You are appointed EU President. What’s action point No.1?
Action point number one: organise a whistle-stop tour of Europe and its neighbours. Town-hall meetings, meet-and-greets, round table sessions across the continent – and beyond. Cause let's face it: how many people have actually ever met the EU President? Too often, European leaders are locked in their ivory towers in Brussels, behind lines of fences and security staff, discussing the rise or fall of the Euro, the accession of new member states or the future of European institutions. While at the same time, more and more European citizens are wondering what Europe is all about, really.
“We are having a hard time as it is,” I heard a student say in Amsterdam. “Why should my tax money go to Brussels, while we have so many issues to solve in our own back yard?”
I am both afraid and sure many Europeans will agree. As Dutch foreign Minister Frans Timmermans argued on TV recently, Europe should keep its eyes on the road, rather than speeding ahead too quickly. Or else “you end up holding the steering wheel in your hands, while the rest of the car is crashed in pieces on the highway”. So what I would do as EU President is board a train and travel to meet all those people who are wondering what those people are doing in their ivory towers in Brussels. Talk to them, explain what Europe does, but most importantly: hear their concerns. In other words: be a sponge, listen and learn. After all, Europe is like a family. And even in the most tightly knit families, you need to invest in your relationship, even with the distant cousins you only meet once a year.
Europe 2100: draw a mental map. Where are the boundaries?
Fast forward to 2100, welcome to the USE! The USE? Yes, the United States of Europe: a democratic, transparent, inclusive multi-state federation with an elected president. Really? Really. After Switzerland, Turkey, Norway, Iceland and the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia joined the USE, the new country in Europe's waiting room is Russia, which is in the process of being officially recognised as candidate member state, pending constitutional reforms. The Schengen treaty has been ratified by all member states, allowing USE citizens to travel freely - and without visa- from Reykjavik to Rome, from Glasgow to Gdansk, from Barcelona to Bratislava. In 2100, all USE citizens can live, study or work in any of the member states, making the USE passport one of the most wanted passports in the world. Who wouldn't want to be a USE citizen?
Has integration in Europe failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?
“Wow, your Dutch is excellent, for a Moroccan.” Many of my Dutch-Moroccan friends have heard this comment. Undoubtably, many other hyphenated-Europeans have had the same experience.
“When will I ever be seen as a Dutch citizen?” is a question I keep hearing. “When will they stop labeling me as a foreigner, migrant, or newcomer?” Their parents or grandparents moved to Europe in the 60's or 70's, in search of jobs, opportunities, a new life. Little did they know their offspring would still be called “immigrant”.
Dual citizenship is often used as a pretext to doubt national loyalty. But why should loyalty and belonging to more than one culture be mutually exclusive?
The city of Amsterdam recently announced they will officially stop using the word “allochtoon” to refer to people whose roots are elsewhere. But will changing the wording really change the way people are seen?
As long as integration is measured through the melting pot paradigm, it will undoubtably fail. Rather than viewing integration as a process of assimilation, or, even worse, as the product of mutual “tolerance” (which, let's be honest, is another way of saying we don't actually give a damn), we should start looking at integration from a diversity point of view: Europe as a colorful mosaic. A multicultural masterpiece made by Dutch-Europeans, Polish-Europeans and Arabic-Europeans, African-Europeans, German-Europeans and, whether they like it or not, British-Europeans.
After all, as I argued before, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?
I grew up in a tightly-knit rural community, where the concept of “noaberschap” (litterally: neighbourship) is still a key element of social life. When my mother and I moved into our house, we were officially invited to join my street's “noaberschap”. Which, as it turned out later, was quite an honor for newcomers such as ourselves. Being a “noaber” comes with a whole set of responsibilities. For instance, each “noaber” is expected to chip in for wedding presents, birthday presents and the annual “noaber” New Year’s party. But there's more to the “noaberschap” than simply sharing the season's highlights. When one of my neighbours sadly passed away, it was the “noabers” who cooked for the grieving widow, made sure the funeral arrangements were looked after and welcomed the guests who came by the house to pay their respects to the deceased.
Looking back, I am proud to have been part of that community. But when I turned 17, I couldn't wait to get out of that social prison, with neighbours keeping a close eye on you whereever you went. “Who was that guy who dropped you off yesterday night?” “Why did you have your lights on till way after midnight?”. I was craving the anonimity of the big city.
Now, years later, I found my new “noaberschap” in Amsterdam. Not as strictly defined as the one I knew growing up, but still. We look out for each other, occasionally cook for each other, and whenever there is someone who needs a hand, we lend it. That to me is what communities should be about: about knowing there is always someone who's got your back. No questions asked: solidarity in its purest form.