I felt it. Well, this is an understatement. I did not just feel it, I actually bathed myself in it. For the past week I was fully covered by the European Feeling!
I had the great opportunity to attend a Summer School titled “Moving the EU forward” at the University of Athens. A welcome reception for all participants was held after the opening lecture on Monday. I immediately had seven new friends from different countries. I stayed out till 3.30am that night, having the most interesting discussions with like-minded people from all over Europe.
Throughout the whole week I very much valued the exchange of views with all the other participants. Most of them have already lived in different countries. Some have even more than one nationality. There was for example a German-French guy who studies in Switzerland, a Greek-Luxembourgian girl living in Brussels, a German-Russian girl who studied for the past four years in Scotland, a girl from Brussels with Chinese roots… And although I was basically talking the whole day long every day, I did not even manage to have extensive conversations with everyone, as we were all together 31 participants.
And of course I very much enjoyed Athens. Despite the economic and social problems the Greeks are currently facing, I experienced the atmosphere in the city as remarkably open and friendly. A Summer School colleague from Serbia, who studies permanently in Athens, told me that he feels that the Greek have learned to live with their severe problems and still remember how to enjoy their lives (“The islands are close. They are a remedy for the soul”).
One morning when I left my hotel rather early, the most friendly and helpful night receptionist was still on duty and asked me why I was already heading out. I explained that there are just so many things I wanted to see and do while I was in Athens. He shook his head and reminded me in a relaxed, laid-back way that I should rather take it slowly 🙂
On Friday evening after the lecture I joined Spanish and French colleagues to visit the Acropolis museum. A few years ago one of these Spanish girls had gone to Belgium for an Erasmus semester and made friends with a Greek girl. They are still in touch – and so her Greek friend, now living in Athens, gave us a guided tour at the Acropolis museum. Later she took us far away from the touristic area to a lovely Greek restaurant with great food (thank you!!).
I enjoyed that evening so much. To me it was truly European. I was sitting at that table discussing the National Holidays of Spain, France, Greece and Austria over the most delicious Greek food – and all of this was made possible, because a Spanish and a Greek girl had become friends in Belgium years ago. Wow, this is how Europeanization works!
But despite these wonderful personal experiences, I am of course well aware that the European project is currently everything but in a good shape. The euphoria for European integration (draft of a European constitution, introduction of the Euro, “big-bang” enlargement in 2004) is long gone, as it was painfully hit by severe crises. These crises constantly create winners and losers – within countries much more than between countries.
So of course I saw also homeless people sleeping in the streets of Athens. One night when I walked back to my hotel, I saw people sourrounding a parked van, which contained two running washing mashines. I supposed it must have been a mobile laundromat for people who cannot wash their clothes elsewhere (and just found an article about it: http://www.straitstimes.com/world/europe/33-a-mobile-laundry-service-for-the-homeless).
Depressing prospects were given by some of our lecturers. It was pointed out that the Euro is once again in serious trouble (as Italy’s economy might be about to crash) and it was even predicted that the EU might fall apart to various smaller unions in the years to come.
Other widely discussed topics during the Summer School were certainly the British referendum and Brexit. Referenda as a tool for complex decision-making were heavily criticised.
Antonis Metaxas (who held a lecture on EU energy law) stressed, that there are currently many things going wrong in European politics, which need to be critically addressed and fought. Then he added:
“But we need to do it together. We need to fight these problems from within. We cannot do it from outside.”