Jean Monnet Conference "The EU in a global perspective: intercultural dialogue across three continents" (Bremen, May 26-27th, 2008)
The main goal of the two-day interdisciplinary and international conference was to examine the global perspective of the EU, to overcome an overly simplified view of the EU and to foster intercultural dialogue and mutual knowledge. How the EU is understood and seen outside helps not only to understand others, but may help to more clearly identify and define European identity itself. The conference was chaired and hosted by the Master in European Studies Program at the Bremen University of Applied Sciences and supported by a grant from the Jean Monnet program/ European Commission. A roundtable discussion open to the general public on the evening of the first day in the building of the Bremen Parliament was organized in cooperation with the Bremische Bürgerschaft (State Parliament of Bremen) and with Europa.Bremen (Europe Direct Relais/ EDR-EU-Info-Point, Bremen). This event was widely published. It was attended not only by the conference members but also by interested citizens.
More than a 100 participants from all over the world met in Bremen and made the conference a big success. “It was an amazing experience to have”, wrote one of the participants afterwards, “the multicultural environment was perfect for allowing a great interchange of ideas and thoughts”. The audience included high-ranking officials from the EU Commission, the Latvian European Information Agency, the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture, international professors and researchers from the US, India, Malaysia, Brussels, the UK, Germany, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine, alumni and graduate students from several countries and three Bremen universities.
The speakers highlighted the image and visibility of the EU in the world, examined transnational consequences of globalization for the intercultural dialogue between the EU and other countries and raised questions of European identity, of nationalism and the role of the nation state. Central themes included the role of diversity and unity within and outside the EU, arguments for widening or deepening the EU (a Europe of different speeds?), the geographical border of the EU and the role of border countries. How to communicate the EU to its citizens - ever more important after the Irish vote - was another question raised by several speakers. As Linda Jakobsone from the European Information Agency in Riga has observed, the EU is “not cool in Latvia “. She reminded the audience that there is still much to learn about the richness of the EU. In addition, more research is needed to understand the impact of the EU on work and lifestyles in the member states.
The conference was organized in three thematic modules, case studies from the 1) US, 2) Asia, especially China, India, and 3) the EU, mainly the UK, Germany, Poland and Latvia reflected upon the different perspectives on Europe and the EU. The EU, Asia, and the U.S. share common, yet also seemingly opposing interests such as the increase of economic opportunities and the search for new markets. The EU is China’s most important trading partner, taking both export and import, bilateral trade volume amounted to 254 billion in 2006. But globalization does not just have an economic dimension but also a highly complex political one. It also means the globalization of dangers, of terrorism, and lately more recognized, of climate change threatening East and West, South and North. Prof. Rashmi Jain and Prof. Milind Brahme from India stressed the similarities between India and the EU. With India and the EU being the largest democracies in the world, having emerged as strong economic and regional powers, they could be natural partners in stabilizing the present world combating terrorism and supporting disarmament. Moreover, both countries search for a common identity and need to combat internal problems caused by religious and political rifts. The discussion on Day One also raised critical issues such as the EU and the role of human rights, criticizing double standards used in Burma or China.
Similarly, Europeans neither necessarily share the same vision of Europe nor of its role in the world, neither has it held the same meaning for them. Intercultural dialogue has been shadowed by mutual stereotypes based on imperfect knowledge of one another, based on long-term stereotypes and different historical experiences in the 20th century. What do European states have in common with each other, what divides them? Is there a common vision of the EU? Speakers from the UK, Germany, Poland and Latvia stressed the important economic role of the EU. Yet while their countries voted for membership in the EU for economic reasons, elites and citizens alike tend to blame the EU for economic problems and do not shy away from scapegoating the EU if need be. Prof. Robert Jones from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK pointed to the expectation gap between the UK and Europe (costs and benefits of membership). While this is not a love affair, he argues, it is working relationship with the UK being not an awkward, but a comfortable partner.
Intercultural dialogue can also have a frustrating or even negative side. When “cultures collide” (Richard Lewis) and people of different cultures behave “in a manner which we may consider irrational or even in direct contradiction to what we hold sacred”, serious misunderstandings on the political and business level or even hatred and conflict between groups (i.e. in India and Europe alike) can be the result. Several contributions at the conference examined problems of intercultural conflict within and outside the EU and emphasized the need to overcome a purely national focus. Paul Lim, Acting Deputy Director and Senior Academic Adviser at the European Institute for Asian Studies, stressed the importance of an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach. Formerly accustomed to pure political analysis as a political scientist, he had become much more conscious of the importance of culture during the last 5 years. He hopes that more importance will be attached to understanding each other’s mindsets in the future. Societies change, cultures are dynamic, but being aware of one’s own culture is a starting point for understanding others. Seen from the U.S. American viewpoint, Psychologist Prof. Joachim Krueger from Brown University pointed out, Europe seems to be changing all the time and growing. The preliminary results of his empirical study of U.S. perceptions of Europe showed a considerable lack of knowledge and understanding of the Europeans across the Atlantic, featuring the Germans as being competent, but cold, the Italians warm, but incompetent and the French (considered to be most European) as being cold and incompetent. Americans, he says, have been slow to recognize the changes taking place in Europe. “In time”, he hopes, “they will appreciate, understand, and interact with the new Europe”.
It is noteworthy to stress the special role that students played during the conference. Undergraduate and graduate students from three universities in Bremen and from partner universities in Sheffield, Riga and Gdansk participated actively, helped organizing the event, offered tutorial support to guests from abroad (buddy groups), gave lectures and shared their views in the discussion. Many students come from post-communist countries and have a different approach to European affairs than western experts. Student contributions on Day Two offered fresh insights into regional and national cultures and their meaning. Students from the MES program recaptured the first day. Moreover, students were able to receive ECTS credits for writing reports about the conference. Other students decided to write their Master Thesis elaborating further on the conference’s main topics.
Moving away from stereotypes, the conference offered a rare opportunity to get direct insights into international perspectives on Europe and its many dimensions. Listening to each others´ perspectives, expectations and values, the participants profited from the open exchange of opinions and learned about the many facets of intercultural exchange. The experts shared their knowledge, experience and humor and made this a starting point for further discussion and exchange. “It was an excellent conference”, one of the participants remarked at the end, “with a lot of opportunity to network with people”. It is to be hoped that the many contacts between lecturers, experts, alumni and students will lead to further contacts and results.