Borders becoming meaningless to younger generation of Europeans

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

MADRID -- For a glimpse of Europe's young generation on the move and the future of the borderless continent, head to the late-partying Spanish capital, drink a strong shot of coffee and try to keep up with Stina Lunden, a 25-year-old Swedish transplant.

Lunden stands out in Spain -- she is blonde, blue-eyed, Nordic-looking -- but she speaks fluent Spanish, writes in Spanish for Tiempo, a Madrid-based newsweekly, and has thoroughly adopted the young Spanish lifestyle. When she left her desk one night last week, the drill started with beer and tapas at an outdoor restaurant. Next, over to the Plaza de Toros, the open-air bullfighting stadium, for a concert by the Oxford rock band Radiohead. Then, after midnight, over to the trendy La Latina district where the young crowd spilled onto the sidewalk at El Bonanno's bar.

Her group of friends is a mix -- Madrid locals, but an Italian and a Brazilian, too -- and the conversation comes in rapid-fire Spanish, and sometimes English.

"You can't do this back in Sweden," she said, as the clock struck 2 in the morning. "People don't go out like this, and stay out this late."

Lunden is part of the new "Generation E" -- E for Europe, a continent that has been essentially without borders for most of Lunden's and her peers' adult lives. For them, traveling from Sweden to Spain is about as simple as it is for an American college student to take a spring break drive from the Northeast to Florida.

While bureaucrats in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, toil away at highly technical regulations aimed at forging a single, more integrated Europe -- with rules on everything from aviation to how to store fresh cheese -- a new society is being created much faster on the ground, by people in their twenties and thirties for whom the ability to live, work and study anyplace on the continent is now taken as a birthright.

Educated young people like Lunden are traveling farther from home, crossing borders to study and work, learning more languages, building cross-cultural friendships -- and chipping away at the old national stereotypes and animosities of their parents' generation.

A 21-year-old Italian student, whose girlfriend is half-Finnish and half-Greek, says: "My passport is Italian. I am more and more European."

"The main sign of change in this country is how the young people speak several languages, which is entirely new," Noelle Lenoir, France's minister of European affairs, said in an interview. "Europe is too small for them. They are citizens of the world."

She added: "Each time I meet young people, students, I find them very, very European. It's a changing world - and it makes us look very, very archaic."

Under the rules of the 15-country EU, people crossing borders often don't have their passports stamped and don't need to register anyplace. That, in part, has fueled travel, but it has also made it difficult to put numbers on youth mobility. One telling sign, however, can be found in the Erasmus student exchange program, which for the past 10 years has allowed young Europeans to study around the continent.

The other main factor fueling youth mobility is the advent of budget airlines, such as EasyJet and Ryanair, which offer cheap flights between European cities. Whereas the last generation traveled by train, members of Generation E can just as easily, and as cheaply, hop a flight. Lunden, for example, said she returns to her home in Lund, in southern Sweden, once every three or four months, at a round-trip cost of only about 225 euros, or $255 at current exchange rates, for the 1,300-mile trip.

"This is a borderless Europe," said Daniel Keohane, a 27-year-old Irishman working as a researcher for the London-based Center for European Reform.

"Me and my friends, we all worked in Germany over the summer. We take these things for granted."

There is also a class element to the new mobility. The young Europeans who are relocating are most likely to be the university-educated elite, not factory workers or farmers.

"Probably about 50 percent of my friends (from school) are working abroad now," said Alexander Stubb, a 35-year-old Finn working with the European Commission in Brussels. "But probably only about 1 percent of the people I played ice hockey with are working abroad."

Stubb said the total number of people moving is small, perhaps 2 percent of the EU's workforce.

"It's nice for a journalist, an academic or a Eurocrat," he said, using the slang term for the EU's international civil servants. "But it's not that nice for a construction worker. ... It's not very easy if you are a farmer in Poland just to leave your farm."

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