23 May 2019

Europe is ‘quite convenient’, but how can we understand it better?

Together with researchers from the Department of Human Geography & Urban and Regional Planning, as well as from elsewhere, the geographers Ben de Pater and Leo Paul of Utrecht University wrote a book entitled Europa: een nieuwe geografie [Europe: A new geography]. Although the book is primarily intended for students of human geography and planning, as well as for geography teachers, it is also accessible to a broader audience.

The European elections were held last week. Ben de Pater and Leo Paul had been looking forward to them for weeks. Over lunch, they discussed the latest headlines, developments and debates with each other. One thing they noticed was that hardly anyone seems to understand exactly what ‘Europe’ actually means. Even the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that it was only after the Brexit decision that he had truly understood how the European internal market functions. With regard to Europe and the European Union, we all seem to be suffering from an enormous knowledge gap.

Europe: diverse and complex

Europe is a diverse continent, with high mountains, low plains, deltas and coastal regions. A land area of four million square kilometres is inhabited by more than 500 million people of differing cultural, social and economic backgrounds. Within the European Union, efforts are directed towards capturing this diversity and complexity in effective legislation. That is a complicated task. ‘The EU must make policy based on major differences’, explains Leo Paul. ‘The complexity of issues and powers is therefore extremely complicated. Moreover, citizens and national politicians are often critical. When Europe regulates something, it is not right. When something goes wrong, however, Europe also takes the blame. “Why was nothing done about that?” Briefly stated, to many people the EU never gets it right.’

He provides an example. ‘In 2017, when the European Union prohibited the sale of vacuum cleaners of 900 watts and more, it made the British angry. Their carpets would never be clean again, they reasoned, as 900 watts would not be enough to generate sufficient suction. In fact, however, wattage does not necessarily say anything about power, and the energy savings that could be achieved with this relatively minor regulation were quite substantial. The measure was hijacked by anti-EU sentiments, while its content and actual effects were ignored.’

Schools should pay more attention to concrete and relevant examples, such as the elimination of roaming charges within the EU.

Europe in education

Politicians should be more honest, and they should explain more about European decisions. Would that be enough? Ben de Pater and Leo Paul also advocate more education about Europe. Although geography classes in secondary schools do often direct attention to the European Union, the focus is usually on the various institutions and their powers, with little time devoted to concrete and relevant examples. Consider the elimination of roaming charges within the EU or the digital internal market, which allows residents to shop freely within Europe, thereby potentially profiting from favourable price differences. Another interesting example is the Single European Sky project, which was developed by the European Commission to create a common system of air-traffic management throughout Europe.

Europe: quite convenient

In 2004, the government attempted to generate enthusiasm for the European Union amongst the population of the Netherlands with the somewhat limp slogan, ‘Europe. Quite Important’. Although the researchers definitely endorse this importance, they also refer primarily to the fact that Europe is ‘quite convenient’. We really should improve our knowledge and understanding about Europe and the EU. The book that they wrote with their colleagues constitutes a first step in this direction. The second edition – completely revised and updated – is just out, and they are proud of it. The book is apparently finding its way to many geography teachers and programmes relating to Europe.