When I joined AEGEE, as a young 29 year old, I had a keen interest in East European politics and the progress of 'citizens diplomacy'. To me, the idea of ordinary people undermining political dogma by relating directly with one another was very appealing. This was what appealed to me about AEGEE - AEGEE was and is about students building bridges across Europe, and there is no national structure to allow national politics to get in the way. I therefore agreed instantly when, as a new member of the CD after the April 1988 Agora in Milano, Johannes Heister asked me to convene an East-West Working Group. There was an EWWG meeting on 4 June 1988 in Berlin on the occasion of the AEGEE-Berlin culture congress, the first after the expressions of interest at the Milano Agora. Less than a year later the EWWG was to return to Berlin for the great congress on East-West relations organised by Georg von der Gablentz in the Reichstag in May of 1989. By that time I was already an ex-CD member, for reasons which will become apparent.
When the enthusiasts on the early EWWG met at this first meeting, about 12 of them, we all perceived the limitations of the AEGEE framework with respect to Eastern Europe. Really AEGEE was still an organisation for students from the EC, and as such the remit of the EWWG was to organise visits and seminars and to promote conferences on the 'problem' of East-West relations. At that time, a year after the June 1987 Communist Party plenum at which Gorbachev announced 'perestroika', it was the influence of the new political thinking in the USSR on the hardline East Europeans which was so exciting. There was extreme interest in dialogue with the Russians first, then the East Europeans. The EWWG had a role in promoting this dialogue and that is what it set out to do. There was dialogue in the EWWG meetings, dialogue in the antennas which established their own groups, and dialogue in the high profile events such as visits to East Berlin, Prague and Kiev, and the congresses with participants from the East.
It was one such visit which go me in to trouble with the AEGEE directorate. In the summer of 1988 I attended a peace camp organised by the communist Committee of Youth Organisations of the Ukraine (KMO). This was a stylised event completely without spontaneity, but with dialogue. Lots of it. For two weeks we picked peaches in a Crimean state farm, sang Yugoslav and Russian folk songs, swam in the Black Sea and enjoyed the international atmosphere. The guide and interpreter of our small British group (actually two of us 'Britons' were Columbian), was Igor Sarapin, who was present at the Berlin Conference on East West Relations and was one of the first East Europeans to be present at an AEGEE event. Igor organised for me to visit the Union of Soviet Students in Moscow on my way back to England. We had discussions about opportunities for dialogue and collaboration, and I was amazed to find that they had a thick dossier on AEGEE and its activities. The KGB was apparently not yet demoralised and ineffectual.
On my return, I reported this visit in an issue of the EWWG paper, the East-West Bulletin. Soon afterwards, I received angry phone calls from other members of the CD referring me to resolutions of Agora stating that the Soviet Union was "not Europe". I arrived one night in September 1988 in Saarbr|cken railway station for a CD meeting the following day. AEGEE President, Frederic Pelard and other members of the CD met me at the station, but I was surprised at the powerful welcoming committee. There was a very strange atmosphere. Few words were spoken. People walked staring at their shoes. I sensed that something was not quite right.
The next day at the meeting Fred introduced the agenda. Uwe Wissenbach from Mainz, a CD member, was to be sanctioned for allegedly inviting the creation of an AEGEE antenna in Leningrad during his visit in the summer. This contravened the resolutions of the Saville Agora in Autumn 1987 which stated that the extension of AEGEE outside the EC was permissible only in countries where democracy and a 'feeling of belonging to Europe' existed. The latter was debatable in the case of the USSR, but the former was not. We voted on Uwe's expulsion from the CD. A Frenchman, Alain, abstained. A combination of peer pressure and a sense that Uwe had gone too far caused me to vote in favour. Uwe was expelled almost unanimously. Then, by way of poetic justice, I discovered that it was my turn to be put on trial! They asked me; "What was the meaning of your visit to Moscow?". "How could you consider relations with the Soviet Students' organisation?" "EXPEL HIM!" And out I went. So did Alain who was expelled for being 'generally uncooperative'. Although these scenes appear comical now, it is ironical how faithfully this piece of political theatre recreated the atmosphere and the modality of Stalin's purges! What about democracy in AEGEE? What about dialogue? Indeed, the CD was heading for reform too, and George von der Gablentz used his Presidency effectively to introduce some much needed 'glasnost'.
Some themes which drew our attention in the early EWWG are relevant to successor working groups, so it is worth saying something about them. In particular, there is the theme of German-German relations and the particular interest which German students have always shown in 'ost politik'. This manifest itself in local EWWGs in several German antennas, notably in Bonn and Berlin, and in the 75-85% German membership of the AEGEE-Europe EWWG. The activists in Leipzig created the first East European contact group as soon as the AEGEE rules would allow it, and thereafter the role of the Eastern German antennas has been to draw other East Europeans into the network. This has been accomplished very successfully in Poland and Hungary, but less so elsewhere. The disproportionate participation of Germans in the EWWG was in fact less of a problem than a necessity because at the European-level the working group is a very difficult organisation to sustain. Thus, the EWWG benefitted then from the continuity of activities at a local level as it does today, thanks mainly to the enthusiasm and organisational abilities of the German antennas.
The second theme was exploration of the European 'other' made possible by exchanges organised by EWWG activists. I have vivid memories of the meeting organised by Christian Scherf with young Hungarian liberals of the FIDESZ party in August 1989. Many of those people are now top centre-right politicians in the Hungarian government, but before the end of the communists we were all thrilled by the energy and excitement of contact with the young pro-democracy movement. The sense of society in Eastern Europe is in marked contrast to the western rat-race, so in spite of the material failure of communism, we could not wait to mix with East Europeans and perhaps rediscover some of the sense of purpose which many westerners have forgotten. What will happen to this sense of purpose now? Perhaps this is a question for the analysts of the New Europe?
The final theme of current interest is the theme of European integration, of widening versus deepening and the question of European identity. Of course these questions are virtually unanswerable, which is why we spend so much time trying to answer them. I am glad that the pragmatic approach - to give as many young people as possible the chance to participate in the AEGEE movement - is the approach which prevailed. In a real sense, AEGEE is not a forum in which the limits of European integration have any relevance. What is important is that we retain the values which have driven the movement forward. We believe in the idea of Europe and reject nationalism because we have proved over and over again that our common European culture gives us the 'connectivity' to live and work together. Since the historic decision at the Salerno Agora in November 1989 to offer the network to EFTA and East European countries, AEGEE adapted to another definition of Europe beyond the EC. Subsequent decisions in 1990 and 1991 have consolidated the position of East Europeans so that they are now full members, but that is another story.
The lesson of those early debates on expansion is that AEGEE's values
are much more important than its rule book. If we all carry this lesson
into our working lives then Europe will be a much better place for it.
Today I am a Tempus coordinator on a project in Minsk, a participant
in a Tempus in Debrecen, and a collaborator in educational development
in St. Petersburg. Hardly a day goes by when I do not draw
on my EWWG experience for inspiration.
I think that is what AEGEE is all about.
Speaker of the East-West Working Group, 1988/89