Freedom, transparency and Turkey. These are only some of the themes from the European Commission (EC) President Jean-Claude Juncker's State of the Union speech that struck pupils from the German-Luxembourgish Schengen Lyzeum.
Four classes of students, aged 16 to 18, gathered at the House of Europe in Luxembourg City to listen to the speech and share their impressions.
Yuriko Backes, the EC's representative in Luxembourg, highlighted the importance of giving young people the chance to be politically active and speak their minds, as they were the future of the EU.
"They should talk – they should say what they like and don't like," she said. "They are the best spokespeople for the Europe we are working on."
After listening to Juncker's speech, the students were divided into four groups with specific themes – democracy, migration, foreign policy and cyber-security – and later expressed their views on each topic to the EC representatives, as well as Marc Angel, MP for Luxembourg's Socialist Workers' Party, and Jean-Louis Thill, coordinator of European Affairs at the Luxembourg Ministry of International and European Affairs.
Turkey and migration
The most recurring theme students addressed was the situation in Turkey, with many welcoming the EC president's comments. In his speech, Juncker ruled out Turkey's accession to the EU for the foreseeable future, saying the country had taken "giant strides" away from the union. He also called on Turkey to "let our journalists go", adding that "journalists belong in newsrooms, not in prisons".
The teams addressing democracy, foreign policy and migration all cited those comments as one of the biggest takeaways from the speech. "We need to keep our hand open" for negotiations, a student from the foreign policy team acknowledged but added that freedom of the press and freedom of expression had to be guaranteed.
The most heated reaction, however, came from students presenting their thoughts on migration. Two girls argued that collective responsibility was needed on the issue, while conceding that relying solely on such an approach was idealistic, as the last few years had shown.
They also agreed with the need for a legal migration route into the EU, as the current system allowed too many people to enter the bloc without any checks. They were clear, however, that the people already here needed to be treated with respect, no matter what.
"Disgusting" is the word they used to describe the conditions in which refugees had to live in, adding that it was "intolerable that, in this day and age", people in Europe had to live like that.
Overall, the students agreed with most of what Juncker had to say, but, as one girl said, it is "very important the proposals aren't just words" but are put into action.
Europe is democracy
On democracy, the pupils had a clear message: "Europe is democracy."
But they added that people had to continue fighting for it and not give up or shy from discussing important subjects such as security and terrorism.
Thill, who spoke on the subject, argued that democracy needed to be discussed inside the EU, as well. A big part of this, he said, was the need for all countries in Europe to respect the judicial decisions taken by European courts.
On foreign policy, students highlighted the need for a better migration and defense policy. They said more free-trade agreements were a good idea but that the EU needed to be careful with whom it struck them.
They also largely supported Juncker's announcement that the EU would eventually grow again. "We'll become a bigger EU, which is not bad," one student said.
The cyber-security team said it wished Juncker would have spent more time addressing its subject, given its importance in the 21st century. They said they saw the cross-border sharing of data as an absolute necessity and welcomed the president's proposal of forcing companies to publicly disclose data losses due to hacking.
The subject of Brexit was absent from any of the student presentations.
Overall positive reaction
The overall reaction in the House of Europe was a positive one, whether from pupils or politicians.
"I liked that it was a positive speech," Angel said, adding that, for Luxembourg, the part about equality among European countries was probably the most important.
He also welcomed that many of the proposals submitted by the Luxembourg government following Juncker's white papers seemed to have been taken into account.
For Backes, the speech was very positive, particularly compared with last year's State of the Union and considering everything the EU has gone through in recent years.
"This was a very positive speech," she said. "When the president of the European Commission spoke last year, he spoke of an existential crisis ... we were in a very negative situation. Now, it's really a message of unity from the president and also a message of trust in the future of Europe."
Addressing Brexit, Backes said it was in line with the spirit of Juncker's speech that he did not speak of it much, focusing instead on the future and opportunities.
"Brexit was not debated much," she said. "It's really something we have to finish doing, that needs to be negotiated - those negotiations are also extremely important for Luxembourg. But for the future of Europe, 27 nations are working together, and that's what's important."
For the future of the EU, Backes said Juncker's speech showed that an EU working at different speeds still needed to move forwards together, explaining that those member states that were able to move forward quickly should be allowed to do so, but that those that did not have the same means needed to be supported to catch up.
One of the takeaway from the speech Backes considered most relevant for Luxembourg concerned trade agreements, which she said were "extremely" important.
"We are a small country," she said. "We live from our openness."
(Barbara Tasch, email@example.com, +352 49 93 732)