Cross-border romance: a balm to Europe's national tensions?

Europe is seeing a rise in cross-border couples in part thanks to educational exchange programs like Europe's Erasmus, which is 25 years old this summer.  Could it help European solidarity too?

When former exchange students meet up after a long absence in the movie "Russian Dolls," they celebrate the marriage of a British friend to a Russian ballet dancer. As they exchange tales of their respective journeys since their last meeting, friendships are revisited and romance flourishes.

The movie was filmed seven years ago. But a recent study by Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical office, shows that the storyline was not just the stuff of dreams. More Europeans are marrying across national borders – a trend reflecting a step toward an ideal of greater integration, even amid growing uncertainty about the region's future.

The data are still small – only 4 percent of the total population of marriageable age is married to a foreigner – and are not clear cut: marriages between nationals of foreign descent and a partner from back home are not filtered out, as an Economist analysis noted, while unmarried unions are not included. But the phenomenon is widely viewed as an important indicator of social integration. 

Vincent Bourgeais, media support officer at Eurostat, commented that mixed marriages are potential factors of social and cultural change. “Persons in mixed marriages … cross boundaries between groups, and their descendants are less likely to identify with a single group,” the study notes.

An important step toward social integration was Europe's unification of the higher education system – introducing bachelor's, master's, and doctorate qualifications across universities to make degrees more comparable and competitive. The move, consolidated in the Bologna Accords in 1999, was meant to facilitate cross-boundary study and increase mobility across Europe.

Erasmus, the EU’s educational exchange program, has long been offering students this opportunity – and paved the way for the Bologna process. Named after a leading Renaissance humanist of the 15th century, the program allows students to spend one of two semesters at a university abroad and celebrated its 25th anniversary this summer. The lead characters featured in "Russian Dolls" were all Erasmus alumni.

The exchange experience is often rewarding in more ways than one. Students pick up a foreign language, appreciate a different culture, and forge ties with fellow Europeans for a lifetime. First established in 1987, its creators hoped to break down some of the barriers – language barriers, cultural differences, and professional hurdles that exist between member states.

“People really are the same, [acquiring this insight] is all part of the program. In the past we were fighting each other, but the modern European identity is one of peace and solidarity,” says Dennis Abbott, a spokesman at the European Commission.

No more war

The creation of a tentative European identity has not been a linear process. At the end of World War II, the formation of a common market launched the region into unprecedented economic growth, culminating in monetary integration with the adoption of the euro in 2001.

But the momentum has slowed, as already strapped eurozone members have been pressed to help out struggling neighbors amid the eurozone crisis. Tensions have mounted over disagreements about how to solve Europe's financial woes.

Mr. Abbott notes the increased importance of the Erasmus program in times of adversity. "It's about a European identity, even more so now, because of the times we are living in.... We're going through a difficult phase, but it's still a lot better than what we went through from 1937 to 1945." 

More than 2.2 million students have participated in the program, reaching an estimated 4 percent of the total European student population over the course of their studies. By 2013, the program hopes to hit the 3 million mark to cater to the needs of an expanding international community.

A year in Krakow

Those educational exchanges are contributing to this latest evidence of integration through marriage.

Philipp Fritz, a German student who spent a year at the Jagiellonion University in Krakow, Poland, last year, reflects on his time abroad. Only 37 miles west from Berlin, Polish borders mark a different world, where culture, language, and history define a people Mr. Fritz was eager to get to know. 

“First, I learned a lot about Poland. [I] was participating in Polish language classes and trying to speak as much Polish as possible.”

He met people from all over Europe, who learned how to share common experiences and ideas in an ever-globalizing environment. “[At] parties you talk about traditions, food, notions in your home country, and in the other person's home country. Maybe this common understanding for each other, this common interest is what in [the] future will be a common European identity, or at least its basis,” he wrote in an email.

But most rewarding of all – beyond language, interpersonal, and cultural skills – is making new friends and finding love, he says. “[The] most important thing is that I made friends. I met my girlfriend. I met Kasia.”

The young couple will be moving to Germany in September, in October at the latest, Fritz wrote. “We will be living in Berlin,” and become part of a growing cohort of European students who met each other through Erasmus, might tie the knot, and are breaking down boundaries unlike ever before.

Abbott describes the phenomenon as “a beautiful European love story,” enthusiasm ringing through his voice. “But we are definitely not a dating agency,” he is quick to add. “It’s a lovely side-effect."

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