How can the EU and its academic world respond to challenges like the corona pandemic, climate change and the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU? Answers were offered at Shaping Europe – Strengthening Europe: Ideas for Europe, an alumni meeting for the German EU Presidency that was organised as a hybrid event. It was held simultaneously live in Berlin and on the Internet.
Ideas do not stop at borders. This also applies in times of corona crisis: because of the pandemic the alumni meeting for the German EU Council Presidency could not be held as a large event in Berlin, but exchange was able to reach new dimensions with the hybrid format that was chosen in its place. Over one thousand alumni from all European Union member states participated online and contributed to the dialogue at the Quadriga Forum in Berlin with the aid of a voting tool and a live chat facility. “Europe is a space that needs to be shaped,” said Dr. Andreas Görgen, Head of the Directorate-General for Culture and Communication at the Federal Foreign Office, in his opening speech. DAAD alumni introduced concrete ideas on the subject in a video.
The contribution of an alumna from Estonia proposed a European deposit system, while an alumnus from Greece called for greater transparency on EU decisions. And two Finnish alumnae presented their suggestion for an online cultural preparatory course for Erasmus+ students with language teachers in the destination country.
Andreas Görgen made it clear that progress could not be made without both individual commitment and the appropriate policy framework: “If we say that academic education is the basis for the advancement of society, then we need a space for freedom of research that is protected against political interference and that society feels responsible for.” He said the DAAD alumni had set out on this path and sought to critically examine their knowledge and themselves. “I would like to thank you for that.”
Freedom to choose where to study
“The Europeanisation experienced at universities must be taken out into society,” said DAAD Secretary General Dr. Dorothea Rüland. The opportunities for this exist and are an especially fascinating aspect of the European Union: the freedom to travel, work and study anywhere in the EU came first by a significant margin in a live online vote on the strengths of the EU; it was followed by the possibility of working together to address the challenges of the future.
“Internationally networked research has never been as important as it is today,” underlined Dorothea Rüland with reference to the development of a vaccine against COVID-19. In the same way that the corona crisis is putting European societies under pressure, however, academic freedom is also under threat in some places. “In the light of some developments in EU member states it is more important than ever before to defend the autonomy of universities, even within Europe,” said Rüland.
European University Networks
The DAAD is strengthening European exchange with annual funding for 46,600 Erasmus students from Germany and over 6,000 individual scholarships. It has also already contributed to the launched by President Emmanuel Macron of France with two rounds of calls for proposals. Funding is being provided to associations of European higher education institutions that are strongly promoting digitalisation and cooperation with society, among other things.
Questions of European solidarity
The panel in Berlin included shapers of modern Europe from the realms of politics and research. Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, Vice President of Freie Universität (FU) Berlin, Katrin Staffler, Member of the German Bundestag, and Michael Bloss, DAAD alumnus and Member of the European Parliament, engaged in discussion with Siegfried Mureşan, Romanian DAAD alumnus and Member of the European Parliament, who participated via an online link from Brussels.
Chair Jens Krepela and alumni, who took part virtually or were present in person, asked the members of the panel questions about the urgent challenges currently facing the European Union. The subject of migration was very high on the list here – above all, among virtual participants. Via the chat link, for example, the panel was asked why Europe was not making greater use of individual municipalities’ willingness to accept more people in the wake of the refugee crisis. In her reply, Katrin Staffler made it clear that here, too, European solidarity first had to be worked out: “We need a common solution for the whole of Europe. That’s the only way we can overcome this challenge.”
For Michael Bloss, on the other hand, overly long hesitation entailed the risk of the EU and its values losing credibility. He praised the efforts of Freie Universität Berlin to take in refugee academics. “That is a wonderful symbol of what Europe can be.”
Climate protection was another important topic for European cooperation that was much discussed during the evening. “Stop talking, take action” demanded the participating alumni with the aid of the survey tool. According to Michael Bloss, even more EU funds need to be mobilised to advance this kind of “action” and more stringent conditions have to be applied to the member states with regard to their use. Siegfried Mureşan emphasised that climate protection must not be neglected even in corona times. He said that the EU had to make its contribution and would do so. Freie Universität Berlin has been focusing on the subject for many years, has established an effective form of sustainability management and was the first German university to declare the climate emergency in 2019. “This is the topic that most concerns our students,” said FU Vice President Blechinger-Talcott.
FU Berlin is also addressing the subject of climate protection with its seven partner universities in the European university network UNA Europa. One of the network’s largest projects involves establishing a joint Bachelor degree course in the area of sustainability. A British higher education institution, the University of Edinburgh, is also part of the UNA network. Siegfried Mureşan made a metaphorical comparison to show that European higher education exchange will be able to survive the UK’s departure from the EU: “We’re no longer married after Brexit, but we want to remain friends.” At the same time, solidarity with the United Kingdom ought not to lead to a situation in which “European rules no longer apply”. It only works if we work together – or, as Katrin Staffler summed it up: “We will all benefit if we continue working together in the future.”
Europe finds itself confronted by increasingly difficult relations in the world. Both alumni and those present in the hall emphasised the importance of a European unity that refocuses on its values, such as the rule of law and democracy, and takes them further. As a result, Europe is contributing to the stabilisation of other countries, especially in its immediate neighbourhood. Above all, according to Verena Blechinger-Talcott, research offers the opportunity to maintain important links with “difficult” countries. If communication is frozen at the political level, exchange through research often continues to remain possible and productive. Dialogue and solidarity are the most important principles in dealings with these countries. Professor Blechinger-Talcott said: “We must not slam the door shut,” and added, “Research must be possible across borders.” Furthermore, people from the research sector in these countries must be supported. Michael Bloss emphasised that many global achievements, especially values that were created together, are currently being lost. The EU can still be the place in the world that not only promises these values, “but also fills them with life”.
Johannes Göbel, 6 October 2020