole day on the train and having to do the same the next day.

Something as well which was different for our group compared with the Red Team who went to Spain, Italy, etc. was the fact that we were changing currency every second day, changing language every second day; and the languages were just getting less and less accessible for us. But that adds to the journey, that's why I was very happy I was able to get involved in this part of the project rather than the other one, because it's even more travelling than just going to Spain. For us it was much more of an experience, it kind of makes you stay together as a group, and take things as they come.

E&M: What about the similarities that exist across the places you've seen? Can you say you've encountered something undoubtedly European that stayed the same throughout your journey?

MS: It's difficult to answer because in a way I haven't experienced so many differences as when you're talking to people from other parts of the world. One thing which is positive and which was kind of the same in every country was that everyone was rather pro-EU. I'm not saying pro-Europe because that's a different thing. That was the main feeling I got. 

In Romania and Bulgaria, for example, you could see they are newer member states, that the transition is still ongoing, you can notice the struggles. When we were asking them about their opinion on the EU they were mostly saying it was a good thing, that it served as a "kick in the butt" that forced a lot of people to improve the situation. For the young and for the people who know how to take advantage of this, it's a good thing, for some people on the countryside it seems like a bit of a hassle: they had to change things that haven't changed for a long time before.

In general the opinion about the EU is good, for a lot of people it's still the best project which came out of the 20th century, but there's always room for improvement, there will always be some people against it.

E&M: You've travelled quite a bit outside of Europe, have you discovered something truly European which you cannot find anywhere else?

Photo: AEGEE Europe
An interview in Paris.

MS: It's always different when you're outside or inside of Europe. When you're inside everyone feels Czech or German or Romanian. But when you're outside everybody is European and suddenly we all feel the same, we all have the same opinions about other people or about what we're doing. I've seen this quite a lot, when you're working together with Brazilians or people in Africa. But we've asked a lot of people that, whether they feel European first or Czech first, if they feel European at all. Then people still have a strong national identity, with a varying degree of European identity.

E&M: There were two teams with completely different routes. Did you communicate with each other along the way? And at the end of the journeys did you notice having different or similar experiences?

MS: There wasn't much personal contact, but the idea was with our regular blog posts we would be able to compare our experiences. But due to differences in timing we only got to know more at the end of our trip. Our travels were not synchronised at all, we would be travelling one day, and they would be in the city, and the other way around. After we have our results we will be able to compare our ideas and observations. It's definitely a very interesting thing to compare Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the specific topics we were tackling so I expect interesting conclusions.

E&M: There were times when travelling across Europe either took months or was impossible. And now, only within 27 days you've managed to get from Brussels to Istanbul. What does that say about the Europe we’re living in today?

MS (smiles): Well, going from Brussels to Istanbul in 27 days is not exactly fast, I went back in 3 days. Except from the borders with Croatia, Serbia and Turkey of course, you don't always notice that you're crossing borders. With the train more than with the bus or by car, as you have more border controls but within the EU it happens while you are travelling so you don't bother with it. If I think of the earliest travels that I made, when you were going to France you still had to stop at the border, even when living 20 minutes away. I think we can be very lucky with the development, and travelling has definitely become easier. Especially now with Croatia joining it will be even easier. If Serbia ever joins, then you will actually be able to go from Brussels to Istanbul with only one border control at the Turkish border.

Our part of the project was definitely much more of an adventure than the Red Team's - they had only EU countries. They did go by bus to London and had double passport checks there but that's the only one.

Photo: AEGEE Europe
The Blue team arrives in Istanbul.

E&M: The project only went as far as Istanbul. Why not more towards Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia etc? Do you see that happening in the future, in a second edition maybe?

MS: As long as we completely rely on the Interrail ticket like we did this time, it’s impossible, as the Baltic countries, Ukraine etc. are simply not included. A lot of people have asked us, why not go to Ukraine, to Armenia - it was simply too expensive this time. I hope that in the future they will go to Moscow, they will be able to get more sponsorship and be able to cover all expenses, travel and logistics. This time we did go to Istanbul but only to the European side. We didn't have enough chances to go to the Asian side and discuss more, and it's a pity as it would have been great to ask them about their interest in joining the EU. We talked to a few people and the opinions varied, as Turkey today doesn't seem to need the EU that much and many people don't seem to want it anymore. Being rejected for 50 years also gets to you. They were the first ones to express interest in joining the EU who are not in the EU now. It's quite an interesting conversation to have with young Turkish people.

"Sustainability is a luxury to a lot of people. It's having enough money and enough time to take public transport instead of your car, to buy more sustainable products."

E&M: Let's talk about the practical side of your trip. How were your train rides? And how did you deal with so much travelling in such a short period of time? Did it affect you or your team-mates in any way?

MS: In the beginning they were quite short, as connections were much faster, like from Enschede to Berlin in 4 or 5 hours. If you go the same distance in Romania it would take you the whole day. Towards the end the travels were much longer and they could take 12 hours, the entire day. In the beginning we had more time in the cities and less on the trains and later it was the other way around. So in the beginning we did more interviews and fewer discussions, and towards the end we had more organised discussions, but little time for taking interviews.

I like travelling so it didn't affect me, but for the others it was harder. My team-mates were quite tired sometimes. I guess it takes a certain kind of person to sit on a train for 12 hours and not be affected by it.

"Turkey will not join, maybe this is one thing that I've learned, I don't feel that young people there want it anymore, it's more the old political generation that is still pushing for it."

E&M: Did you actually have time to see all the cities you visited? Did you go out, eat local dishes, see the sights and get a feeling for the place?

MS: For me that wasn't the point of this trip, I would have been happy not to see any monuments because I had been to almost all the cities. For the others the sightseeing had more interest as they had never been to this part of Europe before, but we didn't really have time to do that as we only had one month, and wanted to visit 15 cities. I think the cities where we did have more time to go around were more relaxed though, like Bratislava and Bucharest. They did help me to frame the thoughts and ideas we were discussing. This is also why I like going on these city tours given by students - these free tours - because you get a bit of history, a bit of the atmosphere, and start to get a real understanding of the city and its inhabitants.

E&M: Is one month really enough for such a trip, or would you recommend more time?

MS: I think one month is not enough for me, but for most people I think it's enough. For people who meet each other for the first time, one month is already enough, as you are always together and never get to have any 'you-time'. More than a month could be too much to handle. But for the project more time would be welcome, so we could interview more people in more different cities. Perhaps this could be solved by having more teams travelling at the same time.

E&M: As we are approaching the end of the interview, let me ask you - what is the Europe you would like to see for the future? What does your Europe look like in 2020?

MS: I don't see a federal state by 2020, but the euro will still be there, the EU will still be there. Croatia is joining now, I hope Serbia will join by 2020. Turkey will not join, maybe this is one thing that I've learned, I don't feel that young people there want it anymore, it's more the old political generation that is still pushing for it. Young people only seem to want easy visas and when they get that they'll be happy. But I hope that by 2020 we will have the entire Balkans in the EU.

E&M: Does that include Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo?

MS: I hope the entire Balkans, even Albania, will either join or, more realistically, will become candidate countries. It takes a long time to change from what Albania is now to an EU country. For me the EU in 2020 is definitely one with more states. Maybe Ukraine will never join, Belarus will never join, and Russia will never join. In a second edition of our project it would be indeed interesting to go to Russia and see their vision of the EU, see what they think about the future of Europe.

E&M: Thank you Mathieu for the interview!

Last modified on Monday, 25 February 2013 08:32

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