Volume 15 Number 4
When the Past Becomes Present
01 August 2002

Anastasia Stepanova joins young Europeans on a journey to learn of the vision that led to the European Union

'Suddenly history has become a real picture,' I heard from my fellow participants in the Lorraine-Europe 2002 conference, which took place in May in the east of France.

Organized by Antenne Lorraine-Trois Frontières, a programme of Initiatives of Change in France, the event united some 25 young people in a journey through the long-disputed borderlands of France and Germany and through the history of Franco-German reconciliation, which led to the creation of the European Union. 'Only 50 years ago we would never even cross the border with Germany,' said my French hostess who spoke fluent German.

We represented 16 countries - Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Malta, Italy, Germany, Tunisia, France, Nagaland, Britain, Lebanon and the US - the whole palette of relations with the EU, including countries who hope to join soon. For me as a Russian, for whom membership in the EU is not even a remote prospect, it was a significant and quite emotional experience to see this living example of integration between people.

Our 'journey' started in Verdun, which has a similar significance for the French as Stalingrad has for Russians - evoking memories of two world wars. Its moving, vast battlefields, now covered with thousands and thousands of white crosses commemorating named soldiers and an enormous memorial vault for unknown fighters make you shiver in a total silence of respect.

'After experiencing the tragedy of war, Verdun has become a town of peace,' said Jean Laurain, a former French Minister and President of the French-German Entente Foundation. A symbol of this is the International Centre for Peace, Freedom and Human Rights in the former bishop's palace, where a young German recruit serving two years in the civil service showed us around the powerful exhibition.

Our next visit was to the home of Robert Schuman, the 'father of Europe', in Scy-Chazelles, near Metz. There we had a meeting followed by a lively discussion with Doris Pack, European MP for Saar, Germany, and Jean Seitinger, a President of the Robert Schuman Foundation, who as a French MP worked alongside Robert Schuman. 'Before joining the EU you should reconcile with your neighbours, not just simply wait for a miracle to happen,' said Pack, probably referring to our Eastern European mentality of hoping for avos (Russian for 'lucky fate') without doing much.

The most fascinating thing about the journey for me was that it was seen through so many different cultural and social lenses. This was particularly obvious during our feedback times. 'There's such a strong willingness to live together,' said Dorra Abida, a Tunisian student in France. 'To us it's been like a Utopia. But we haven't realized how much effort was made by Europeans to reach this stage. We are too far from reaching it in my country.'

'We see Europe as something very far from us and Europeans as people from another planet, who live in prosperity and success,' said Konstantin Ploskiy, Director of the Centre for Political Education in Ukraine. 'But we must not forget how Europeans have established friendships with other European countries based on trust, mutual help and understanding.'

'We need to focus on promotion of our own values and traditions, to show to Europe what we've got to contribute,' one of the participants pointed out. 'To build a larger united Europe let's not focus only on economic development as it doesn't reflect our people's values and beliefs,' said Daniela de Bono, a student from Malta.

In Schengen, Luxembourg, at the 'corner' of three countries (Luxembourg, France and Germany), we had a meeting in the Koch House where the Schengen Treaty was signed with the mayors of the three neighbouring small towns. 'How have you changed people's mentality and attitude so quickly?' asked a participant from Moldova. 'Through the positive impact of mass media and education,' was the reply. At that time it seemed quite an abstract response to me, but when our 'journey' was over it occurred to me that travelling the paths of history and meeting participants in the events had given me much more than boring history lessons.

Knowing and remembering history is the main prerequisite for keeping peace. All the current conflicts only prove the need to introduce such projects into the main curriculum in schools. UNESCO's motto suddenly sounded clearer to me, 'Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.'
Anastasia Stepanova

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