Saturday, June 12, 2010

Maastricht, NL: An example of cultural integration gone wrong

On the verge of leaving beautiful Maastricht after three years of study, it is interesting to look back at life in this mini-Europe on the border between the Netherlands, Germany, Flanders and Wallonia, because it shows interesting implications for European togetherness in general.

In my first year in Maastricht, 12,080 students were enrolled here, 37% of which were non-Dutch (most of them were actually German). In the English-language programs, the share of international students already exceeded 50% in 2007. In 2008, 39% of all UM students were non-Dutch; the share of foreigners in the English language tracks crept further upwards. The current figures are not out yet but I'm sure they show another surge as the university continues its publicity campaigns to get more of the esteemed German Abiturienten.

In my understanding, cultural integration runs along simple lines. You come to a country, learn the language, meet locals and curiously let them introduce you into the culture. Meanwhile, the locals play the host, are happy to share some of their culture with you and help you a bit in your language efforts.
And now imagine you're a 17-year-old Dutch high school graduate in a group of 100 fellow countrymen (and women), and 250 19-year-old Germans parachute into your city, speaking German all over the place. Kind of turns my understanding of cultural integration upside down, doesn't it?

In practice, many Dutch students fled into the Maastricht student fraternities and sororities which are a defining factor for college life in the Netherlands. From what I've been told, Maastricht has the highest enrollment figures in the Netherlands.

Those Dutch students brave enough to make German friends soon find themselves in a need to make a step towards their new friends, rather than drawing German curiosity for Dutch culture. One of my best friends (a Dutchman) learned to speak German without accent - by living in Maastricht for three years.

We even conducted a survey among our fellow students once and proved that "cultural integration happens not from the side of the guest culture, but from the side of the host culture". For example, 50 % of the Dutch and 66 % of the Belgians we questioned had signed up in the German community StudiVZ; not a single German participant had decided to enter the Dutch community Hyves, even though it is also offered in English while StudiVZ is completely in German.

Criticism on all sides has risen as the student community drifted farther apart over the years. My program European Studies is rather progressive, at least from what our research said. There are many intercultural friendships and non-Dutch students also read the Dutch-language University Newspaper Observant (10 pages in Dutch, 2 in English). But in the programs "International Business" and "International Economic Studies" with a German share of - apparently - close to 80%, integration has been difficult to bring about.

As many Germans turn their back on Maastricht and spend their summer vacation at home, the Observant this week published an edition written by the chairs of the four Maastricht fraternities. The four "pillars" of Dutch student life enjoy broad coverage while the dialogue between Dutch and non-Dutch student groups is limited to an English language interview about the clichés of Dutch fraternities that echoes the old confrontational lines: "German students have a different mind-set. They only come here to study, whereas Dutch students also want to enjoy life as a student. They need to be more open. Why don’t they try it just once?"

Leaving mini-Europe after three years of study, it is clear that much remains to be done to bring these groups closer together. Of course, Maastricht student life is far from the cultural clashes of Belgium/Belgium, Slovakia/Hungary, Estonia/Russia (getting better), Croatia/Slovenia (also getting better), Northern-Ireland and Bosnia, but it clashes nonetheless.

Finally, after a lot of criticism from student representatives and critical coverage in the media, the university established a project group for the improvement of student relations. I really hope that this will help to create closer bonds between the students at the university. The beautiful educated city between the Netherlands, Germany, Flanders and Wallonia does not deserve to be the place where cultural integration fails.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Accountability through the media - what is the value of science?

Two publications of political science that I recently had on my desk made me wonder where science stops and where investigative journalism begins - or vice versa.

In the first article "The Quint", Catherine Gegout investigates the secretive decision-making of Germany, France, the UK, Italy and the US in an informal working group before 2002. The group took decisions and more or less imposed them on the other Member States in the Council of Ministers without the possibility of them participating. Gegout interviewed multiple members of national bureaucracies under cover of anonymity and could slowly make sense of the informal body that Germany, France and the UK did not acknowledge at all and Italy and the US only mentioned in passing on the national websites.

The second article is Gijs Jan Brandsma's PhD thesis "Backstage Europe" in which the Dutch researcher brings light into the secretive comitology system of the European Union. National representatives are often not held accountable for decisions and yet they have a wide discretion in their actions:

(W)ithin only a few minutes the committee rushes through five official votes related to the points discussed before lunch, and the meeting closes instantly. Then Van Veen [name replaced] turns to me and smiles: ‘You saw that? We just spent 50 million here’ (p. 29).

Like Gegout, Brandsma based his research on personal interviews with decision-makers in national bureaucracies - under the cover of anonymity.

For me, these two papers provide a check on decision-makers in the way in which investigative journalism puts a check on them. But they are published in a scientific journal and will only reach the academic community and a few students. In consequence, this check is confined to an elite community. Will any policy changes result from these articles? Is that the intention of the scientist? Does he intend to saw the chair of a decision-maker, or does he see himself as the person providing the saw? And if he wants to actively saw, do policy-makers feel more threatened by revolting scientists than by revolting masses (i.e. classical journalism)?

You could argue that an important function of the European blogosphere is to find the little flaws in European policy-making which slip through the filter of the MSM, thereby providing an additional check on policy-makers. Science has the resources to provide the same.

But it is not enough to debate hot scientific findings in the scientific community. In the interest of public accountability, I would like those discussions to reach the media and the blogging community as well.

Update (30 January 2011): Don't miss the interesting take on the topic by Kosmopolito. And his add-on published here (3 March 2011).