European Union

“Populist labs and the end of the EU,” by Veronica Bello

This is the first of three articles on the European Union by students in the School Year Abroad (SYA) program. On April 3, students at SYA’s campuses in France and Spain will discuss the prospects for the world’s largest trading bloc in a News-Decoder online seminar.

By Veronica Bello

Every morning at 6:50, I am awakened by the sound of a radio. The father of the family I’m living with this year is up and about. I get up, walk to the kitchen and sit next to him in silence. We drink coffee and listen to the news.

For the last seven months, this has been my morning ritual. In the beginning of my year studying in France, the gravelly and monotonous voices that poured from the ancient apparatus next to the microwave were completely unintelligible.

But as soon as my French began to improve, I started using my morning ritual to test myself, to see if I could understand words lost in liaisons and spotty audio.

Lately I have noticed that reporters, too, have fallen into a ritual. Every morning they try to answer a certain question: the question of the European Union.

My experience abroad started in the autumn, weeks after Britain voted to leave the EU. As I settled into my life in Rennes, France, I followed the election in my home country, the United States.

One night in November I went to sleep with my cell phone beneath my pillow. I woke up to tweets, missed calls and hundreds of text messages announcing Donald Trump’s shocking victory.

Now, I am in the midst of another divisive election that promises far-reaching consequences — France’s presidential vote.

Attitudes towards the EU varied from country to country.

Students at School Year Abroad’s three campuses in Europe — in France, Italy and Spain — recently collaborated on a project, “The European Union in 2030,” to consider the future of the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Our first challenge was to understand the history of the EU, what motivated European leaders to create the Union, how it works and how it affects our host country and the entire continent.

Then working in small groups, we researched specific topics: the EU’s Erasmus student exchange program, the euro common currency, Brexit and Euro Cup football, among others. We interviewed local students and professors, and contacted experts.

Not everything was crystal clear. Some citizens we spoke to did not know how the EU works, what its institutions are or how they affect their lives. We were struck by the ambiguity of the European question.

The most eye-opening part of our work came when students from the three SYA campuses shared their research. It became clear that attitudes towards the EU varied from country to country.

Neither the success nor failure of the EU project seemed assured.

The group researching Turkey’s candidacy to join the EU observed that in France, respondents generally cited cultural factors, including religion and language, to support their view that the Muslim-majority country was not aligned with Europe’s identity.

In Spain, respondents tended to highlight financial factors to conclude that Turkey’s economy was not ready to join the Union.

In Italy, while the answers were more varied, students found stronger support for Turkey to eventually join the EU among respondents who cited humanitarian reasons and pointed to the large number of Syrian refugees that Turkey has welcomed.

Our research, then, begged an important question: Could divergent viewpoints contribute to the eventual dissolution of the EU?

In the final part of the project, we were asked to imagine what the EU might look like in 2030. I sat at my desk, closed my eyes and tried to picture the future of one the pillars of global politics and economics.

I immediately conjured up images of empty rooms, a deserted European Parliament in Luxembourg, a vacant European Commission in Brussels. But I did not want to depict the fragmentation of the Union. As an aspiring diplomat, I felt a moral responsibility to provide my professors with some sort of solution.

Still, after weeks of inquiry, I had yet to make up my mind. I found it impossible to make any valid predictions. Neither the success nor failure of the EU project seemed assured.

Students at the three SYA campuses in Europe produced essays, short stories, poems, drawings, videos and comics addressing the future of the EU. But we found that in a Western world in flux, after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, the only sure thing is that uncertainty prevails.

vbelloVeronica Bello is in her last year of high school, studying in Rennes, France with the School Year Abroad program. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, she spent most of her childhood in Mexico City, and her adolescence in Miami, Florida. She is an aspiring filmmaker and is passionate about French culture, photography and illustration.

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