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Leading European politicians discuss the EU's future with students

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Published on Friday, 13 October 2017

Despite all the current challenges and overlapping crises, the European Union is a success story as a peace project and a model for social and economic integration. However, in order to maintain its achievements, Europe needs to update the vision of its founding fathers and to find answers to its most pressing problems. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and other European officials came together at the “Shaping the Europe of the future” conference of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History of the University of Luxembourg to engage in discussions with high school pupils and university students on the future of Europe.

Aging populations, growing populism and Euroscepticism, high youth unemployment, an ongoing financial crisis in some of the member states, religious terrorism, and an increasingly belligerent Russia at its borders: The list of fundamental challenges and unsolved problems for the European Union is growing constantly. "Europe is one of the smallest continents on the globe. In comparison to other nations, the populations of our states are small and their relative importance is decreasing," Jean-Claude Juncker stated in his opening address, adding: "Our only way forward is more integration. We have everything to win, if we combine our strengths."

Jean-Claude Juncker spoke his mind about current European issues ranging from Brexit ("They are discovering new problems day after day") and the crisis in Catalonia ("I don't want a union consisting of 98 countries") to the importance of an accession perspective for the West Balkan countries and European defense cooperation. With regard to education, he stressed the importance of the Erasmus experience and knowledge of other countries' history in order to facilitate mutual understanding. But, he also made clear what makes Europe unique: " It is our social model that distinguishes us from the rest of the world."

In addition to Juncker, Jacques Santer, former President of the European Commission; Viviane Reding, Member of the European Parliament, former Vice-President of the European Commission; Claude Turmes, Member of the European Parliament; Yves Mersch, Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank; and Prof. Ludwig Neyses, acting rector of the University of Luxembourg, were present at the event and participated in a discussion panel. The panel was moderated by Prof. Andreas Fickers, Director of the C²DH.

See the event in pictures here.


Students tackled diverse topics and current events

However, at the heart of the conference was the interaction between students and the officials. Students were encouraged to pepper the officials with critical questions. One of the students, for example, raised the question of poverty migration and how it is reinforced by the impact of unbalanced trade agreements with African countries. The panelists agreed that there is a need for a policy change. "We need to change our policies towards Africa, increase our investments and help them to get out of poverty," said Claude Turmes. "We need to make sure the door is open for legal migration and that we strike a balance in all our trade agreements."  Viviane Reding stressed that there are already a number of reforms underway: "One of those is that there are calls to take for social and environmental aspects into consideration for all of our trade deals."

Another main concern was the populist uprising throughout Europe and the question how to counter it. "Many of the votes for the new right wing movements are protest votes. We need to be sure that were are closer to the people again. Europe shouldn’t be just a commercial enterprise, but mainly a social project," advised Jacques Santer. Asked about the relevance of the Euro for the Union, Yves Mersch stated that most citizens approve of the common currency. "The Euro has helped to maintain European cohesion during the crisis," he said.

The event was organised by the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) of the University of Luxembourg. In his welcome address, acting Rector Prof. Ludwig Neyses stated how well-placed the University is to host a conference on the future of Europe. "Europe is in our DNA," he said. "Without Europe, the University would not be where it is today." Marc Hansen, Minister Delegate for Higher Education and Research, stressed the importance of such activities that link academia, politics and society. "The university and its research units are not meant to operate in an ivory tower situated outside or above the real world, but on the contrary, should be part of it."

Watch the video of the entire conference: