Two weeks ago, I had the honour of chairing the roundtable on Globalisation and International Trade at the European Youth Debate 2017 in Milan. After months of lengthy and exhausting preparations, we finally had the opportunity to engage in a productive activity by formulating progressive and original ideas on how to fix some of the most dire issues the EU is facing today. This was a welcome change after the period of administrative work leading up to the event and it was a truly enjoyable experience to bear witness to the debates.
One of the key purposes of the EYD was to address the issues in an innovative and original way. Student and young people who already have enough technical knowledge to appreciate the complexity of the situation but are not stifled by bureaucracy (or complacency) can often come up with previously unnoticed solutions. Additionally, the variety of perspectives present at the EYD 2017 also contributed to lively and interesting discussions, highlighting the growing interest and engagement of the young generation in the European matters.
However, it was one particular idea voiced at my roundtable that caught my interest. While we were discussing the differences in the regional development in the European Union, which are further exacerbated by globalization and exposure to international trade (e.g. imports from China), we tried to find possible ways to ameliorate this problem that also poses significant consequences in terms of disenchantment of the citizens and subsequent support of nationalist movements, such as UKIP, FN or AfD. The current situation seems to fall short of realistically solving the problem - the EU budget is too small and limited by its 1.22% GNI ceiling and balance requirement, there is no fiscal capability on the EU side, the cohesion policy is often hindered by the lack of cooperation between the EU and the member states, often worsened by misuse of European funds and corruption.
The proposal, which might be deemed as utopian by many and marginal at best by most does have, however, some intrinsic beauty - why does the European Union not organize European events?
Far fetched though it may seem, there are reasons to believe it could actually serve the purpose. Firstly, there is something already existent that works along the similar lines - the European Capital of Culture for instance, which has a twofold purpose - to attract tourism to the particular respective city hosting the event through events partly funded by the EU and through the increased publicity, boosting the local economy; and to increase the sense of belonging to a larger, European family of nations which share the Union together. This is a good start, so why not expand it? In fact, if we look at the economic performance of the metropolitan regions of ECCs from 2001 (when the selection started to favour cities that were not the usual cosmopolitan tourist destinations but rather regional and specific centres) to 2005 (to allow some time to observe the sustainability of the potential boost in development before the Great Recession), we see that Rotterdam, Porto (2001), Bruges, Salamanca (2002), Graz (2003), Genoa, Lille (2004) and Cork (2005) - i.e. all of the European Capitals of Culture - enjoyed periods of increasing growth above average of their respective countries and metropolitan areas of their size. Of course, one could say there are many other omitted factors or that the European officials simply had a lucky hand when selecting the cities. Nonetheless, it is food for thought.
Some critics might easily point to the numerous examples of the Olympic Games cities going wrong and losing vast amounts of money and resources, indebting themselves for next decades. However, this is usually the case in the less developed countries which hosted the Olympics, at least in the recent years. While it is true that Brazil (Rio 2016), Greece (Athens 2000) have not handled the hosting too well from the balance sheet perspective (same applies to Russia (Sochi 2014) and China (Beijing 2008) although both countries used the Games as a propaganda tool for the local regimes). Yet we also have some very good examples in the UK (London 2012) and mainly Italy (Turin 2006) where the investments and revenues brought about by the Olympic Games proved to be extremely beneficial not only for the city itself but also for the surrounding area. Extending the subway lines, infrastructure building and new real estate development along with the revenues obtained from the spectators and tourists visiting for the event managed in a sustainable way actually fostered long-term growth in Turin, showcasing the potential such an event holds. Additionally, it can also serve as a good PR campaign for the region, attracting foreign capital and investment. Works on the infrastructure would increase employment and in turn also boost aggregate demand and spending, creating a virtuous circle of growth.
This poses a great opportunity for the European Union. Realistically, nobody expects the EU to organize an equivalent the size of the Olympic Games. However, events along the same line is not completely unthinkable - after all, the Commonwealth Games are still going today with a roughly similar group of countries in terms of size.
The Commonwealth Games also nicely illustrate the second very important aspect the imaginary European events. The are hosted by the countries that share a common (albeit colonial and imperialistic) heritage, culture and history. One of the goals of the Commonwealth Games is also to demonstrate what the countries have in common and to bring them closer together, both culturally and socially, which in turn should have an overall positive effect on the relationship between the countries of the Commonwealth. What's more, it seems to be working at least to some extent - Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand all have very good relationships with the UK even though they have gained complete autonomy and independence a long time ago. It is initiative like the Commonwealth Games that underline the positive things in common and perpetuate these sound relations.
However this all might sound as a wishful thinking, it actually is a viable policy proposal that tackles two of the most burning issues (differences in regional economic development and the lack of common European identity) at once. The events do not by all means have to be limited to sports, in fact the contrary is true. Music festivals, cultural events, interest group meeting - the selection is vast. It would not be that much of a difference to today as there is a sizable share of European funds subsidizing individually organized events.
MEP Elly Schlein used the somewhat ironic, yet accurate example of the Berlin protest against TTIP in 2016 as something that is largely missing from the public debate today - massive manifestations of the European civic society, albeit disagreeing in this case. This is what the European events could very well foster.
It is mainly the young generation that is actively looking for the common European identity. Europe should provide them with opportunities to find it.