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High School Students Attend UCLA Briefing on the European Union

High School Students Attend UCLA Briefing on the European Union

UCLA seniors present history and current hot political issues of the European Union to 160 Pacific Palisades High School students.

By Leslie Evans

The real reason for opposition is the fact that Turkey is an Islamic country.

Four UCLA seniors, all European Studies majors and Junior Teaching Fellows, conducted a two hour briefing April 14 for some 160 local high school students taking Advanced Placement European History classes. The special outreach program was sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies and funded by the Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, through a grant awarded jointly to the European Union Center of Southern California at Scripps College and UCLA. It was organized by Ann-Christina Knudsen, Chair of UCLA's interdepartmental undergraduate major in European Studies. The students were all 10th graders from four classes at Pacific Palisades High School. They came by bus to the Westwood campus, accompanied by their teacher, Ron Cummings.

The overall title of the talks was "European Integration and Disintegration since World War II." The undergraduate lecturers made very creditable presentations, worthy of any graduate student or junior faculty member. Shain Alexander gave a short history of the formation of the European Union. Mary Martin spoke on the EU's first round of enlargement and the reservations in accepting member states with markedly different cultures than the north European mainstream. Julie Labin examined the issue of immigration and the challenge it poses to advocates of ethnic homogeneity within the EU. And Jimmy Rollins took up the tensions between rising nationalism and the efforts to increase the authority of the pan-national European Union. The event was held in the Korn Auditorium of the Anderson Graduate School of Management. All of the presenters had studied in Europe during their undergraduate careers at UCLA.

The designation Junior Teaching Fellow comes from an outreach program sponsored by the European Commission's delegation to Washington. The participating UCLA undergraduates receive both academic credit and a scholarship. Ann-Christina Knudsen says, "They were selected for the fellowship on a competitive basis, among quite a good pool of applicants." Knudsen noted that "today's presentation was probably the cap-stone experience of the fellowship, but they have been giving several other presentations to L.A. high schools on the European Union, its history and place in twentieth century Europe -- which were equally received very well. I've been the faculty director of the project, but the Junior Teaching Fellows decided on the content and structure of the presentations themselves, integrating knowledge from other courses that they had at UCLA, and their experiences from studying abroad."

Steps toward the Creation of the European Union

Shain Alexander traced the desire for a pan-European entity from the failures of the post-World War I system with the polarization of the continent between fascist and communist states and parties in the 1930s through the physical division of Europe into East and West zones after World War II. He pointed to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 by France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg as the first step on the road to the European Union. This was transformed into the European Common Market by the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

Great Britain, he pointed out, refused to join until 1973. The Common Market slowly expanded, and transformed itself in turn into the European Union in 1992, confirmed with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993. "Next month several of the former Soviet states will join," Alexander said. At each stage there has been controversy and difficulty in passing on to the supranational entity functions that have a long history of rootedness in the nation-state. For example, Alexander said, "only 12 of 15 states use the Euro currency."

Is Turkey a European State?

Mary Martin studied in Italy for three months and then in Spain. Her talk used Turkey as an example of the wariness of the principal countries of Europe in broadening the Union into culturally distinct regions. Turkey has tried for decades to gain admission to the EU and its predecessors. "It was finally accepted as a Candidate Country in 1999 at the Helsinki Summit," Martin said. Opposition to Turkey joining has been raised citing its Kurdish problem and its dispute with Greece over Cyprus. Also that the Turkish economy is weak. Martin suggested that all of these considerations had a direct analog in the discussion over admitting Spain in 1986. In her opinion the real reason for opposition is the fact that Turkey is an Islamic country, although with a secular government. She noted that Catholic Spain and Poland have actually proposed to make a reference to Christianity in the European Union treaty.

Martin's conclusion was that Europe is already too diverse with too many minority nationalities for an argument against Turkey based on the claim that there is a coherent European identity to be convincing.

European Homogeneity and the Immigration Issue

Julie Labin has studied in Spain. One of the requirements of a European Studies major, she told the high school students, is to study abroad for at least a semester.

The first big wave of immigrants into Europe came in the post-World War II period, she said. This was "to help in reconstruction." Other immigrants came from the colonies, many of which did not gain their independence until the 1960s. Finally, there have been several waves of Communist refugees, such as after the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

"Europe has not yet dealt with its changing homogeneous identity," Labin said. "There is still the notion of a homogeneous nation-state where people look the same and speak the same language," although this more and more diverges from reality.

Immigration between states became an issue in the 1980s, she said, "when Southern European states including Spain, Portugal, and Greece jointed the EU. The existing states feared an influx from these countries into the north. Instead many already in the north returned to their homelands." The EU is scheduled to accept 10 new states for membership on May 1, 2004, mainly East European countries of the former Soviet Union. "There are 380 million in the existing EU," Labin said. "They will gain 75 million more with new adherents next week." The new members are to be Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia. Labin commented, "Their citizens will have the right to move. Germany and Austria are specially concerned because of common borders with some of these states."

A third category is non-European immigrants. "France and Germany are strengthening their national character," Labin said. "The average European sees themself as French or German, not European, but they do know how to refer to non-Europeans." Between low birth rates of the existing populations and large-scale immigration from developing countries, Labin said, it is projected that by 2090 Western Europe will have a nonwhite majority. She pointed out that already today Muhammad is the 13th most popular name in Britain.

The Rise of Right-Wing Nationalism in Europe

Jimmy Rollins took up some of the more divisive issues surfacing in today's Europe. The drive to create a European super state has evoked a nationalist reaction that has propelled to prominence neo-Nazi and other ultranationalist right wing political currents. Rollins reported a poll in which only 55% of Europeans would say that membership in the European Union is a good thing. "85% agreed that they were proud of their nationality but only 61% said they were proud to be a European," he said. Rollins spent the whole of last year in France.

Despite the virulence that often accompanies the discussion of immigration and foreigners, Rollins reported that the number-one concern of Europeans as shown in recent polls is unemployment. The jobless rates in Europe are generally considerably higher than in the United States. "Immigration is only the number-five concern," Rollins added, although immigrants are often blamed for taking the jobs of native citizens.

He asked the audience if they agreed with the recent ban on religious symbols and clothing in French classrooms, mainly aimed at the head scarves worn by Muslim women. A large majority of the Los Angeles high school students raised hands to signify they disagreed with the French ban on religious symbols in class.

Rolliins showed slides of some of the newly emergent political leaders of the nationalist European extreme right: Jean Marie Le Pen in France, who opposes the Maastricht treaty. Joerg Haider, leader of the Freedom Party in Austria who won inclusion in a coalition government in 2000, and gives talks to groups of former Nazis. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, from Lombardy, who calls for an independent country in northern Italy.

"The common position of the far right," Rollins told the students, "is against immigration and multiculturalism. They oppose the European Union in defense of national culture."

Center for European and Eurasian Studies