Sometimes I fear that the Europe I know is slowly disappearing. That the ‘’dream that is Europe” is about to be abruptly interrupted by petty interests and self-centered individuals. That after experiencing European freedom I will now be punished with the whip of nationalism. And it is frightening.
At the peak frequency of my travelling around Europe in the last decade I was not a EU citizen. My country was only a candidate to accession. I was at the door of the greatest political, social and economic project of the century and yet I was not in. There was always that moment when I found myself in a customs office and I saw the queues – Euro and non-Euro. It was so frustrating to see that people I had been talking to just moments before, where now separated by this invisible line, defining a territory I knew I belonged to but did not yet have the papers to prove.
At first I was annoyed, frustrated and mad. It seemed so wrong and humiliating that I had to go through that. And for a short amount of time I actually listened to some nationalistic bickering trying to find something valid to justify my anger. Might be strange to some that I was once not so enthusiast about Europe, but I remember how Stéphane Courtois, the French historian of communism, used to talk of his past shadows – from Stalinist and Maoist to strong and determined anti-communist.
But let’s face it. I was a product of the society that I inhabited. I had a pro-Western upbringing, with European oriented education, and a strong democratic commitment. And yet I was completely ignorant of what the people of Europe thought, felt and how they lived their lives. Sure, we have all seen the movies, read the magazines but nothing compares to actually walking in their shoes, every day. Having coffee with them on a snow drizzled platform waiting for the morning train, going to the local market, talking about the weather.
I was lucky. I had the opportunity to travel. And experience people, ways of life, the small things – talking to the local butcher, eating at a neighborhood restaurant where everybody knows everybody. Tuning in to this new reality, that was not my own, but that I had to inhabit, allowed me to cure myself of nationalistic frustrations. Sure, there were still things that I found innate to my identity that I am proud of, but there was no more frustration towards my status – 6 months of living within the EU made me realize that me & my countrymen (wide proportion at least) we were not ready to be a part of the EU. To some extend I think most of my countrymen still don’t have Europe in their spirit.
The Erasmus program allowed me to become European. Not just on paper, but in spirit. Each Erasmus meeting, anywhere in Europe, is the same – it’s a scaled representation of the European Dream – people of different nationalities coming together and sharing experiences. Why is it important? Because that’s the way we learn. By shared experiences and our own.
In some ways I think the Erasmus program created the best diffusers of European identity within the populous – travelling salesman of the European experience. I owe a lot of my current understanding of EU to my Erasmus period. It allowed me to shed that opaque cloth of exclusion I had placed on my shoulders without even noticing. It allowed me to become, a year prior to becoming a citizen, more European.
I started with my fears. I did that because everything that the Erasmus program faces now, with this talk of reducing funding is such a fright. Because it will keep young people from becoming truly European and allow them, faced with frustration, to fall in the arms of euro-skeptics.
Our bond as EU citizens is not just a piece of paper. It’s shared dreams, desires and experiences.