At the turn of the 20th century Vienna was one of Europe’s major intellectual, cultural and political centers.
Its diversity and forward-looking character attracted the best minds of contemporary science, art and political life. While being the capital of the Austrian Empire, it became a home to many people coming from various backgrounds. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews living peacefully together, newly rich families from the farthest corners of the Empire trying to reaffirm their lately gained status, poor students hankering for new ideas and intellectual challenges, young soldiers and hopeful politicians seeking opportunities and power. All these people created a unique atmosphere where, for a brief period, words and ideas, not guns, were used in order to achieve desired success.
One of those hopeful politicians was Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, who went on to become the first President of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. One of his favorite maxim was “democracy is a discussion”. Having a first-hand Viennese experience he knew that open, free and inclusive dialogue between all political actors enables a mutual understanding, leads to a cooperation and, in the end, brings peace and prosperity.
Having all of this in mind, the idea of bringing together people with different political and ideological background so that they could talk to each other, understand what divides them, but also find what they have in common and propound specific solutions to problems that we face in nowadays Europe, was born. IRI’s European Democracy Youth Summit (EDYS) is a materialization of that idea. And where else to have it than in Vienna, which is also where IRI’s Program for Central Europe is run?
Last month sixteen young political leaders from across the whole Europe gathered in Springer Schlössl, an old residence full of history next to Schönbrunn Palace, a haven of peace and tranquility in an otherwise big and bustling city, to open a real dialogue between them. They all had different ideological backgrounds. Some were Christian democrats of the Youth of the European People’s Party (YEPP), some were liberals from the European Liberal Youth (LYMEC) and others conservatives of European Youth Conservatives (EYC). Sure, they were very different individuals, coming from very different countries, and diverse backgrounds. But it is not what divided them that was important. All of them, being aware the uneasy situation in nowadays Europe, decided to lead by an example and show their older counterparts that inclusive dialogue and cooperation is necessary if we want to move Europe forward.
Of course, there were many intense discussions and disagreements during the three-day conference. And that’s natural. All of the participants had their own views and ideas based on who they are and what they believe in. And, frankly, as the discussion centered on crucial identity issues of party politics, Europe’s heritage and its future, as well as current issues such as immigration and the rise of populism or current state of European democracy, nobody was expecting them to agree on everything. Nevertheless, we saw all these young leaders determined to confront each other’s ideas and ready to offer a positive vision for the future of the continent. This is how they managed to agree upon the Common Declaration of European Young Leaders, a common document with specific suggestions to solve Europe’s major problems.
Interestingly, the first of the points they were able to agree on, makes a perfect summary of the mood of the conference: “We have more things in common than those that separate us”. As I followed closely all the debates, I can identify this phrase as the pivotal idea which defined this EDYS. For this new generation of European leaders understands that if we, as Europeans, focus on what unites us and work together and not only as to what differentiates us, we will be able to overcome all challenges in front of us. One of the participants, Karolina Stach, who works in the European Parliament for the conservatives, when asked to reflect what she experienced over the weekend, expressed her hope for the future: “we appreciate a common European project and understand that taking the responsibility into our own hands is the true nature of politics”.
In the 20th century, when the city of Vienna adhered to values of inclusive dialogue, cooperation and unity, it was considered a lighthouse in the middle of Europe, a safe haven for people of different nationalities and beliefs. During the years that followed, when fighting took over cooperation and hatred over unity, Vienna and the whole region turned into war-ravaged hopeless hell. It is of the highest importance to look back and understand what went wrong and what we have to do differently. It is comforting to see that today, as the ghosts of the pasts come back to haunt us, future political leaders understand this and are determined to act in order to bring unity, peace and prosperity to all people of free and united Europe.