Ronja Scheler is 27 years old and Vice-President of BETA - Bringing Europeans Together Association. In “real life” she works for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs on EU External Relations. She studied European Studies, Modern and Contemporary History and Law in Osnabrück as well as International Relations at the University of Sheffield.
Heidi Schulze is also 27 years old and does a Master’s in Communication Science in Dresden. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies, Media Technology, and English Studies in Braunschweig and went to the University of Amsterdam for her Erasmus. At BETA she is the Head of Public Relations.
Ronja, do you feel European?
Ronja: Yes sure. The good thing about identities is that they are not mutually exclusive. So if you’re German you can feel as a Berliner, or you can feel as a European of course. I studied European Studies, because I had been concerned with European Union affairs, or Europe as a continent for quite a while. Heidi and I have also travelled together to other continents. And once you leave the European continent you feel much more that there is some common feature, that it doesn’t make much of a difference whether you are French or German.
And you, Heidi?
Heidi: In general, I would argue like Ronja and say “yes”. But I guess, it also depends on the situation I’m in. If I’m in Berlin and I meet someone who asks me: “Which University do you study at?” Well, then I say: “In Dresden”. But when travelling to other countries, or even continents, I would usually go for a “I’m European”. So, the context I’m in does play an important role for me when thinking about if I feel European.
And what do you think constitutes a European identity?
Heidi: Well, all sorts of things. It certainly depends on how you experience Europe, and the European idea. Because of our association, we do have a lot of friends from all over Europe. So meeting them, we understood that they might have different viewpoints or ideas about certain topics. But in general, the experience showed me that we share many values and most interests, for example when it comes to general aspects of our lives, like going out, seeing that we are all about the same age.
Ronja: I would say it’s not very appropriate to say: “This is the European identity”, because people have very diverse cultural backgrounds, depending on what country or city they’re from. But I think there is a certain idea of how we approach things, how we think about things. If you go to China or India, you realise that this is really different. The gap between how we live in London or in Bergisch-Gladbach is not as big as that.
Let’s talk about your association. What does it do and what do you do there?
Heidi: At BETA – Bringing Europeans Together Association – we’re organising simulations of European politics. Our biggest project is Model European Union – or MEU – Strasbourg, which is held annually. The next version will be at the end of March. And I personally, work as Head of Public Relations and organise all the communicational work of the association. That includes social media, newsletters, the website, and so on.
Ronja: What is perhaps the most important part about BETA is that it’s an educational project. So, our idea is to bring young people in touch with European affairs and to make them understand what it’s all about. We don’t necessarily want to encourage people to be pro-Europe, we want them to engage with the democratic process, we want them to understand how the whole system works. As Heidi said, we have the Model European Union Strasbourg, which is very successful and very stable. But we started to expand the idea and now advise other student associations that want to run Model European Union simulations, so we reach much more people that way.
And how does that work?
Ronja: Actually, it’s rather a mutual process. We support these associations and they essentially help us to promote our vision. We enter into partnerships most of the time because someone else wants to organise an MEU simulation and then we offer our expertise and our knowledge in organising this.
So it’s mostly universities?
Ronja: It’s for example whole universities, yes, or departments. But it also includes other youth organisations, and sometimes even an individual group of people. So we have very different sorts of partners.
You just mentioned that it’s very educational. The European Union is this elite project. You meet all these people everywhere and then you find out that they come from privileged backgrounds. Are you working on getting the European Union out to “the regular guy”?
Heidi: We realised that problem for our association as well. If you want to participate in MEU, you have to apply by writing an essay and then the authors of the best essays get picked. As a consequence of course the people with the best education get into the project. So we realised that this is definitely an issue we have to keep thinking about. But the MEU Strasbourg application process hasn’t been changed fundamentally, yet. However, since travel costs are also a big issue in this context, we are currently working on a new project called MEU Online which will simulate the legislative process entirely online. This way also people who can maybe not afford to travel to Strasbourg, can participate in this online simulation.
Ronja: The MEUs of our partners take place in a lot of the Eastern European countries and the Balkans. Their fees are also cheaper, so they do reach more people. But it is definitely an issue that is difficult to tackle. We’ve tried some other things, for example we have been working on a project for MEU in schools, so we think it would be a good idea to reach students before they go to uni or do their vocational training. So there are some ideas running around in our heads. We are really trying to move beyond the main project.
Ronja, why did you join BETA?
Ronja: Well, I guess we have two very different stories. I studied in Osnabrück and a friend of mine organised the MEU Strasbourg, back then, for the second edition. Essentially, I participated because he asked me if I wanted to apply. Then after the conference, a few of us sat together and exchanged some thoughts and we thought it would be good to give a more sustainable structure to this whole project and that’s how BETA emerged.
So you are one of the first members?
Ronja: Yes, after participating in MEU 2008, I was in the organising team of MEU 2009 and ever since I was involved in one or the other project of the association. But in Heidi’s case it was a bit different, because I actually asked her to join…
Heidi: I never actually participated in MEU Strasbourg, which most organisers did, I guess.
So Ronja asked you to join?
Heidi: Yes, back then they needed someone for layout and design and I had worked with Photoshop and Indesign previously. So that was the reason for her asking me to join in. I loved the idea of the project before. Of course Ronja had explained to me several times how great it is – and well, after that I never left.
People say these upcoming elections will be watershed elections. What do you think will be the big topics in the campaigns?
Heidi: For our age I think the most important topic will obviously be youth unemployment.
Ronja: Yes, definitely. I mean the effects of the financial and debt crisis are very grave. We don’t feel it so much in Germany, but if you go to some countries further south, they still struggle with their daily lives. Especially the youth is affected. So youth unemployment will be a concern, but I think they will also be – not exactly overshadowed – but the euroskeptic parties are running some alarming campaigns. So that will also be a big topic, UKIP, or the AfD.
Some of the parties have selected their top candidates, but it seems quite complicated and confusing. The Greens for example have selected their European candidates online, but have also selected candidates for Germany from the same pool of contestants. So even for me this is confusing. What do you even think of selecting a top candidate?
Heidi: I do think it offers people the possibility to put a face to the ideas that are behind what the parties are doing. I mean, most people at our age probably don’t even know that the parties are different on the European level, compared to the national level.
Ronja: The problem behind it is that most of the individual national parties do not have European umbrella associations. The Greens are actually an exception in that they have the European Greens. But the others are still just put together from the different national parties. More or less, the national politicians run in the elections, and they still struggle for their own national candidates. But still, I think it’s a first step, it’s a first trial and we’ve not seen it before. I think that people like Martin Schulz can change that. He is a German, but is really known in other countries by now. So that’s where we have to go. There is this idea of having transnational lists for the elections, which is a great idea in my view. I hope that eventually we will vote for politicians or MEPs from other countries.
What is BETA doing for the elections?
Ronja: With BETA itself, we don’t have a public campaign to encourage people to vote, because we believe that our peers will vote anyway, as most of them are interested in European politics. But we have a Facebook page, with around 3,500 people following us, so that’s quite a lot. Through them we want to spread the word about the elections, share interesting websites, and links they can forward to their friends.
Ronja, where do you see the European Union in 20 years?
Ronja: (laughs) Well, I’m sure it’s still going to be there. An optimistic guess would see a Europeanisation of more policy fields. I’m not a federalist, so not necessarily saying it will be one United States of Europe, I don’t think that will be realistic. But there are a lot of policies, fiscal integration, foreign policy and others that need much more coordination. In my job I work on foreign and security issues, and this is definitely an area where we have to move forward.
And you Heidi?
Heidi: Well, I am a federalist and I am an idealist. I wish all countries would move forward together so we could really be one Europe and act as a global actor. But, as Ronja said, I don’t think it’s very realistic that this is going to happen in the next 20 years. There is still too much to be done. The whole idea is just too new, people don’t really know it. And this is essentially the starting point for all of BETA’s activities.
Thanks, you two!
all photos ©laurasoria