Eur…οpa! As EU elections comes round, 27 European citizens in Athens speak

Article published on May 27, 2009
Article published on May 27, 2009

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Whether they are from Finland to Cyprus, or Germany and France, the first charter EU member states, as well as from 'newcomer' states Romania and Bulgaria, 27 Athenians talk about their Europe and how they think it should be. The EU elections take place between 4 and 7 June 2009, with 736 seats in the EU parliament open to 9, 000 candidates

I am waiting for my twenty-seven guests at the bar of a central hotel for a last meeting. The great moment has arrived. 'Old' Europe will meet the literally 'young' Europe, in flesh and bones. On the one hand, the six mature middle-aged persons who have lived the era of the European coal and steel community in 1950 - 1951 (from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) and on the other hand two enthusiastic youngsters of the EU 2007, coming from Romania and Bulgaria. Among them, in order of intermediary unifications, the fortysomethings and the thirtysomethings from the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, Finland, as well as the fresh group of ten people coming from the Baltic Sea, central and south Europe: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Malta, Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia and Poland. What is their opinion of Europe? Do they regard Athens as a European city? My guests soon became one. They realised that it was not only Europe that united them but Athens as well. They introduced themselves, met each other, talked, disagreed, laughed, exchanged phone numbers and, in the end, decided to meet again.

Athens

'Guys, seriously, you need to have some humour in order to live in Athens,' says Marco Bock, a metallurgist from Luxembourg to Ieva Prientite, a Latvian blonde girl who is studying journalism at Panteion University in Athens. He is 48 years old—almost as old as the EU—and she is about 29. They both agree that Athens is an unusual European capital. Stephan Brigger, a 35 year old Austrian architect joins the discussion. 'From an architectural point of view Athens is rather immature. It mirrors society,' he argues. For some years now he has been commuting between Athens and Vienna, where his offices are. 'There is no respect for the city,' points out Marita Asounma, 35 from Finland, head of the marketing department at a computer firm and she adds: 'I am not talking only about litter. In Finland, for instance, they do not allow graffiti. When a wall has been graffitied, it has to be cleaned straight away. This is very important, as a beautiful and clean environment offers a sense of tranquility. On the contrary, dirtiness turns out to be a psychological prison. There have been some significant changes for the Olympic Games, but these are not enough.'

These people have seen both Europe and Athens change. However, in the mind of the 'mature' EU citizens, Europe is identified with safety. 'Isn’t it a great thing that nowadays our generation cannot even imagine Europe being in a war?' asks Daniela Stai, 53 years old, a typical blonde German woman who followed her first husband to Greece, abandoning Berlin in 1976. She does not talk much, but when she talks, she speaks Greek: 'We have to admit that EU enlargement has been a great success.' Less optimistic seems to be the 58-year-old Italian chef, Fabrizion Bugliani, who notes that 'since the foundation of the European Union till now, nothing important seems to have happened besides the fact that new member states have been added.'

Mr. Bugliani, who has lived as an internal immigrant in the EU since 1972 and has worked at restaurants in France and Germany thinks that despite the five enlargements, the decision-taking centres are still far removed from the citizens. Has the EU been a success or a failure? All of a sudden, the discussion becomes more interesting. 'The idea of Europe is more economic, rather than social,' says Brigitte Elié-Nikolopoulou, an economist from France. 'Today, we cannot talk about a Europe of nations, but about a Europe of multinationals,' she adds. Mrs. Nikolopoulou, who has been living in Greece for twenty-three years, explains that in a continent with an ageing population, where there is demand for labourers costing 200 euros (£176), as well as the entry of new countries in the EU, which has also meant the entry of a cheap labour force, are all going to have a harmful long-term impact on all member states. She mentioned Greece being the first among them.

30 going on 20

For thirtysomething professionals, such as 33-year-old Swedish Martin Olofson, who owns a shop with Scandinavian furniture in Kolonaki (a district in central Athens - ed), the other side of the coin of this economic enlargement is interpreted as professional flexibility. His orders are placed in English or Swedish and nothing prevents him from travelling to his country when needed. Architect Stephan Mirger, who is working in his country and is also lecturing at the University of Patras, comments: 'Of course, behind the Iron Curtain Vienna was always marginalised. Today, the borders are open. You can take your car and you can drive in just one hour for business or entertainment to Hungary, the Czech Republic or Croatia. Nobody is going to stop you on the way.'

'Since Erasmus I have transferred my fiscal data to three different countries'

Taking a rucksack and only the absolutely essentials, the 'Erasmus generation' found its way to knowledge some twenty years ago. 'I took full advantage of Europe,' states Marita Asounma, a 35-year-old from Finland. 'I was one of the first Erasmus students, I did my master’s degree abroad and since then I have transferred my fiscal data to three different countries.' Laura Minano, from Spain, has also lived the European experience as a student. For four years now she has been living and working as a marketing consultant in Greece. 'I don't feel like a stranger in Athens. When I am asked whether I feel more Spanish or Greek, I reply: ‘I am a European.’' At 30, they are married to Greek men and they wish to transmit their love for Europe to their children as well. Emer Rona-Asimakopoulou, a 50-year-old from Ireland, adds her own family experience: 'I have never forced my daughters to love Ireland or Greece more. On 17 March they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and on 25 March the Greek Revolution. Their generation has its own way of viewing Europe.'

The representatives of the twentysomething generation, the students of the countries that joined the EU in 2005, are introducing themselves immediately without having met before. Soon Thomas Ivanski, 24 from Poland, starts telling jokes. 23-year-old Yakoub Zamislic from the Czech Republic and Zobor Monlar, the same age from Hungary, who are both studying law as Erasmus students, immediately notice the blonde Marilis Opic, a physiotherapist from Estonia. Susana Zukarova, a reserved woman from Slovakia, starts talking in Greek. 'I don't know how I decided to come to study in Greece. It was just insane.' She studies at the department of international and European studies at Panteion University and intends to use her good command of Greek in order to find a job in her country. Slovenian Kasa Dresna, 22, Justin Amber, a 26-year-old football player at a second league team from Malta, Ieva Prientite, from Latvia, 26-year-old Ramounda Gaougelas from Lithuania and 25-year-old Kyriakos Kyprianou from Cyprus join the group. 'Cool.' One of the first words they had to learn when they arrived in Greece. What are their dreams for the future? An open Europe, without discrimination.

Fears

Unfortunately, for Europeans fear doesn’t make any discrimination either. Gert Solberg, a 58-year-old from Denmark, is calculating his pension with a calculator in his hand 1, 400 euros (£1, 231). He confesses that he is afraid of getting old in Greece. In a few years he is going back to Denmark, where the welfare state is better. 'Nevertheless, I am glad that in Greece they still cook the lamb on the spit and fly kites. In Belgium, the co-existence of many nations and languages has spoilt national cohesion,' says Yvette Schroeder-Stathopoulou, 60, from Belgium.

This is not strange. A survey conducted by the European commission has found that four out of ten European citizens think that this 'melting pot of cultures' will lead to the extinction of national traditions and customs. 'Romania and Bulgaria have been transformed into huge factories,' argue Ivo Dimitrov, a 20-year- old from Bulgaria, and Robert Krokerou, 27, who share their own concern about an impending environmental disaster. They argue that the cause will be the sudden indusrialisation of their countries and, more specifically, the new Nokia-constructed factory in the area.

Kilometres away, in cosmopolitan London, fear has a name: it’s called terrorist menace. Chris Webb,  45-year-old from Britain, explains that the indifference shown by Britons towards Europe is based on geographical criteria on the one hand (island—continent), but basically it has to do with the fear that England will stop being the predominant power. 'The EU enlargement has beveled the flow of immigrants in Greece. We have the largest influx of immigrants from Asia and we cannot manage it anymore,' says the Greek representative and head of the Greek Department of Amnesty International, Dimitris Botsos. ''Illegal immigrants’ are basically travellers without documents. When we are afraid of them, we actually exclude them from the Europe of unity, freedom and ideas. We let them live in a semi-illegal condition, showing indifference for their future.' Pedro Adrante from Portugal agrees with Mr. Botsos. 'It is really unacceptable to hear of immigrants dying as they try to get into Italy from Albania or enter Portugal and Spain from Africa. The way these people arrive in our countries is really important, because that’s the way they are entering Europe.'

'If Turkey were to join the EU today, its population would be halved, as millions would disperse all over Europe'

'I don’t know what Europe is in the end and what its limits are anymore,' confesses Robert Krokerou, a 27-year-old from Romania and a 'green' European citizen. His ignorance seems to validate everything that we heard before. I ask him what he imagines is going to happen in fifty years’ time. Could Turkey one day become an equal member of the EU? Marko Bock, a 48-year-old metallurgist from Luxembourg, reveals his scepticism. 'I have worked in Ankara for seven years,' he says. 'It is clear that Turkey is very different from the EU, both in terms of culture as well as in terms of religion. The case of the Turkish community in Germany has raised my fear and suspicions: they have forced the German state to establish Turkish schools, so that their children will be taught only Turkish, without any integration into the German community,' adds Mr. Bock. 'Let’s not forget that there is no middle class in Turkey. If the country were to join the EU today, its population would be halved, as millions of people would migrate and disperse all over Europe. Just imagine what would happen in that case.' Leo de Vos, a 60-year-old Dutch legal adviser at a shipping company is also against any further enlargement. 'No-one can demand anything as an immigrant. On the contrary, immigrants have to comply with the legislation of the hosting country.' Thomas Ivanksi, 24 years old from Poland, is studying political science at the University of Athens on an Erasmus grant. He seems to be more indulgent. 'Nevertheless, it is worthwhile giving Turkey some hopes of joining the EU,' he says. 'We keep accusing the Turks of being fundamentalists. Look how many fundamentalists are in Europe right now. They are worse.'

Questions, answers, laughter and disagreement. My tape is full and my tape recorder stops. Everything on and off the record is a bunch of ideas; and so is the EU, which, after all, is not determined by its borders or its institutions. Europe consists of its residents, in other words, us.

*We thank the municipalities of Palaion Faliron and Kaisariani, the Hilton Athens and Saint George Lycabettus hotels for their hospitality, as well as the twenty-six Embassies of the EU member states in Athens for their valuable help

This is the full translation of the article by the winner of the European Young Journalist Award, Greece, 2008