Check against delivery!

Commissioner Janez Potočnik

Knowledge, Creativity, Diversity – why my vote is important
Y Vote 2009 – European Youth Choice on Multiculturalism

27 March 2009 (Ljubljana, Slovenia)

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this Y Vote event on Multiculturalism. I suppose you might ask what I am doing here. At first I might not seem so qualified – I may, after all be out of the age range for the target audience for this conference. Maybe all you see is a suit and an EU bureaucrat, the inhabitant of one of those glass and concrete buildings I was reading about in the conference material. But I promise you, I was young once, I even have the photographs to prove it - and I have a real interest in two very important topics: engaging young people in Europe and in our future. Perhaps this is why I am here. I know that involving and mobilising young people is what the Y Vote event is all about. As Dragan Stojanovski's foreword to this event so rightly put it, the "EU matters to young people". I couldn't agree more, and we need to work really hard to turn young people into informed voters, voters who not only know when and where they can vote, but also WHY they are voting. On paper, the signs are not that encouraging; we would seem to be sleepwalking into an era of voter apathy – not just for first time young voters, but across the board. The statistics show that voter turnout in European elections has been in constant decline since 1999. At the last elections, in 2004, overall turnout was 45.6%. In some countries, like Slovenia, it was as low as 28.3%. What is happening? Are young people bored by Europe? Well, I don't believe that the absence of young people at the voting booths necessarily means that young people are not political. Far from it – I think that a far more likely explanation is that young people have changed beyond the recognition and reach of our modern political systems. They have grown up in a more fluid time than their parents, characterised – for example recently - by the faults which have lead to our global crisis economic crisis, a period characterised by an ever more individualised society dominated

by highly sophisticated marketing. It seems that young people feel less obliged to participate in systems of government that they feel alienated by and more likely to become involved in less rigid affiliations, or community networks, helped by some specific and clever pieces of technology. It may well be that social networking has replaced to a certain degree, the feeling of citizenship and national affiliation provided by countries or older political movements in the past. What I mean is that young people ARE political, just not in ways the older generation can grasp. And we are the ones who are going to have to change, not the young people. This new way of looking at the politics might explain some of the European paradoxes characterising the relationship between Europe's young people and its political institutions. Why they seem to be withdrawing from the European experiment while the powers of the European Parliament, for example, are growing, and while Europe matures as a political and social entity.

And part of this maturation process involves a rather recent turn towards more European research on governance and citizenship, which started only in the nineties. European research started to research Europe itself quite late. This is another paradox, it is true, but this one is more understandable, given the recent wider developments in European integration alongside the introduction of a more focused introduction of citizenship and the Constitutional debate. And in areas where the European Union is increasing its involvement, such as justice and home affairs and foreign policy, we see another contradiction that might be turning young people off Europe: it is a supranational entity, but then why doesn't it brand itself? The Lisbon Treaty doesn't include a flag or a hymn. I spoke earlier about our increasingly marketised society – who could sell Europe without a brand identity? Would Nike remove the 'Swoosh' from its clothes and shoes? I think not. It seems then that Europe can be a strange place for the young…and the not so young! And some of them are wondering where they fit in. This is of course something we have to deal with.

Ladies and Gentlemen My speech today is called 'knowledge, creativity and diversity' – an interesting threesome. The idea of policies based on knowledge might seem a bit abstract, but the reality is much more concrete. Knowledge is the new 'oil' which can keep the wheels of any economically competitive European Union moving. This is what we mean by a 'Knowledge Society'. A knowledge society is powered by thought and the people who generate it. And that's why the part of the European Commission I represent has been working hard to encourage the further creation of the knowledge society through a concept called the European Research Area. It's a simple concept with a very broad application. In a sentence, it can be described as a jigsaw of linked but diverse European research excellence, working to help Europe build new growth and jobs based on the freedom of movement of knowledge, while at the same time helping Europeans with the problems they face everyday, like disease or energy security or climate change. The movement of knowledge has been called the Fifth Freedom, and it describes how knowledge can move like goods or services. This is why, for example, the Commission has pushed the idea of 'mobility' in its work; encouraging mobility for researchers, knowledge workers, young scientists – helping them get where they want to go and giving them the careers and opportunities to help them along. The ERA is a knowledge factory with its own inventions, distribution and marketing – and its own workforce. Young people will, of course have a huge part to play in the knowledge society of today and tomorrow, perhaps more as they are the ones choosing now to be the researchers and scientists of the future, the ones who are going to see us out of the global recession and take us beyond it. And it goes without saying that the creativity and innovation that we are going to need to achieve a fully-working European Research Area will come directly from those young people we are trying to engage now. And engage them we must because in the same way that we want young people to vote, to empower themselves by making choices, we also want them to choose research and science as a career.

These young researchers and scientists, the hub of our future prosperity, are the young people who live in and are increasingly interlinked, integrated and globalised multicultural Europe. Diverse is a word that barely covers it. It is a widely multicultural society – and that is a good thing. Multiculturalism helps us evolve, it prevents stagnation, it's the new DNA in the chain of societal evolution. But is it possible to be multicultural in Europe? Can you be a European and a Slovenian, or a Spaniard or a Belgian? Is there a conflict here? I don't think so. The European Union is a very special type of political system which brings together AND respects the basic political principles developed by democratic states and which has progressively increased its political significance over time. It is a complex system of 27 deeply-rooted, parallel national citizenships, which includes at the same time both those ideas of citizenship from individual countries and those which come directly from being 'in Europe'. For me, this diversity and multiculturalism is the best of all possible worlds because it means being able to be proud of being both European and national as and when you want. I seem to remember that the motto of the European Union is 'United in Diversity'. That just about sums it up, doesn't it? Ladies and Gentlemen Why should people and in particular young people, participate in voting if they feel disempowered or more generally distant from political participation? If we look at it scientifically we can see that being a European citizen is a complex thing. Borders are becoming more porous in some ways (encouraged mobility is an example) while tighter in others. Notions of nationality and European identity are mixed in the melting pot of diversity and multiculturalism. I have said that I think this is a good thing and I'm reminded of something former US President Jimmy Carter once said. Multiculturalism for Carter was "a beautiful mosaic…of different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams. But if we want young people to engage in those hopes and dreams, we have to understand that we can no longer just appeal to a sense of 'civic pride' or 'responsibility'. We have to engage them both as young nationals and as

European citizens, people who want to make choices about the things that will affect them; things like security or food safety or equal opportunities. We have to help them know that their vote is an act of choice that really means something - and this is why I came to speak here today. Thank you for your attention.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful