Maastricht students in dialogue with Frans Timmermans
“A European patriot loves his country and the values our societies are based on; a nationalist is someone who hates other countries. Let’s become European patriots.” In a packed Bonbonnière on the eve of the anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, a passionate Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, debated with students and other interested parties on the future of the European Union.
Thursday evening: the interpreters were at the ready, headphones within reach for those not proficient in Dutch. But for the most part they went unused. The discussion was largely in English, thanks in no small part to the linguistic marvel that is Frans Timmermans and the large group of international students (from the University College, European Studies, European Law and other programmes) who had questions for him. The UCM dean, Mathieu Segers, co-organiser of this European Commission Citizens’ Dialogue event, served as moderator.
“The refugee crisis is a big issue. How can the European Commission help countries like Greece, Italy and Bulgaria?” asks a Bulgarian student of European Law from the second row. “Moral hazard is what’s causing the biggest problem”, says Timmermans. “Countries like Italy and Greece have been sounding the alarm for years, saying we know Dublin is Dublin but we can’t cope with the problems ourselves anymore. The response was, Dublin is Dublin, those are the rules, take care of yourselves. The other states wouldn’t listen, so these countries opened their borders and the refugees came in over the Alps.” Southern Europe felt abandoned, while the North complained that their Southern partners weren’t sticking to the rules. “And that’s where it went wrong in the migration crisis. Migration issues will stay with us for a decade or two. It’s an illusion that you can stop the problem by building walls. If you want to handle it, solidarity has to be part of the solution. If we manage that in a couple of years we can tackle this issue. It’s our moral duty. If we relinquish our moral duty because we are afraid, we lose more than a decent refugee policy, we lose our souls.”
“Didn’t the EU grow too quickly following the Maastricht Treaty in the early nineties?” asks an octogenarian from the balcony. “Wouldn’t it be better to split the EU in two: the strong countries and the weak ones?” Timmermans is friendly but firm: “Did we enlarge too quickly? I can understand people who say this. But at that moment we had a historic chance to do something for the long-term stability of Europe. What if we had not done it then? What would Mr Putin have done with the Baltic states, with Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic? We’ve seen what he’s done in Ukraine. Even knowing the price is very high, the price would be much, much, much higher if we had missed the opportunity. Does this mean we now have to deal with huge diversity between east and west, north and south? Yes. Is it a problem? Yes. I have headaches about it every day. But I honestly don’t believe our problems will become smaller if we split up. We have to mobilise the youth.” Over the course of the evening Timmermans reiterates that young people today find Europe self-evident, even too self-evident. “We have to mobilise them to mould Europe in the way they want it, to make something better out of it. If not, we lose more than we can gain.”
Willing to fight
“I was born when Europe was already unified”, says a Hungarian student. “You have concerns about whether my generation appreciates Europe enough? I appreciate it. I’m willing to fight for it, I can promise you that.” As applause breaks out Timmermans replies, “The main reason I’m an optimist is because of your generation. You’re well-educated, healthy and the most European generation in history. I have trust in you and in your ideas. The only thing I don’t see you doing enough – and this is my view, this is my generation talking – is mobilising. All too often you believe posting your ideas on Facebook is fine. The EU is not indestructible. Nothing man-made is.”
Next comes the question, “Citizens of the EU feel insecure because of the economic crisis, terrorism, migration. What can the Commission do to increase our sense of security?” Timmermans’s answer addresses the major threats facing Europe today – IS, refugees, diversity, the start of the fourth industrial revolution – as well as the need for Europeans to take greater responsibility for their own security. “This may mean more defence spending; it certainly means cleverer defence spending.” But: “I absolutely believe that much of the insecurity people feel is about their social and economic position today and tomorrow, the fear of the loss of position. The response to that, sadly, is a traditional European one: nationalism. To quote the former president Francois Mitterrand: a patriot is someone who loves his country; a nationalist is somebody who hates other countries. And what we desperately need is European patriotism. What we desperately need to get rid of is European nationalism. European patriots are people who believe in the values of Europe. If they don’t like the Parliament or the Commission or Brussels, who cares? I don’t. If they like the values, fight for them.”
The final question comes from the balcony. According to a UCM student, there is a “lack of communication from the European leadership. What are they looking for when they talk about mobilisation?” In short: what do you want students to do? Timmermans’s response is vehement: “The question is wrong. If your generation is going to sit on the fringes of the ballroom with a little book waiting for us to write your names to come and dance, it isn’t going to happen. If you want to change politics, if you want to change the institutions, hell, don’t wait for an invitation. Get organised, in your way. You guys are so bright. It shouldn’t be such a problem. Don’t ask: could we please join in? No. It takes a fight, change takes a fight. Let’s be frank, you don’t need to be convinced by me in terms of Europe. Do something. Look for people from your generation who are not as lucky as you are, look at their world, through their eyes, see why they are angry, why they are pessimistic. You’re also a divided generation, between those who are optimistic and those who feel this society is not for them. Please make sure you don’t leave anyone behind. We’re in this fucking mess because we left too many people behind. Don’t repeat that mistake, for heaven’s sake.”