NEW HAVEN, Conn.—In the face of an unprecedented presidency, even those focused on transatlantic diplomacy are determined to stay positive—and determined to get to work. To motivate participants in the 3rd annual European Student Conference, held the weekend of Feb. 10 at Yale University, David Bach, a dean at the Yale School of Management, said in his opening keynote, “The EU is more important than ever—the ideal is more important than ever.”
Students interested in upholding the EU ideal came from all over the United States and from several universities in Europe to contribute their knowledge and visions to policy proposals for the European project. In the face of the rise of right-wing populism and governments that challenge human rights, improving conditions for European citizens was the underlying goal of the conference. Yet as we discussed what was right and wrong with Europe, this large group of students heard from experts in the fields of politics, academia and journalism, but the space left for people from other backgrounds was limited: except for students’ own experiences, nothing was heard from outside the traditional circles of policy-making.
The first European Student Conference was held at Yale University two years ago. The founders of the conference wanted to bring the discussion of European politics and culture to university students in the United States, and from their first conference they began European Horizons: a student-led think tank that explores policy options for the European Union. The think tank now has over thirty chapters in the United States and Europe and continues to grow. There are currently two chapters in New York City, one at Columbia University and another at New York University.
This year’s conference brought together over seventy students from around the United States and Europe to work on policy proposals for the EU and to discuss the EU’s future. There were six larger workshops focused on large, overarching issues—from the concept of “Legitimacy” to “Foreign and Security Policy”—with four smaller subgroups within each workshop. (For example, I worked within the “Education” subgroup of the “Productivity” workshop.)
Participants had worked on their policy proposals since late December and arrived Friday morning to present their ideas to the workshop and receive feedback from a policy advisor and a professor. Participants used workshop periods during the two-day span of the conference to improve these proposals and support their arguments with further evidence. Throughout the conference, panels ranging from the topic of “Brexit” to entrepreneurial prospects in the EU contributed to the conversation.
Catherine Stihler, Scottish MEP for the European Parliament, joined the students for both the opening panel and for a panel on “The Opportunities of Brexit.” Her contributions echoed her support for unification on all fronts: for Scotland’s remaining in the United Kingdom, and for the United Kingdom remaining in the EU. She focused on the importance of unified markets like that which links Scotland to England in the UK, or that which links the EU member states. She argues that the UK market is more crucial to Scotland than the EU market, suggesting that Scotland will stay in the UK. But, as the British government waits to invoke Article 50—the mechanism in the EU treaties that allows a member state to leave—Stihler looks to other EU member states for hope that the European project will persevere without the UK. She has noticed that as the reality of “Brexit” approaches, the rest of the EU is reaffirming its unity on a political level over the four fundamental freedoms of the Single Market: the free movement of goods, ideas, services and people. Again, here lies her focus on the Single Market as both a key component of national success and the bedrock of unified European values.
And perhaps seeking unified values is part of the solution to the concerning issues we see in politics in both the United States and Europe today. Panelists, many of whom are policy-makers and advocates themselves, encouraged conference participants to “build consensus by reaching across the aisle,” as Eileen O’Connor, former journalist at ABC and CNN, suggested, and to “sit down with your peers who are not the elite,” as William Kennard, former US Ambassador to the EU, proposed. The concept of understanding social problems from a “human perspective” in addition to a “policy perspective” was mentioned several times during the closing statements. Kennard elaborates that this would require policy-makers to talk to more than just the other “elites” in the policy-making world; for a policy-maker to bring the “human perspective” to policies entails that the policy-maker understands how policy impacts everyone from accountants, to farmers, to refugees.
Looking at problems through the “human perspective” was certainly not left out from the final policy proposals that the workshops proposed. The Identity and Belonging workshop suggested mandating a “citizen class” in schools, which would promote a common idea of European citizenship and what that means for youth in all Member States. The winner of the entrepreneur challenge run through the European Horizons initiative “Orizontas” will produce a web platform that provides a look at the journey of refugees from Syria to Europe, providing a way for European citizens to develop a better understanding of what refugees face in their struggle to reach a safer place.
However there is room for the conference to take the “human perspective” a step further. At this year’s conference, the participants had a wide range of experiences and backgrounds that surely contribute to each individual’s understanding of the human perspective. However the panelists and advisors were all policy makers, academics, economists, or journalists.
I would love to see the European Student Conference expand on generating a sense of the human perspective through panel discussions and advisors in the policy proposal workshops. For example, those in the Identity and Belonging workshop could benefit from hearing from Europeans who come from families that immigrated to the EU. Should a teacher from Europe talk to students working on educational policy, those students would gain further knowledge of how their policies would impact teachers. Why not discuss the legitimacy of the EU with someone who advocated for Great Britain to leave the EU? Perhaps someone who is not part of the “elite”? That’s just it: although not all of the students at the conference grew up in the “elite,” being at that conference means we are a part of the “intellectual elite” now—part of the global agenda-setting crowd against whom certain populist movements are supposedly directed—and we cannot limit ourselves to our own perspectives, just as Mr. Kennard said. Moving forward, we must unite ourselves with those with different experiences and backgrounds, and only then does the European Union have a future.
Featured image: Catherine Stihler, Robert Shiller, Ambassador Gerard Araud, and Eileen O’Connor at a panel on “Opportunities of Brexit” at the European Student Conference.