Climate change, migration, right-wing populism, digitalisation: from 17 to 19 March, DAAD alumni from all over Europe came together to debate the future of the continent and develop strategies to tackle current and future challenges.
Wiktoria Zaton came to Germany from Poland at the age of 18 to study mathematics. Since she attended a Certified German Language school in Poland (PASCH), she received a scholarship from the DAAD to pursue both her bachelor’s and her master’s programme. While doing her doctorate, she changed direction and began working as a climate consultant. She gave workshops and got involved in climate scenario modelling as well as looking into the area of academic communication in connection with climate change. Nonethe-less, her experience as a participant at a large, EU-wide DAAD alumni meeting in Berlin at the end of March was quite unique. 'It was a setting I hadn’t seen before in terms of the interdisciplinary approach and mul-tiple perspectives.'
Zaton was on the team of leaders for the workshop 'Climate Protection (The European Green Deal)' – one out of a total of nine working groups that met at the event entitled Into the future – how can we move Europe forward?, with the aim of engaging in discussion on the current challenges in Europe and devel-oping solutions. A total of 149 alumni from 27 European countries attended, of which almost 90 were phys-ically present. The workshops were also organised on a hybrid basis, with some participants taking part in virtual discussions.
The groups were not only cross-border but also cross-disciplinary. 'We had people in the group who’ve never had anything to do with climate change in any detail before and absolute experts who’ve been doing research in the field for 25 years,' says Zaton. Despite the differing levels of knowledge, cultural and profes-sional backgrounds and even diverging political views, they were able to produce a two-page paper 'that ultimately everyone supported' after just four hours of discussion – something that Zaton finds “simply incredible”.
Professor Dr Andrea De Petris, DAAD alumnus from Italy and academic director of the Centro Politiche Eu-ropee at the Rome site, gained a similar impression of the event. De Petris was in charge of the workshop 'Displacement to Europe' on the subject of displacement and migration – something that has taken on a new dimension in view of the Ukraine war. De Petris says that when it comes to this kind of complex chal-lenge in particular, it is a great advantage to be able to hold a discussion with people from different coun-tries: 'We can all contribute different perspectives, compare these varied points of view and come up with new solutions.'
The working group advocated for a reform of EU migration policy in future, proposing use of the EU’s cur-rent decision-making power to arrive at a distribution mechanism that is genuinely sustainable for all par-ties involved. 'Of course, it also helped that we’re all DAAD alumni and are able to build on a common foundation of values,' says De Petris. He himself still benefits from his DAAD-funded research scholarships, which took him to German universities on two occasions. 'I still have contacts with German colleagues that have given rise to joint projects in some cases.'
The workshop 'The European Way of Life' – dealing with the preservation and promotion of a common European foundation of values – showed how valuable it can be to combine varied, country-specific per-spectives with an openness to international dialogue when it comes to developing sound solutions to complex issues. With regard to the current geopolitical challenges posed by the Ukraine crisis, the idea was to further develop the concept of an EU-wide support platform for vulnerable researchers – something that originally emerged from a previous Ideas Lab in 2021. Eight such regional Idea Labs were organised by the DAAD in the run-up to the major alumni meeting in Berlin between May 2020 and October 2021. Most of the workshops in Berlin built on the results of the previous Ideas Labs.
'Defining common European values is challenging,' said DAAD alumna Dr Kristina Lahl, who led the work-shop 'The European Way of Life'. 'As palpable as such values are for some, others may see them as being in need of debate.' So after a long, in-depth discussion, the group agreed on the concept of a platform to support initiatives – in other words more of a process of values-based European identity-building rather than prescribing values in a top-down manner. For DAAD alumna Katharina Vera Schlepper, who supported Kristina Lahl as an input provider, this was something that clearly derived from the shared experience of living in a foreign country. 'There’s simply a certain basic openness to other cultures – that’s what we all have in common as former scholarship holders,' says Schlepper.
At a workshop on the EU Compass 2030 – the European Union’s digitisation strategy – participants also chose to connect with the current debate on values. 'At the moment there’s a very strong focus on the aspect of technical innovation,' said DAAD alumnus Julian Andre Baum in his brief presentation on the outcomes. 'But it seemed to us at least as important to ask the question: how can digitalisation contribute to strengthening European values?' The group’s proposal: develop an extended EU Compass 2.0 that in-cludes the dimension of social innovation and promotes companies that take a multi-perspective approach – not only to science but to society as a whole.
The fact that many of the ideas definitely have the potential to be heard at the political level was demon-strated by the enthusiastic response on the part of a participant such as DAAD alumnus and experienced MEP Udo Bullmann, who took part in a panel discussion during the event. 'I was fascinated by the empathy and passion that went into developing ideas. That’s exactly the intellectual brilliance we need if we want to be able to meet the challenges ahead of us.'