How Can We Strengthen Social Cohesion in Europe?

Federal President Gauck hosted the fellows of the Bellevue Programme in Berlin. The young executives from the highest national agencies will work in the administration of a European partner country for a period of one year. They embody and will shape collaboration in Europe. What do they think of the current EU crises caused by the Brexit referendum and increased immigration?
Robert Bosch Stiftung | September 2016

The Bellevue Programme Enables Exchange and Collaboration in Europe

In mid-September, Federal President Joachim Gauck hosted the fellows of the Bellevue Programme, which is under Gauck’s patronage. Each year, the Robert Bosch Stiftung enables talented young executives from the highest national agencies to spend one year working in a European partner country. During this time, the fellows develop a cross-border network and a good understanding of their host country, its structures, and its political decision-making processes. In this way, the Bellevue fellows become true ambassadors for integration in Europe. What do they think about the current EU crises caused by the Brexit referendum and immigration?

Values such as democracy, human rights, solidarity, and respect for other cultures are a part of the foundation of social cohesion in Europe. Has the validity and importance of these values remained unchanged in the face of the refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum, or has there been some wavering?

Britta: I think these values are still valid, but there has been some wavering. In Germany, for example, there was lots of support for the immigrants at the beginning of the refugee crisis. But, as the numbers continued to increase, the mood changed – people became more skeptical. And now, many people are questioning the possibility of immigration without limitations. Even if Germany continues to demonstrate solidarity, it is important that we also respect the attitudes in other countries. I believe that a large, wealthy country such as Germany – with its own history – cannot expect from other, especially smaller countries to readily show the same level of generosity and openness towards refugees.

Giuseppe: I think that the values mentioned have become more important through the refugee crisis. For most people in Europe, the values of democracy and human rights are a given – they do not have to be fought for. But it is a different story for the refugees; these values are not necessarily a matter of course in their home countries. We Europeans have only recently become aware of this fact.

David: That’s true. In my opinion, however, we waited too long to get the ball rolling on a mutual policy on refugees. Values such as democracy and cohesion most certainly still have significant importance in the EU. But we also need fresh perspectives and better policies to maintain them. At the moment, many people in Europe are fearing for their rights. This is primarily due to a lack of or erroneous communication. The EU did not provide its citizens with enough information about its plans and approach to refugee policies – and perhaps even made misleading promises. On the other hand, the countries were not able to clearly communicate their needs to the EU or to point out deficiencies. Communication within the EU has to be improved for us all to be able to act in concert. In my opinion, communication was also a primary problem for the Brexit referendum. I don’t believe that, through its withdrawal from the EU, the United Kingdom wanted to take a position against values such as democracy and solidarity. The politicians who were for staying in the EU were simply not able to make it clear to UK citizens, primarily the older ones and those working in agriculture, that they are an important part of the EU. Their political opponents, however, made plenty of convincing arguments against the EU and those hit home with their constituents.

Many countries in Europe are currently experiencing a growth in nationalistic movements. What impact is this having on collaboration on a European level?

Britta: I deal a lot with migration in my line of work, and I have noticed a growth in nationalistic tendencies, because they have a significant effect on the solidarity in the individual countries. The lack of a truly successful refugee policy in the EU is primarily due to a lack of solidarity. Some countries are still not prepared to accept more refugees or to make other contributions to refugee policy. We have to get to the bottom of this – ask questions. Germany can play an important role in this, as a mediator between Eastern and Southern European member states in particular. If we are not able to demonstrate more solidarity together over the longer term, it could mean the end of the EU.

David: I believe we have to ask ourselves where the nationalistic tendencies come from. Poverty and a lack of education often play a role in the development of these movements. What did we do wrong? We neglected the role of education, especially, for far too long.

Britta: If we consider the growing nationalism in the EU, we should also consider the growing number of violent acts committed by right-wing extremists. It may be true that some people are uncomfortable with the refugees who have come to their homeland and, especially in small communities, really changed the landscape. But I reject the idea of the scared citizen who, out of fear, becomes violent. The reality is very different: unfortunately, we are dealing more and more with organized right-wing extremists who are purposefully taking advantage of the current mood and who do not shy away from even the most despicable acts of violence.

How can we strengthen the concept of Europe and social cohesion in Europe?

Giuseppe: The Bellevue Programme is a very good example of forming and strengthening the European consciousness. There are already a number of exchange programs within Europe for students and young people, but there are not enough options for older, working citizens of the EU. I think it can be exciting and important for people of any age to get to know other countries, cultures, and people, have conversations, and perhaps solve problems together. At the same time, education plays an important role in communicating the European concept. It should also be important for students to be taught about the European Constitution and the values of the EU in school – that should be compulsory in the curriculum. That is the only way young people can grow up as European citizens.

David: It is important to have more than just the economy on our radar. We need to assess and influence the social progress across the EU regions. I see social advancement as much more essential, meaning the development of solidary labor markets, the health care systems, social security, and family- and education-related policies.

Britta: Ultimately, we have to understand and trust one another. That can only work if we talk to each other, discuss issues, and are open to expanding our horizons in order to understand the reasoning of the other. Along the way, we should not neglect our relationships with our neighbors outside of the EU – Europe is, after all, only a small part of the world. That is why we should perhaps demonstrate more open-mindedness in some respects. But, at the same time, we as Europeans should be proud of our common values. We should not take the way in which we live today in Europe – with much personal freedom, relative security, with equal rights for women and men, with religious tolerance, and with mutual respect – for granted, but rather cherish and – if necessary – tenaciously defend it.