When I last wrote, I discussed my perceptions of the differences that exist between collective national identities and a collective European identity, and how various manifestations of this difference significantly influence the status and future of the European project. I wrote that the formation of the EU, along with increased levels of globalization worldwide, have threatened notions of a single “national culture,” from the beginning, and have spelled difficulties for Europe long before the current migration crisis. I proposed my notion that the death of this “national culture” as it is currently understood is ultimately unavoidable. In hindsight, and with the benefit of evaluating this issue from a new perspective (I write from the United States, rather than Austria) I would like to append some additional thoughts to this mid-trip reflection.
This year in Dr. Ceka’s West European Politics class, we discussed how humankind has a tendency to marginalize a group of people, particularly an immigrant group, and how, years later, these people are no longer subject to such marginalization. In the United States, such groups as Catholics, the Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans at one point faced widespread discrimination. In time, however, and with the growth of a new generation, demographic changes that once elicited fear and resentment are no longer perceived so negatively. Perhaps that is because this young generation lives long enough to see that such changes have improved, rather than undermined, the wellbeing or character of their homeland. Nevertheless, new policies and popular sentiments emerge when this new generation gains greater social and political power (capital). Ultimately, when the young demographics’ influence overpowers that of its parents, changes to society and culture are cemented and far less controversial.
When applying this concept to Europe, it struck me that this process has become largely incapacitated, if not outright broken. On one hand, globalization in the past decades has caused cultural and social changes to occur in Europe at an unprecedented rate. Meanwhile, the older, generally more conservative demographic, is larger than ever before; life expectancy has risen and newborns from the decades following World War Two are approaching, or in, old age. What is more, the birth rate in Europe has declined, and the younger demographic will not overtake the older one for many years to come. In summary, generational turnover has slowed appreciably. Change has become more rapid, whereas society’s natural process of response and acclimation is faltering. For an example of the potential effects of this, one need not look further than Brexit, an issue heavily polarized along age lines. This mechanism will only become more significant in a Europe dominated by populist leaders, whose policies will ostensibly follow majority preference under the guise of representing “everyone’s” best interests.
It is interesting to note that many of the Muslim immigrants to Europe bring traditions and customs that are diametrically apposed to the so-called “progressive” values championed by the same young generation that most strongly favours the immigration of these peoples. The younger generation, already trodden by the dominant political and social influence of older countrymen, encourages the immigration of people who, in many cases, are not inclined to support its other causes. While this is essentially a case of shooting-oneself in the foot, it enables pro-migrant politicians to rally support by distancing themselves from, and denouncing, the allegedly racist policies of those who are less fervently pro-immigration. It remains to be seen how long this system will function, but it strikes me that such a system cannot exist forever, particularly as this younger generation, born in a globalized world, ages. I am curious if the young generation will continue to be largely pro-immigration, as the system of change I have outlines predicts, or if this generation will come to reject its pro-immigration tendencies, due to the issues I have outlined. Certainly, terrorist attacks and a slowing economy do not work to the benefit of immigrants, especially in the context of Europe’s staggeringly high levels of youth unemployment. Ultimately, although change is the essence of society and culture, Europe faces unique challenges that threaten the very process that allows change, and society, to coexist.
The importance of this trip became more prevalent to me when I landed in the United States and, regrettably, immediately felt more distant to the issues that Europe is experiencing. It strikes me that one can comprehend neither the magnitude nor the context of the migrant crisis in Europe from across the Atlantic Ocean. To repeat a point made to us repeatedly during our stay in Vienna, the issue of migration in the United States is very different from that in Europe. The scope of this difference is one I only now appreciate, having traveled to Austria. The European migration crisis is unique, and is far more controversial and divisive than I had understood it to be. Although I left this trip far more informed about the issue at hand, this trip highlighted the difficulties of, and barriers too, creating a viable solution. Whereas we constantly diagnosed this matter, rarely, if ever, did we discuss tangible steps towards solving it. Of course, this is to suggest that a solution exists, which I am now inclined to challenge. This is interesting to me, as I feel that it is in contest with my academic life in Davidson, in which I am encouraged to develop answers, or solutions, to a problem’s that have “correct” answers.
This trip was one of the first times that I, as a Davidson student, have felt as though I was working to solve something with an unknown answer. It was a very valuable experience to work alongside faculty members in attempting to understand and attending to this issue. As a student I sometimes feel that my work is worthwhile only with regard to its impact on myself, yet this trip made me feel like an academic, working to develop the world’s knowledge about an issue. Turning this knowledge into policy, in a way that fully accounts for humanity, is the defining challenge of Europe’s migration crisis. Our visits to UNHCR, IOM, and OSCE prove that this process is underway in Europe, and we can only hope that future policy makes every effort to capture the human element of migration. Above all, this trip made me appreciate the interconnectedness of academia and policy, and the importance of academia’s capacity to capture issues pertaining to humanity and humankind.
I found this trip particularly valuable insofar as my growth as a student, due in part to the variety of academic disciplines represented by Davidson faculty members. I have never taken a class within the Gender and Sexuality Studies department, or the Sociology department, nor have I studied anything within the context of these disciplines. I found it impressive how the professors on this trip were able to use the information we learned in such a way that it was applicable to their respective fields of study. By association, I felt encouraged to perceive things in a similar light, which is something I don’t believe I would have done, or had the knowledge or vocabulary to do, otherwise.