Eighty students from 46 American universities and one European college gathered on campus Friday and Saturday to attend the first annual European Student Conference.
Participants came to campus to discuss the future of the European Union and to create a student-led think tank for EU policies during the two-day event. They arrived from colleges across United States — including Harvard, Stanford and the University of Florida — and a small cohort hailed the College of Europe in Brussels. The event, according to the conference website, was created in order to “give American and European youth a voice in pivotal transatlantic debates.” Through a series of five workshops and keynote addresses by European Union political figures, issues such as borders and immigration, democratic participation and European solidarity were discussed and debated.
“The impact of the conference lies in the fact that students around the United States of America … will start a debate on their campuses about which kind of Europe they would like to live in, and which kind of Europe they would like to contribute to — I think that is something that hasn’t really happened,” said Igor Mitschka ’15, ESC team president.
The five workshops, which were led by an amalgam of Yale University professors, scholars and European policy-makers, concentrated on the vital issues and challenges impacting the European Union. Workshops consisted of much more than idle discussion, according to conference organizers. Students presented policy papers on specific issues, which were then critiqued and discussed by presiding policy makers and professors. Each workshop then worked collaboratively to produce a cohesive collection of strategies, individual talking points and a specific policy recommendation, which were all presented at plenary sessions.
“We didn’t just want this to be a conference, a one-time event that participants went to, attended, had fun at and forgot — which is why we integrated this conception of a think tank into the project itself, so the impact of the conference really doesn’t end with this specific conference,” said Alicia Tee ’16, ESC director of logistics.
Tee added that ideally, students would establish branches of the ESC think tank — which they called European Horizons — at their home universities, and Yale would become the umbrella group for these different organizations. The groups would meet annually for future iterations of the ESC conference.
Speakers included former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair who participated via video message, and members of the British, Austrian and Italian parliaments — who flew to campus for the conference.
Lapo Pistelli, Italian vice minister of foreign affairs spoke about the impact of immigration in Europe and the need for “common standards of protection” — new common European policies to address human rights violations in immigration. Pistelli emphasized that immigration is not always a negative phenomenon, and said that in many cases the influx of new citizens leads to increased economic development.
“Mobility and the freedom to move is one of the fundamental freedoms,” Pistelli said.
However, he maintained that illegal immigration almost always leads to economic and social issues.
Andrew Duff, a British member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, spoke about the need for more cooperation amongst the member nations of the EU. Duff said it is important to establish the concept of common European citizenship and increase diplomatic participation.
Of the eight students interviewed, all said they found the conference to be a productive effort.
“We got to exchange ideas and think about what we could improve in terms of the future of the European union.” said Verdrana Damjanovic, a student at the University of Florida
The conference, which attracted more than 300 applicants, only accepted 80 students. Mitschka said the fundraising effort was a massive endeavor: They received more than $80,000 in a grant from the European commission, while other sources of funding pushed the program’s budget to over $100,000 dollars.
The event was sponsored by the Yale School of Management, the American Council on Germany, Amtrak and BMW Stiftung.
Correction: Feb. 17
A previous version of this article misstated that the conference accepted 80 students due to budgetary constraints. In fact, the number of participants was predetermined.