By Mao Yulin
Seated in the European People’s Party Hemicycle of the European Parliament, my thoughts started to wander.
Imagine the Hemicycle filled with all the important political figures from the member states of the European Union. Maybe a troublemaker seated at the far end in the section “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” stands up and proposes a radical idea, like another crazy suggestion to take apart the European Union. Why can’t these stubborn people see that the way out is to rise above the mess TOGETHER?
Except I wasn’t a member of the European People’s Party, but just an exchange student to the University of Mannheim, Germany. Neither was I at a European Parliament monthly plenary sitting, but on a class trip to visit the seat of the European Parliament.
My visit, in the French town of Strasbourg, wasn’t even the best part of the class “Understanding the Euro Crisis”, which I took during my Student Exchange Programme (SEP). In an interestingly unusual way, the class embodied a diversity of perspectives. What better way to enrich class discussion on the Euro Crisis than having citizens from both creditor and debtor nations debate? And the class happened to contain exchange students from various European countries and beyond.
For the first half of the semester, the instructor introduced us to the context. It was eye-opening to learn what was left out from politicians’ cry of mistreatment, as the dominant voices in different countries tell very different stories. For example, Germany, the tough de facto leader, cried foul that it was tightening its belt to feed Greece, but should of course conveniently forget the fact that it actually benefited from the Euro Crisis.
While we learnt about the current developments, students of different nationalities reacted very differently: Norwegians congratulated themselves for not being entangled in the current mess; Americans and Asians gasped at the fact that they were paying for the bailout as well via International Monetary Fund as part of the (in)famous Troika; the PIIGGS-country citizens observed deteriorating situation as their countries begged for more help.
The major divisions, however, were not based on geographical borders. Regarding the solution to the Euro Crisis, the class formed two camps: one anticipating fiscal union and further integration of Europe, the other predicting the death of Euro but a flourishing European Union without a common currency. As we each defended our positions, we began to better appreciate the intricacy of the relationships among European member states.
The academic experience had barely made it to top 3 of things I looked forward to during SEP. Now I realise I underestimated the unique insights that studying from ground zero brings. One becomes an insider and that can totally change one’s perspective on the issue. Many people find their travel experiences during SEP their most cherished memory, but I encourage everyone to keep your minds and time open to intellectual journeys. They will turn offer you an exciting adventure.