Citizenship and (inter)national Community Service

Young Europeans value the ability to travel within their continent – can we turn this towards cultivating continental citizenship? By James Bartholomeusz

St Augustine of Hippo famously claimed "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page”

St Augustine of Hippo famously claimed “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page”

Last Monday, the PDU London and UCL European Society hosted two-thirds of Euroskop, the group of three German students who, after their undergraduate degrees, took a jeep around the continent to find out what young citizens actually think about the European project. The picture, as expected at this time, was a mixed one, but something that particularly stood out was how positive young Europeans are about intra-continental travel.

Clearly, Euroskop’s research methods are qualitative and do not work with the same precision sampling as quantitative polls like Eurobarometer; however, this apparent weakness is also a strength. The depth and texture of responses the trio received could only have been had through genuine face-to-face conversation, and reveal something interesting. Regardless of their view towards the EU, most interviewees seemed keen to see more of Europe and saw programmes like ERASMUS and the freedom to work in other member-states, even temporarily, as their favourite aspect of continental integration.

Both Eurosceptics and older Europhiles, bound up as they all are in the current state of the EU, will undoubtedly write this off as yet further evidence of a woefully depoliticised youth. But let’s take this back to first principles for a moment. Surely the most fundamental component of any cosmopolitan identity, the feature that precedes anything else, is the desire to travel and experience the new with an open mind: this has been recognised by thinkers as diverse as Marcus Aurelius, St Augustine and René Descartes, all of whom considered themselves citizens not only of their respective countries but the wider world. Before we get to anything as institutionalised as the common agricultural policy or emissions reduction, common identity forged through human encounters should be at the heart of any project for unification.

Of course, it’s not as if European travellers are coming to other parts of the continent completely cold: the existing European project is predicated on some degree of shared history and culture, and this is certainly an advantage. But the best way to advance a common identity, to break through lazy and exploitative media refrains about dictatorial Germans and feckless Greeks, is to encourage young Europeans to interact in person.

This can partly be done through schemes like ERASMUS, but these will always be significantly limited to a minority of the population. There is an alternative. I have previously written on how compulsory non-military service could be a useful tool in cultivating citizenship; I see no reason why the same principle could not be extended to the European level. School-leavers in all member-states could have a period, perhaps a year, set aside to spend a stint of paid work elsewhere in the union. There could be a huge variety of choices – construction, healthcare, teaching, administration, government, manufacturing – and would possess the compounded advantages of teaching a new skill, trying out an occupation, developing another language and encouraging contact between citizens.

To be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting we instigate compulsory military service. Europe has seen far too much strife in the past as the result of over-militarisation, and has learnt the lesson the hard way (which the US still has not) that the armed forces are a necessary but regrettable component of a state, to be maintained at the very minimum needed for defence. Germany has recently abolished its national service programme, which required all men to spend time in the military unless they especially opted for the civil service instead. European community service would of course be extended to both genders, and by default consist of civilian employment – though a military option could be made available. Nor need it exclude immigrants to the union. It could be very beneficial for anyone who achieves European citizenship, even if they are an adult far beyond school-leaving age, to take part in community service as a means of inclusion.

It is not news that the EU has become increasingly distant from its citizens, but what Euroskop’s findings seem to show is that there is nevertheless a latent common identity amongst younger Europeans waiting to be realised. Rather than disparaging this as ‘vague’ or ‘soft’, proponents of the European project should be using it – by encouraging intra-continental travel, partly through a shared community service programme. Europe is more than its institutions: it is, fundamentally, its citizens.

Image ‘Woodcut of St. Augustine’ courtesy to kladcat via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0 share alike.

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