A little while ago, as our readers may recall, we had a slight altercation with a young man, who, representing the 350 young Europeans, involved in the creation of the euro-youth website, EuroBabel (do they know what happened with that tower, I wonder?), informed me with kindly condescension that obviously I was too old to understand the beauty of the European ideal.
This argument, if one can call it that, comes up from time to time, though not very often. One’s first thought is rather a sad one. It is clear that the person in question has no real arguments in defence of his or her position and, therefore, far from being youthful and supple of thought, clings to the preconceived idea, shouting the only thing he or she can think of.
This is not a sign of youth but of premature sclerosis. One's second thought is that the young person in question has perceived the beauty of the European institutions and of a safe and well-paid career in it. (Perhaps I wrong my young correspondent but I doubt it.)
One cannot "love Europe". Not only this is a peculiarly nerdish thing to say, it is also an impossibility. If you "love Europe", you do not know it; you do not know its history, the variety of its culture, or the basis of any greatness its countries have achieved.
In my experience, the division is not between generations but within them. If one considers, as we have written before, that the fight against the European Union is also the fight against the whole international and transnational structure of people and organizations, whose aim is to overcome freedom and liberal democracy and to run as many people's lives as possible through their own regimes and networks, then it is clear where the chasm is.
There are those, in each generation who believe that social and political structures should be run by the great and the good (preferably themselves) and those who believe that as far as possible people should be free to run their own lives within free and accountable political institutions.
The key word is freedom, not Europe, though that is where the idea was produced, elaborated and, in the first place, spread through the world. Alas, the European Union is not, in that sense, a truly European institution but part of the great transnational network, indeed, its clearest political expression.
Well, we all know where those youngsters who tell us that everybody but themselves is either too old or too old-fashioned or too whatever they may care to say to understand the beauty of the project and "to love Europe". For the moment, at least, they are of what used to be known as the boss class. But some of them are young enough to grow out of it, I hope.
Most young people are, of course, just like not so young people with more time ahead of them. Their lives, dreams and interests are not all that different en masse from those of previous generations, except for one thing.
Travel has become immeasurably easier and cheaper. As a consequence, young people, as they are unencumbered by families and mortgages, travel more and wider. They look beyond Europe, which is, if they are British or Europeans, their backyard.
It is people of the older generation who might still think of Paris as a peculiarly exciting or dangerous place to go to. For an average twenty-something year old France or Spain is the place to go to for a week-end if nothing else is available. (Though something else, like Vancouver or Dubai, usually is.)
They leave school and spend their gap years teaching or working in African countries or in Australia or China or Russia. As for their working lives or their friendships, these have become more and more international. Europe is only a small part of it all. Which is why, of course, pace my self-appointed youth spokesman correspondent, it is so difficult to enthuse, really enthuse young people with the European project.
I have held this view for some years now and it was quite pleasant to have it confirmed by no less a person than Luke Johnson, Chairman of Channel 4 and Signature Restaurants, and a firm opponent, incidentally, of the European Constitution of Britain's membership of the euro.
In his column in this week's Sunday Telegraph he describes a meeting he addressed in Oxford.
Oxford Entrepreneurs is a student society run by an amazingly multi-cultural group of undergraduates. They come from everywhere: Hong Kong, Nigeria, Russia,Thailand, Singapore, Belgium, Portugal - as well as Britain. And a high proportion of members are women: at least a third of the 100-odd audience who came to hear me speak were female.The meeting took place in the Said Business School, filling Johnson with pleasure at the thought that even Oxford, which has been known to be a bit stuffy about taking money from business, thus finding itself in the demeaning position of being harangued and bullied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is beginning to see the value of entrepreneurship.
Oxford and other universities and colleges have clubs, societies, business fairs, science parks and other infrastructures for small companies. Many of the participants come from other countries and British youngsters, reared in the business despising educational world of the last fifty years, often lag behind.
But, says Johnson,
…Britain still boasts the highest participation rate in entrepreneurial activity in Europe, so we go for it more than some, at least.The non-British participants will still benefit this country and, if they then go back to their own homes, they will benefit their own country as well. In fact, entrepreneurship in young people is likely to benefit the whole world in the near future, whereas involvement with the European project will benefit no-one (except those actually involved).
We live in a cosmopolitan world; British undergraduates will emerge from their education all the better equipped for the modern world if they work alongside students from other countries.All undergraduates, whatever their subject, emerge better equipped for the modern world if they know more about it and work and study alongside students from many other countries. And, of course, if they continue to see the whole world as their oyster as, I expect, they will. Well, not the ones who "love Europe".