#ESA23 – Debating topics

The panels will explore the concept of strategic autonomy of the European Union and reflect how it applies to major policy fields. In the past two years, the world has gone through dramatic crises that tested the capacity of the European Union to act as one in front of raising challenges. External threats, such as the world financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and internal dissensions about European values, the European socio-economic model, and the environmental impact of the European way of life, have questioned the EU’s ability to ensure its strategic autonomy. Entailing the responsibility of multiple actors at various decision levels, this notion challenges the Union’s ability to build a more cohesive and more sustainable Europe at a time when massive investments are engaged through NextGenerationEU. The 2023 edition of ESA will bring students in defining concrete political actions that would contribute to strengthen European capacities and make it more resilient in the face of change.

Panel 1

Deliberative versus representative democracy? How to reduce the gap between citizens and policy-makers and create a more united Europe?

European democracies rely on representative systems through which citizens give mandates to elected representatives to act on their behalf. The prerequisite for European strategic autonomy is a political consensus among citizens on the main political orientations defined by decision-makers. As the abstention rises and the narratives of populist parties become more and more audible, abstention puts at risk the legitimacy and robustness of our political systems. Meanwhile, more creative and somehow more radical forms of engagement appear, that question the monopoly of representative democracy and may offer new opportunities. An attempt to close the holes in European democracy, the Conference on the future of Europe involved thousands of citizens. In light of this unprecedented event, could deliberation play more than a symbolic role and be the key to the renewal of European democracy? How to facilitate a more direct and more intimate involvement of all citizens in the decision-making process at all decision levels?

Panel 2

Lessons from the past. How could the French-German history of reconciliation serve as a model to overcome conflicts and build unity?

European integration’s initial move was to guarantee a long-lasting peace between the countries joining the Community, starting with the reconciliation between France and Germany. It has since then been a building block of Europe’s capacity to act as one in the world. In the wake of the commemoration of the 60 years of the Elysée Treaty, the panel will reflect about the main takeaways of this friendship agreement and what it can inspire us in order to build a more united Europe. As older generations disappear and the memory of the harsh reality they experienced fades away, new conflicts such as the war in Ukraine remind us that peace should not be taken for granted. What measures could be taken at local, national and European level to ensure that peace remains at the centre of the European project? What role can European citizens play to enhance the dialogue between States? How can Europe’s shared memories be built in order to shape a common future?

Panel 3

How to secure fair and sustainable access to energy in Europe at different levels?

As we write, the EU is about to face one of its most significant energy crises, and European citizens will be stricken by difficulties regarding basic needs such as hitting and lighting their houses, filling up their cars, etc. A driver for European integration since the creation of the ECSC in 1951, self-sufficiency is a well-worn issue of European energy strategy. Often leading to geopolitical conflicts, the dependence on foreign sources of energy is all the more preoccupying in a context of transition. As the European energy market is becoming more complex and less centralised, new models tend to develop at local and regional levels to tackle energy crises and environmental challenges. In this context, some communities are better prepared than others to face energy shortages and negotiate a swift transition towards sustainability. How to ensure a fair distribution of energy in Europe, fulfilling the short-term needs of the citizens and reaching the mid-and-long-term goal of energy transition?

Panel 4

From farm to fork. How can local food distribution channels contribute to a fairer and more sustainable European food system?

The EU free market and CAP policy guarantee Europe’s food autonomy, allowing farmers to exchange their production across Europe and consumers to get food at attractive prices. With the new challenges the EU is facing such as food shortages, rural poverty, health issues, climate change and impact on biodiversity, the model based on intensive agriculture, geographical specialisation and worldwide food exchanges is nowadays called into question. Accounting for one third of our carbon emissions, our food systems need to be redesigned, and the local food chain might be part of the solution to ensure more fairness and sustainability in the food chain, from production to consumption. The panel will reflect about the interelations between global, european and local food systems and think about concrete solutions at various levels, that could allow a fairer, more sustainable but secure European food system.

Panel 5

Taking better care of each other. What should be the European approach to mental health?

From the Covid-19 crisis to the war in Ukraine and the rise of eco-anxiety, the European Union is experiencing a wave of events that put the mental health of its population under pressure, raising awareness about the relation between mental and physical health, and the need for more holistic answers to health issues. As the President of the European Commission expressed it in her lastest State of the Union adress, we need to “take better care of each other” in the future. In 2022, the European Student Assembly recommended that access to mental health be improved, with a particular focus on young people. Some groups – such as students – seem indeed more vulnerable than others. Beyond prevention and medication, mental health also raises multisectoral issues such as inclusion, empowerment and human rights that the members of the panel will address as a whole through their recommendations.

Panel 6

How to ensure a fair and sustainable digital transition in a context of exploding demand and raw material scarcity?

The fast development of digital technologies in every aspect of our lives is an undeniable source of opportunities, but it also increases our vulnerability towards external and internal threats, creating new forms of dependency and obvious disparities between citizens. Yet, access to digital goods and services has become a condition for all citizens to work, communicate or benefit from private and public services. The scarcity of raw material used in the production of digital hardware raises security and sustainability issues. According to the World Bank, the demand for critical raw materials is expected to skyrocket by around 500% until 2050, and the depency of the EU from China is particularly high. As the EU is currently discussing the Raw Material Act, and the resilience of raw materials supply chains has clearly become a strategic priority for the EU, it also raises the question of digital sobriety. How to reconcile environmental and digital transitions? Should the digital transition prioritise some sectors over others? How to ensure fair access to digital goods for all?

Panel 7

Is the EU in a position to develop an efficient foreign policy and an autonomous defence policy that would ensure the security of its citizens?

In an increasingly challenging international environment where the international rules-based order is put into question, foreign policy as well as defence policy seem more important than ever. In the face of old and new threats, there is a need for the European Union to reaffirm, and where necessary redefine, its place in the international arena. How can the EU continue to gain credibility as a global actor and security provider while safeguarding its own interests, values and development model? Beyond other issues pertaining to the EU’s common foreign and security policy such as qualified majority voting, the Union’s relationship with NATO and the absence of a substantial EU defence policy remain cornerstones to the puzzle. In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its economic interdependence with the People’s Republic of China, how could the EU ensure its strategic autonomy in spite of the often conflicting interests of its members?

Panel 8

Cities of the future. How could sustainable cities contribute in European autonomy and people welfare?

As environmental sustainability has turned out to be one of the most burning challenges of our times, cities are both part of the problem and part of the solution. According to the European mobility framework, 70% of the European population live in cities, generating 23% of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions. Investment in more ecological cities and urban planning figured in the report of the Conference on the Future of Europe as levers for a more sustainable Europe. Participants in the 2022 European Student Assembly most specifically mentioned the need to foster more sustainable, smarter and healthier urban mobility. Urban planning is a matter of sustainability, territorial equity and strategic autonomy. How to create cities that fulfil the needs of their inhabitants and interact with their environment in a way that does not endanger the life of future generations?

Panel 9

Excellence versus inclusion? How can European higher education institutions offer a more inclusive access to skills and knowledge?

The internationalisation of academia offers more and more opportunities; but scarcity of fundings, and the need to stand out in global rankings also engages higher education institutions in a world-scale competition for the most talented students, professors and researchers. Though it may act as a driver for excellence and innovation, this fierce competition runs the risk of leaving behind people who are disadvantaged for disparate reasons, such as unaffordable tuition costs, lack of accessibility, self-censorship or social stigma. International mobility is still an opportunity only for very few students. Yet, equal access to higher education and all its opportunities, in particular in relation to international exposure, is a condition for the prosperity and social cohesion of European societies. How can European higher education institutions secure their rank in globalisation while ensuring an inclusive access to skills and knowledge for all?

Panel 10

European Year of Skills – What role can higher education institutions play in reducing the skills gap in Europe?

Workforce shortages in sectors such as healthcare, transportation or engineering are expected to increase as the European Union is both ageing and undertaking a deep transformation towards an environmental-friendly and more digital economy. At the same time, adaptation and resilience are more and more expected from the workforce on job markets that are constantly evolving. As she announced the European year of skills in 2023, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed to invest more in upskilling and reskilling European workers while improving the attractivity of the European job market for foreign skilled workers. In this respect, higher education institutions face many challenges: encouraging better adequacy between curricula, market needs and learners aspirations; fostering a creative and entrepreneurial approach to the acquisition of competences; cooperating with companies and other jobs providers; developing a diversity of lifelong learning economic models; dealing with qualifications of foreign students when they are not recognised. How can European universities help welcome students across Europe and beyond, and improve learners’ employability at every level?