Master’s students get a taste of real-life policy processes in Malta
“What I discovered about myself during the Europe For Citizens conference in Malta is that I actually know something about migration,” said Adam Hussain, a British student of the UM/UNU-MERIT master's programme: Public Policy and Humand Development. “I was able to spread the knowledge that I have acquired to people who do not study the subject. It was a fulfilling experience to move away from theory and to see that my studies have a real-life application.”
For his fellow student Julia Pohl, a German-Turkish national, it was hearing the point of view of smaller states and villages in Europe that struck her most. “I realised that many of my arguments were based on academic evidence from larger states and bigger cities which, as many participants pointed out, have entirely different capacities to cope with globalised migration flows.”
“By discussing and interacting with fellow Europeans from diverse backgrounds, ages and most importantly perspectives, I realised that the study environment that I am used to at Maastricht University is a comfortable bubble of very similar people who think and work alike,” noted Alexe Ceulemans from Belgium. “I found out at the conference in Malta that this does not necessarily reflect the wider reality of citizens throughout Europe.”
Adam, Julia and Alexe were three of the nine Master’s students of the Public Policy and Human Development master's programme who took part in a three-day conference in Marsaskala, Malta, held on 17-20 April 2019 by the Douzelage European town twinning association within the Europe For Citizens programme.
Douzelage was established by 12 European middle-size towns back in 1991 with the mission to stimulate “opportunities and friendship across Europe through economic, touristic, sporting, educational and cultural exchanges” and has expanded over the years to 28 member towns — one in every EU member state.
The conference, “Integrate Together for a Better European Future”, was an initiative of Douzelage former Vice-President and Marsaskala Mayor Mr. Mario Calleja and his team from the local town council. “Malta has greatly benefited from its accession to the European Union in 2004,” explained Mr. Calleja. “At Douzelage, we believe that local communities have an important role to play in building the future of Europe. During our conference, we especially wanted to hear the voice of the youth on the challenges facing Europe today, in the context of Brexit and the rise of right-wing anti-EU populist parties across Europe. That is why we asked our sister towns of Bad Kötzing in Germany, Chojna in Poland and Meerssen in the Netherlands to bring youth delegations.” The nine Master’s students of UNU-MERIT, who as a group represented six European nationalities, had the chance to attend the event on behalf of the neighbouring municipality of Meerssen.
The programme included presentations, workshops and debates with local policy officials and practitioners followed by cultural excursions in the evening. The Douzelage delegations were able to discuss the future of Europe with experts from the Malta-EU steering and action committee (MEUSAC) and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). They also had a chance to meet with economist Robert Micallef, a lecturer in European Policy at the University of Malta, who as a Labour Party candidate in the European elections advocated for more inclusive EU integration policies. After each presentation, Adam, Julia, Alexe and their fellow public policy students made ample use of the opportunity to ask questions to the speakers, who commented more than once that they were impressed with the students’ level of knowledge and critical insights.
In Germany, refugees are integrated straight away into the school system. Younger children in particlar are placed straight into kindergarten; this allows refugees to be integrated into the community faster.
Varying levels of integration
During one of the workshops, the various delegations were invited to split into smaller groups to exchange their views and experiences on the topic of multiculturalism in Europe. More specifically, they were asked to discuss how the influx of new citizens, both Europeans and non-Europeans, had impacted local culture, and to present initiatives that municipalities could undertake to increase the integration and acceptance of foreign cultures in local communities. This workshop was led by local council members of Marsaskala and resulted in many new and sometimes surprising insights for the participants.
“I found it interesting to hear from a delegate of Bad Kötzing that in Germany, refugees are integrated straight away into the school system. Younger children in particular are placed straight into kindergarten; this allows refugees to be integrated into the community faster,” said Alexe.
“One of the most striking aspects during the discussions was to discover that Maltese diversity – cultural, linguistic and historic – is not reflected in the country’s migration policy,” said Julia. “It was very interesting to hear how, even in school, Catholicism permeates the local culture and frames the historical perception of the Muslim as the ‘significant other’. It influences Maltese views of immigrants and refugees coming from the African continent and Middle Eastern countries: While (European) labour migration is welcomed with a large degree of consensus as a necessary and much-needed means to sustain Malta’s strong economic growth, when it comes to refugees, the ‘island’ and ‘limited capacity’ rhetoric seem to be more prevalent.”
“During the workshop one individual expressed an opinion about migrants in a harsh way. We were all uneasy: how could someone have such an opinion? This made me aware that we can’t assume that everyone has the same views and that we have to be able to talk about sensitive issues without judging. Being judgmental impedes the possibility of conducting a constructive discussion. I think that this is one of the most important lessons that I will take home from this experience,” said Alexe.
Reflecting back on the three-day event, the students said that it had helped them to develop a better understanding of Europe and a stronger connection with fellow Europeans. “Bottom-up independent citizens’ initiatives such as Douzelage represent for me the social aspect of the EU,” commented Adam. “They allow smaller communities outside of mainstream cities to foster relationships with similar communities throughout the EU and to feel involved with the European Union. I only wish these events had a larger presence in the United Kingdom as they would foster a much more realistic view on the European Union. They would enable people to form their opinions on the EU based on their own experiences instead of allowing other people to influence their thoughts.”
“Sitting on a ‘high moral horse’ and imposing opinions instead of listening and compromising is, in my opinion, part of the reason why the EU finds itself in a tough position these days,” added Julia. “Participating in this initiative taught me that it is essential to take into consideration all perspectives and demographics when thinking about the future of Europe.”
“As a young generation who benefits from programmes such as Erasmus exchanges and visa-free travel, we need to highlight how important the EU is for us. We need to show that we are better off when we work together — not when we isolate ourselves,” concluded Alexe.