Decades after the signing of the Schengen Agreement, the EU can boast of having created a space with no internal borders in almost all of its Member States. The agreement’s aim was to improve the functioning of the internal market and to bring the benefits of integration to the citizens of Europe.
It is true that it has its limitations, for instance, the German veto for Bulgaria and Romania to enter the Schengen space or the insurance problems of Dutch citizens working in Belgium. However, all in all, it kind of worked out well. I mean, yesterday I was going by car from Maastricht to Luxembourg through Belgium and the only evident sign of crossing borders was the series of SMS I received by the different national telephone operators.
However, the fact that European citizens have freedom of movement does not mean that they can actually move. Financial resources and language barriers may prevent them to do so. That is why it is of core importance that the EU maintained and improved programs like Erasmus, the European Voluntary Service, Leonardo or Comenius. Without investing in mobility and giving everyone within the EU the chance to study or work abroad, to learn languages, to get in touch with other cultures, the advantages of being a European citizen will be just a privilege of the wealthy.
A group of enthusiastic pro-Europeans caught this demand during the Convention of Young European Citizens organised in Cluny in 2011. They decided to use the new democratic tool of the Lisbon treaty: the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), to demand more funds and more exchange programmes. They called their project Fraternité 2020 (F2020) and their proposal was registered by the Commission as the very first ECI.
Their current demands include an increase of funds dedicated to exchange programmes until they represented 3% of the EU budget. That is because, at present, the EU only invests 0.7% of its funds in exchange programmes and many European leaders are resisting an increase in this percentage due to the economic situation and its vaccine of austerity.
In this respect, the ‘fraternels’ are like the salmon, swimming across the rivers current… and they are far from being dragged off-course. They insist their proposal is realist, because it is part of the solution. Thus, Simona Pronckuté, lithuanian member of the citizens’ committee, explains: “The unemployment rate in my country is really high. We have also received many signatures from Spain, Poland [and] Italy… People from these countries are looking for solutions and I think we should do something.”
Simona sees in her own environment that not everyone has the chance to go abroad and unfold new professional opportunities. Regarding this, she says: “I live in Brussels, and I know here there are voluntary or unpaid internships’ positions which receive two, three, four hundred applications. When you can afford it, it is great to work for an international organization. But if you cannot, then it becomes hard for you to gain international work experience.”
“Some commissioners or MEPs support us… Maybe Barroso or Van Rompuy do not agree with the 3% objective, but maybe they do with the necessity of finding a solution for youth unemployment in southern and eastern Europe, for making them learn languages and go abroad, to try to find a job or get a paid trainee-ship”, Simona adds.
Simona works hand-in-hand with the other members of the citizens’ committee, a group of international pro-Europeans spread across the old continent. They coordinate themselves via Internet and try to keep a horizontal structure where everyone has a say. They all work on a voluntary basis, doing their bit and learning how to handle the helm of their project during the crossing. Their ideal scenario would be that F2020 reaches the required one million signatures before October 2013. However, even if it never happens, they pretend at least to lift exchange programmes up in the political agenda.
After my talks with citizen’s committee members, I would say being part of F2020 is a resistance test, fuelled by the conviction of its members. Getting a message across when they do not have the ability to pay their members and develop a working infrastructure is a hard job. Attracting the attention of an overloaded media, diverse citizens and sometimes reluctant decision-makers in an environment saturated by other messages could be an impossible mission, especially, when the message is about increasing funds for exchange programmes in order to build a union of citizens and boost solidarity among Europeans rather than nation states. Nevertheless, in spite of the difficulties, 60,000 people have signed the F2020 manifesto, which also includes the explicit backup of academics, artists, NGOs, student associations and Members of the European Parliament.
Once upon a time, F2020 received a spate of signatures. It occurred when rumours began in Brussels about Erasmus programmes running out of funds. However, when it became clear that the most popular student’s exchange programme was not terminally ill, signatures started coming agonisingly slow, blurring the prospects of an easy, approachable, 1 million signatures happy ending.
On that respect, Jeroen Moes, Dutch member of the citizen’s committee, reflects: “I think what is missing in our campaign is to get across the sense of urgency. Things like crisis, or government corruption or water… they have it easier to get supporters because it’s about doing something, and doing it now. In the case of Fraternité it [is] not so transparent for people what the problem is”.
He emphasizes: “Actually you may talk about crisis, unemployment, nationalism… of course they are more urgent problem than the insufficiency of exchange programmes, but do not forget, this could be part of the solution to them.” “The solution – he proposes – requires solidarity within Europe.”
To conclude, let me add that, when I was preparing this post, I asked my classmates from the European Public Affairs Master, how many of them, being EU citizens, enjoyed an exchange programme before landing in Maastricht. Most of them (including myself) did. Now, they all speak several languages. They all know how to deal with people from different origins. They all have broad job opportunities as they are prepared to work in different countries. They have washed away the typical national stereotypes and, despite their diverse backgrounds, they all feel like true Europeans.
Isn’t it a shame that they are to be the ‘exception’ to the norm? Until they no longer portray the opportunities of the majority, I think it is worthy to support Fraternité in its salmon-like crosscurrent swimming.