Global Policy Forum

A Generation on the Move in Europe


For Continent's Young, Borders Are No Longer an Obstacle

By Keith B. Richburg

Washington Post
July 22, 2003

For a glimpse of Europe's young generation on the move and the future of the borderless continent, head to the late-partying Spanish capital, drink a strong shot of coffee and try to keep up with Stina Lunden, a 25-year-old Swedish transplant.

Lunden stands out in Spain -- she is blonde, blue-eyed, Nordic-looking -- but she speaks fluent Spanish, writes in Spanish for Tiempo, a Madrid-based newsweekly, and has thoroughly adopted the young Spanish lifestyle. When she left her desk one night last week, the drill started with beer and tapas at an outdoor restaurant. Next, over to the Plaza de Toros, the open-air bullfighting stadium, for a concert by the Oxford rock band Radiohead. Then, after midnight, over to the trendy La Latina district where the young crowd spilled onto the sidewalk at El Bonanno's bar.

Her group of friends is a mix -- Madrid locals, but an Italian and a Brazilian, too -- and the conversation comes in rapid-fire Spanish, and sometimes English. "You can't do this back in Sweden," she said, as the clock struck 2 in the morning. "People don't go out like this, and stay out this late."

Lunden is part of the new "Generation E" -- E for Europe, a continent that has been essentially without borders for most of Lunden's and her peers' adult lives. For them, traveling from Sweden to Spain is about as simple as it is for an American college student to take a spring break drive from the Northeast to Florida.

While bureaucrats in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, toil away at highly technical regulations aimed at forging a single, more integrated Europe -- with rules on everything from aviation to how to store fresh cheese -- a new society is being created much faster on the ground, by people in their twenties and thirties for whom the ability to live, work and study anyplace on the continent is now taken as a birthright.

Educated young people like Lunden are traveling farther from home, crossing borders to study and work, learning more languages, building cross-cultural friendships -- and chipping away at the old national stereotypes and animosities of their parents' generation.

A 28-year-old Finnish pediatrics nurse who is working in Dublin and buying a home there says she has no intention of ever returning to Finland. A 22-year-old French student with an Italian mother began playing rugby while on an exchange program in Oxford, and now feels comfortable speaking three languages and spending time in various countries. A 21-year-old Italian student, whose girlfriend is half-Finnish and half-Greek, says: "My passport is Italian. I am more and more European."

"The main sign of change in this country is how the young people speak several languages, which is entirely new," Noelle Lenoir, France's minister of European affairs, said in an interview. "Europe is too small for them. They are citizens of the world."

She added: "Each time I meet young people, students, I find them very, very European. It's a changing world -- and it makes us look very, very archaic." Under the rules of the 15-country EU, people crossing borders often don't have their passports stamped and don't need to register anyplace. That, in part, has fueled travel, but it has also made it difficult to put numbers on youth mobility. One telling sign, however, can be found in the Erasmus student exchange program, which for the past 10 years has allowed young Europeans to study around the continent.

The other main factor fueling youth mobility is the advent of budget airlines, such as EasyJet and Ryanair, which offer cheap flights between European cities. Whereas the last generation traveled by train, members of Generation E can just as easily, and as cheaply, hop a flight. Lunden, for example, said she returns to her home in Lund, in southern Sweden, once every three or four months, at a round-trip cost of only about 225 euros, or $255 at current exchange rates, for the 1,300-mile trip. "This is a borderless Europe," said Daniel Keohane, a 27-year-old Irishman working as a researcher for the London-based Center for European Reform. "Me and my friends, we all worked in Germany over the summer." He added, "We take these things for granted."

There is also a class element to the new mobility. The young Europeans who are relocating are most likely to be the university-educated elite, not factory workers or farmers. "Probably about 50 percent of my friends [from school] are working abroad now," said Alexander Stubb, a 35-year-old Finn working with the European Commission in Brussels. "But probably only about 1 percent of the people I played ice hockey with are working abroad."

Stubb said the total number of people moving is small, perhaps 2 percent of the EU's workforce. "It's nice for a journalist, an academic or a Eurocrat," he said, using the slang term for the EU's international civil servants. "But it's not that nice for a construction worker. . . . It's not very easy if you are a farmer in Poland just to leave your farm."

Still, the movement of young people is quite visible, particularly as it converts some of Europe's once-sleepy capitals into more cosmopolitan, vibrant centers. Dublin, for example, has been transformed by an influx of South and East Europeans who have flocked there to learn English and to work in pubs, hotels and the flourishing call-center industry as company representatives talking to people all over Europe by telephone.

The flow is creating a small but growing group of young people for whom "Europe" is home. They may feel no particular attachment to the formal signs and symbols of the New Europe -- the EU's blue flag with yellow stars, the European anthem, a nascent constitution that few have actually read. But they do feel comfortable in several countries, cultures and languages.

Far From Home

Stina Lunden in many ways typifies the new European. She studied French and history in Sweden, then at age 17 spent a year in France as an exchange student, living in a small town in the Pyrenees. At the school there, many of her friends were from Spain, and that sparked in her an interest in learning Spanish. Later she took a five-month language course in Spain. After graduating from a journalism school in Stockholm, Lunden applied for a Swedish scholarship to fund an internship in another European country. She decided on Spain, and targeted the newsmagazine Tiempo.

"I called and I had my phrases written down," she said. "I knew how to say scholarship and Swedish and journalist." She had learned French during her high school year abroad, which helped. And like many young Swedes, she speaks English extremely well. She came to Madrid in April 2002 and has stayed on past her six-month internship, writing in Spanish about international affairs as a freelancer. "All my friends are from different places," she said, speaking over a dish of bull's tail and Spanish red wine, just before the start of a flamenco show in one of Madrid's oldest traditional restaurants. "You have scholarships and all of this helping you -- that's the whole idea of Europe."

Lunden took off in June to return to Sweden. While she manages the commute several times a year, she said it feels increasingly difficult to readapt to living in Sweden. On her first night home for an Easter vacation, Lunden said, she had a frightening dream. She dreamed that she could speak only French, and her mother couldn't understand what she was saying. "It's like I was losing touch with my roots," she said. "I'm glad it was just a dream, because I'm not. Of course, when I go home, I need a few days to 'go home.' "

A Man of Many Tongues

In the past, the biggest obstacle to mobility -- besides cultural animosities and stereotypes -- was language. But that has never been a problem for French student Thomas Gilbert. He spent much of his childhood in Germany, where his father was working with the military. Now he finds himself equally at home in both cultures -- he is in many ways the New European that Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, former leaders of Germany and France, dreamed about generations ago. "What am I?" asked Gilbert, a thin young man with curly red hair who looks younger than his 20 years. "I am French because my parents are French. But when I'm in Germany, I'm thinking in German, I'm even dreaming in German."

He is now living and studying in Brussels, capital of the New Europe, at a school for comic book art and cartooning. In school, he meets budding young illustrators from across the continent. He speaks English as well as French and German. And his girlfriend, also at the art school, is a Swiss who speaks English, German and Italian as well as French. But Gilbert believes that the trend toward mobility is lagging in some countries, such as France. "A lot of French people are still afraid to go to Germany or to the U.K.," he said. "We are French first."

In a grungy student bar in a working-class part of Brussels, Gilbert and four other young people, all in their teens or early twenties, were discussing the meaning of the New Europe and their place in it. The group itself exemplified the topic -- Gilbert is a German-speaking Frenchman, his multilingual girlfriend was there, and seated around the table were two young Italian men and a 19-year-old woman who is half-Finnish and half-Greek. They shifted easily from French to English to Italian, then back again -- with few even noticing the switches.

"Each country has its own characteristics," said Thalia Vounaki, the Finnish-Greek woman. Her Greek relatives are very open, she said. Her Finnish relatives are generally more reserved. "It's not our goal to become a melting pot." "The U.S. is 50 states, but it's still one country," one of the Italians chimed in. "Here it's not the same thing." Gilbert is unconvinced Europe will become more integrated quickly. The problem, he said, is that "everyone still has his clichés." The Germans have preconceived notions about the French, the French about the Belgians, and so on. "In Europe," he added, "each country has a long history."

'I Feel European'

It was an Italian who said, somewhat derisively, that the new Europe would be created sexually. What he meant was that open borders would lead to more cross-border relationships, and over time national boundaries would have less meaning. Caroline Soole, an energetic 25-year-old with short blond hair, is a living example of that. Soole's mother is French and her father English. But her father is himself ethnically half-Danish. She grew up in France, and considers herself French. But she said, "I have this strong French culture, but I have this northern culture, which is English."

Soole was born in the French Alps, where her maternal grandparents -- of Portuguese-Jewish background -- imbued her with a strong sense of French culture. But she went to London as an adolescent and ended up in an international school. "I really liked being in an international culture," she said. "I think that was a turning point. Before, I was really French." After returning to France, she enrolled in a bilingual French and English school. She took part in student exchange programs that sent her to the United States -- where she lived near Columbus, Ohio -- and to Dublin. Then she traveled to Germany to learn German, came back to get a business degree in France and decided to return to Germany, where she got a job at a radio station in Berlin. With her international background, and ability to speak multiple languages, she was a perfect candidate for the French firm Pernod Ricard, where she now works as a junior brand marketer for Martell cognac. "You still have people my age who were born in a place and will stay in that place," she said. "But now you have more and more people who are ready to go. They are ready to leave their family and friends for their jobs and careers."

A few weeks ago, she was in the United States for work. The next weekend she was in Germany visiting her boyfriend. Then back to Paris, where she lives on Rue Montorgueil, a trendy cobblestone street. "I feel European," she said. "I'm feeling more connected, it's true. It's not having it in the blood, but getting to know the different cultures. . . . When you're in Paris, you can go to Brussels on the TGV [high-speed train]. When you're in Biarritz [in southwestern France], you can go to Spain and look around. With the euro as well, you feel closer."

Soole recalls that, when she first decided to go to Germany, the main problem was selling the idea to her grandparents. "They still had memories of the war," she said. For them, "It's too far, too difficult, too dangerous." Now Soole has a German boyfriend, the same one she met when she was 19 on her first trip. He has since come to France on occasion to learn French. She said it took time to persuade her grandparents to accept her boyfriend. If they ever get married and have a family of their own, the children will be half-German, a quarter-French, with English, Danish and Portuguese blood thrown in. "More and more, it's becoming like this," she said. Soole still has other goals. "The next step is learning Spanish," she said.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.