International organisations: Bringing the European Union – and Turkey – closer to Maastricht residents
June 15, 2006 1 Comment
Ordinary citizens often view the European Institutions in Brussels as an inaccessible law-issuing bureaucratic monster. Ever since its foundation, the European Union has been lacking a tool to connect with its citizens. Because of the increasing competencies of the European Institutions, the need for such a tool grows by the day. European citizens ask to be informed and want to feel recognised.
To satisfy this need, the European Commission has created information relays, called Europe Direct, throughout the EU member states. Some nations only have two or three information points, but the Netherlands counts 13 of them, spread among each of its 12 provinces.
Europe Direct’s objective is to act as an intermediary between the EU and its inhabitants, by providing local citizens with information about Europe and by performing a soundboard task. Jan Ahrendt, a German national from Berlin, is the EU information officer for Europe Direct Maastricht.
Europe Direct Maastricht is located in Maastricht’s city library at Centre Céramique. “Each Europe Direct is run with a budget of EUR 40,000. Half of the subsidies comes from the European Commission and the other half from the host organisation,” Ahrendt explains. Although this construction may raise questions about Europe Direct’s independence, Jan Ahrendt and Frédérique Stille, a marketing employee at Centre Céramique, believe instead that it enables both institutions to cooperate and to act together as a stronger player. Europe Direct has no other intention than to provide objective information regarding the EU, Ahrendt and Stille say.
Visitors walking into the city library or surfing on Centre Céramique’s website will not immediately find Europe Direct. In fact, both sites hardly provide any reference to the information point. Although many people nevertheless seem to know where to find it on the second floor next to Café Céramique, Ahrendt agrees that more effort could be put into promoting Europe Direct.
People visiting Europe Direct differ in age, gender and objectives. Many students from Hogeschool Zuyd’s European Studies programme (Hogere Europese Beroepen Opleiding or HEBO for short), look for information about study projects through Europe Direct. But “students from Maastricht University’s European Studies programme seem to have their own ways to gather information,” Ahrendt notes, because not so many of them come to his desk at Centre Céramique.
All sorts of questions are asked, says Ahrendt. “Is there a need for a fishing license in Spain?”, “What does European law say about this or that issue”, etc. “Of course Europe Direct tries to answer as many questions as possible, but I often find myself re-directing people to other sources,” the EU officer acknowledges.
But this of course is valuable information in itself!
Can Turkey be brought closer to Maastricht?
An important factor behind the Dutch “Nee” and the French “Non” to the European constitution was the enlargement of the European Union with Turkey. People seemed to fear that by admitting Turkey into the EU, Europe would loose part of its character. Many people are worried about the arrival of Islamic culture into Europe. In the hope to address some these concerns and to bring Turkey closer to the Maastricht public, Europe Direct and Centre Céramique will from 16 till 18 June host a Turkish festival, “Turkije Dichtbij” (Turkey Nearby), featuring a large variety of cultural activities.
“People often tend to judge a different culture too quickly, especially when they don’t know much about it,” Stille says. Ahrendt is also aware of the fear that EU citizens feel about the prospect of Turkey joining the EU: “Turkey is a big nation with many inhabitants and it will take away some power from other nations in decisions over certain matters”. In order to appease some of that fear and to help Maastricht residents learn more about Turkey, the festival will emphasize positive aspects of Turkish culture. Some of the highlights of the programme include a testimony of intercultural love by Dutch writer Stine Jensen who met her Turkish husband while on holidays in Turkey, a Turkish bazaar, a show by Turkish stand-up comedian Funda Müjde, Turkish children stories and music. By bringing Maastricht’s Dutch and Turkish communities together through simple and accessible activities, Stille hopes to foster interest and understanding between the two cultures.
The festival will also feature a public debate on Saturday from 11 am till 2 pm. “The debate is important because of its political content but the overall intention is to keep it as light as possible,” Stille says, adding that the organisers look forward to welcoming everyone interested in exchanging ideas about Turkey. The fact that this week saw the official start of the negotiations around Turkish accession to the European Union will certainly make the debate even more topical.
It is not the first time that Centre Céramique holds this type of cultural manifestation. The yearly World Press Photo exhibit and “Kunst Marokkanen” (a festival about Moroccan art) are two other events which try to draw the public’s attention to different cultures. During Kunst Marokkanen, Stille was delighted to see Dutch people enjoying Moroccan music. “People were telling each other that they were amazed that Moroccan music was nice to listen to,” she recalls.
Centre Céramique and Europe Direct have involved two other actors in the organisation of the Turkish Festival: Maastricht Europe, an initiative of the city council to support activities related to the European Union, and Trajekt, an organisation aiming at enhancing people’s wellness through social integration. Trajekt also functions as an intermediary with the Turkish community, because it is well represented among Maastricht’s immigrant population.
And what about Maastricht residents, how do they view the city’s Turkish community? “We don’t have a clear picture as to whether there is a negative opinion about Turkey in Maastricht, but the overall impression we get stimulates our aspiration to organise this event,” Stille says rather diplomatically. “The 1200 Turkish immigrants living in Maastricht are pretty well integrated,” notes Ahrendt. “The Turks actually stand out as the minority group that puts most efforts into integrating in the Netherlands.”
By Lennard Duijvestijn
Lennard Duijvestijn, a second-year student at the University of Maastricht’s European Studies programme, is currently doing a internship at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht. Lennard is more specifically interested in Eastern European affairs and transition countries.