Sunday

19th Feb 2017

Opinion

Europe doesn't threaten national identity

  • On Brussels' Place du Luxembourg. Young people understand intuitively that we can all have many different identities enriching our existence. (Photo: Valentina Pop)

EU leaders will come together in Bratislava to discuss the way forward after the Brexit vote. They will reflect on the need to do better when it comes to providing security, jobs and growth. They will focus on delivering results in a way that unites us, not least in the interest of the young.

As European commissioner in charge of education, culture, youth and sport, I think that one of the most pressing lessons from the outcome of the Brexit vote is this: we must do better at creating a European identity.

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A European identity not threatening the identities we already have, but complementing and supporting them. And we have to put young people at the heart of this.

Many people in Britain and elsewhere in the EU seem to feel that different identities compete with each other. That a European identity indeed threatens the national one, as well as regional, local, cultural, ethnic, religious identities. And as a result they reject the European identity.

This conflict is not inevitable. Rather I believe that we can all have many different identities enriching our existence.

Young people understand this intuitively. About three-quarters of Brits aged 24 and younger voted to remain in the EU. This is the Erasmus generation – young people who find it natural to freely cross borders in the EU, to discover different cultures, to experience life in new contexts by studying, working or volunteering abroad.

Why are many young people so comfortable with this additional layer of identity? European integration has a lot to do with it, and the Erasmus programme in particular.

Creating a feeling of community

Over three decades, Erasmus has proved an excellent example of EU action that unites without attempting to unify. It does not interfere or dictate, but brings about change simply by exposing young people and national education systems and societies to contact with others from different backgrounds, with different experiences, views and ideas.

Erasmus today is about much more than student mobility, however.

It is also the biggest teachers’ network in the world linking more than 380,000 teachers and allowing pupils to work together on joint projects.

Erasmus also promotes volunteering, with around 100,000 young volunteers over the past 20 years, and it brings together around 220,000 young people and youth workers each year to learn from each other.

All these connections and exchanges combine to help us better understand what differentiates us - and what we have in common.

When Europeans are asked to name the factors most important to creating a feeling of community among them, they point to culture, history and sport.

Strengthening and cherishing our identity

Indeed, we all have a sense of what European culture and identity are, of the influences and heritage we share - William Shakespeare is as much part of it as Franz Liszt, Edvard Munch as much as Pedro Almodovar. It is therefore only logical to strengthen a programme like Erasmus that is excellently placed to promote these factors.

And strengthen it we will. Spending should increase for the rest of the current budgetary period until 2020. We will also make the programme even more open to young people with fewer opportunities and I will also work to ensure that we continue to place a special focus on projects that promote our shared values and inclusion.

In a complex world full of uncertainty it is very difficult to find our place, to find answers to the question of who we are. But closing doors and retreating into our shells will not help. More than ever, we need to come together, to discover and accept each other - and ourselves.

Strengthening and cherishing our identity as Europeans, as a rich addition to other layers of identity, is vital in this - and where better to start than with young people, ideal ambassadors of open, multi-layered identities and the future of Europe.

Tibor Navracsics is EU commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport

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