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Opinion - What does it mean to be a European?

by Anastasiia Zhuravel

What does it mean to be a European? Let me share my experience. I became a student of the College of Europe and got an incredible chance to meet people from all over Europe and beyond. I have never been in such a diverse society and in the beginning I felt quite shy and it took a while for me to adapt. However, I was not loosing time: I was exploring. Exploring the way people talked to each other, their tastes and their habits. I wanted to know whether there was something special about students coming from EU countries, something that could help me understand what is so particular about the European Union that we might not see from “the outside”. And I think I got the answer.

The students coming from EU countries are confident. I can feel this confidence coming from the inside. They know their countries will protect them. It probably sounds funny for those of you who are reading this contribution: “Confident? What does it mean? She is probably too romantic.” But I know what I am talking about. Despite any challenges the EU is facing nowadays, its Member States are now probably the safest place in the world. I can see which measures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are being taken by Belgium (where half of the students of the College are staying) and by my home country. I have a possibility to compare. And this is not a testimony to a ‘magic Europe, an incredible Europe, the best Europe’. This is a testimony to rationality, sound strategy and responsibility. There is nothing unattainable in good governance, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but there must be transparency, democracy and accountability, which are lacking in many other systems.

To be a European is to be responsible for yourself and for the society you live in. I see so many student initiatives to improve the experience of everybody at the College, and – most importantly – of those who will come here in future. These examples showed me that if there is a problem that you cannot solve by yourself – gather with others and fight for your rights. It seems obvious and trivial for those who witness it in their everyday lives, but this is a huge achievement from the point of view of people who rarely see this in their home countries and wonder what the secret is.

I also noticed that the State is here to help; it does not want to suppress or use you. The system is built in a way to support and provide security to individuals. I feel this at a subconscious level, and my vocabulary is not sufficient to describe it. For me, it is crucial to feel free and safe in the place where I live. From the first day in Bruges I started to feel safe. I shared this experience with my relatives and friends. In reality it turned out to be not only the first impression, but a long-lasting effect. Now I know what atmosphere I want to create in my home city. I have learnt a lot about the way to achieve this: small steps, local initiatives, and simple solutions can change the society fundamentally.

This is all about assuming responsibility for your life and feeling that in case of necessity your State will support you. This is possible, largely due to the efforts of the European institutions, agencies and bodies that contribute to the promotion of good administration, fundamental rights and democracy. This is a joint effort from all Member States and their respective citizens who remain active, engage in local initiatives, help each other and strive for more.

To be a European is to not tolerate. Europeans do not tolerate misogyny, racism, aggression or hate. They are stunned when somebody uses rude expressions, because this is contrary to the principles each of them values. Society in the EU gradually instils the values of respect for human dignity and non-discrimination to its members. This becomes hardwired into the DNA of Europeans. And it is extremely important to continue educating, promoting the values and providing even more possibilities for civil participation because such a society is also more fragile. As my professor of Theory of State and Law once said, “Democratic societies, by virtue of their openness, are more vulnerable than the conservative and closed ones”. It is always easier to destroy a sophisticated system than to build it up.

There is a permanent risk of slipping, as the whole European Union is living in challenging times with Eurosceptics, far-right movements, external conflicts and internal economic problems. This makes it more difficult to bring together all citizens and all interests for the sake of the common goal.

But for me, despite any challenges in these harsh times, the European Union is doing something great: its Member States are doing their best, people are supporting each other and I am sure that this will reinforce the spirit of solidarity and fraternity among all European citizens. I have already seen an incredible example of efficacy, initiative, respect towards each other, mindfulness and maturity. I wish to see it continue in the future and not only in the EU but all over the world.



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