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“Students, learn Frans Timmermans’ speech by heart”

“Students, learn Frans Timmermans’ speech by heart”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Glowing speeches at the opening of the academic year

MAASTRICHT. Five lecturers, a quiz, a brief panel discussion, two awards, an appeal to participate in the Green Impact competition, videos, vegan biscuits and a lot of beautiful music by the Famara Quartet. This is the overfull programme of the Opening of the Academic Year in the Mecc last Monday. “Sorry that it took so long,” said President of the Executive Board Martin Paul at the end of his speech to the listeners in the hall - by then it was 17:40hrs. Only to add with a grin: “But just think how many computers weren't used in the past few hours, how much energy was saved and how sustainable that was.” After all, this afternoon was about sustainability.

It was also President of the Executive Board, Martin Paul, who opened the afternoon with - imitating the French president Macron during his Sorbonne speech in September 2017 - a passionate plea for a network of European universities that - among other things - would pursue the 2030 sustainability goals, with the emphasis on mobility for students and staff, freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

Paul is working on a plan for a ‘European university network’, together with a number of other universities in cities such as Madrid, Bremen and Antwerp. The European Union encourages the creation of such networks, which by 2024 should have grown to what we would call ‘European universities’. With a ‘European statute’ and possibly European funding. These would be institutes that set up joint education and research programmes, focussing on Europe.

 “I have the feeling that I'm playing the banjo as a supporting act for the Rolling Stones,” Paul said humorously. This was a nod towards Frans Timmermans, first vice chairman of the European Commission and honorary doctor of the UM, who gave another inspired speech (off the cuff) on Monday. The same thing can also be said about Kate Robertson, co-founder of One Young World. 

Seasick Steve

“I didn’t bring my guitar, sorry”, said the Maastricht-born politician, “and I’m more like Seasick Steve.” He studied in France in 1984. During a discussion with foreign students, the reunification of Germany was mentioned. “This would never happen said both his German and French fellow students. Five years later, the wall came down.” Years later he was a young diplomat in Moscow. Did they have to write a memo about the possible collapse of the Soviet Union? Many felt that it was unthinkable. “The memo was written, but not sent to the Netherlands, the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred six months later.”

Timmermans just wants to say: changes are often unpredictable and can happen quickly. “Certainly in present times, the era of the fourth industrial revolution - the technological one - things go very quickly. It is the most drastic revolution, involving the entire planet. The seventeen sustainability goals are not perfect, but they provide a framework to cope with them.”

The rich

Timmermans sees three challenges in which universities could play a role. In the first place, there is economic growth that benefits everyone. “Things are going well, economically, but not everyone profits from it. The rich are getting richer, but the taxpayer is still paying for the banking crisis, while the banks are doing good business.” He feels that redistribution would be in order.

A second point is the “struggle with diversity. Diversity happened to us, but we have no means to handle it. We now see allergic reactions: we don't want this. There is no point in vilifying these people but we should show them that we have a diverse society and you can’t undo this diverse society. It’s the same, as you can’t unscramble a scrambled egg. How can we solve this? Academia has to help.”


He sees the third challenge as the regulating of social media. “We have to do something about the xenophobia virus, the problem of fake news that sets people against each other. We can only achieve the sustainability goals if there is a united European consensus on the important values defined after the two World Wars: rule of law, respect for human rights and a liberal democracy that is based on individuals rights.” At the moment there are countries in the EU that are drifting away from this, they represent to their citizens (just like in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union): “I will provide you with safety and prosperity, you give me your freedom. A Faustian deal.” To continue: “This requires, with a German word, Zivil Courage. This can come from the universities. The next generation is idealistic, not ideological. We must fight for our open society; only in that context can the sustainability goals be successful. The time is yours, students!”

A little while later, when Kate Robertson takes to the stage, she starts off with an appeal to all students: “Students in the background, check out Frans Timmermans' speech on YouTube, learn it by heart and remember it. Every day. And pass it on.”





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