Amidst the ongoing tensions between Russia and Europe, young people from 18 countries gathered in Paris for the Greater Europe meetings to discuss issues of European security and prospects for EU-Russia relations.

Speaker of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin, right, shakes hands with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, Parliamentary Assembly President, Ilkka Kanerva, in Moscow, Russia, July 17, 2015. Photo: AP

Given the political tensions between Russia and Europe, aggravated by the possibility of the tribunal over the MH17 downing one year ago, the search is on for new discussion platforms to have a meaningful dialogue about the future of EU-Russia relations.

On July 27, the Youth Association for a Greater Europe hosted its annual series of Greater Europe meetings in Paris as a step forward in this direction.

The event brought together students and young professionals from 18 states across Europe, in addition to politicians, business leaders and representatives of UNESCO, to discuss how the European continent could achieve greater stability and continuity by building a climate of trust and understanding among its youth.

The UNESCO discussion focused on how to promote peace and security in Greater Europe. Panelists unanimously agreed that current tensions between Russia and Europe are unnatural and irrational as the two share common historical, cultural and civilizational backgrounds. All of them underlined the necessity of continuous dialogue on every level, emphasizing that youth can and should play a constructive role in promoting that dialogue.

During the discussion Assistant Director General of UNESCO Nada Al-Nashif  stressed the importance and urgency of UNESCO principles, which aim at achieving peace by embracing humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity. As UNESCO promotes intercultural understanding, educational and scientific cooperation, Nashif highlighted the importance of youth engagement as it builds a network across Europe, which will contribute to its stable future.

One theme that emerged from the discussion was the “irrationality” of the current standoff between Russia and Europe. For example, Russian Ambassador to France Alexander Orlov characterized the current tensions between Russia and the EU as “irrational.” He argues that “the hatred which is currently planted into the minds of people about Russia creates a danger of conflict.”

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“Russia is an integral part of Europe and the two mean to live together,” he said. “Why are those who fought together during the World War II now confronting each other? Why is there a need to create an enemy? Confidence, trust and understanding – these are the things which are lacking in the current state of relations.”

In many ways, the lack of understanding between Russia and Europe is a result of a failure to understand what is actually happening on the ground in places such as Crimea. To make this point, Senator and Vice-President of the European Affairs Committee of the French Senate Yves Pozzo di Borgo focused on a discussion of the Ukrainian crisis, which has poisoned relations between Europe and Russia.

He claims that France took a very modest position on sanctions on Russia and its ‘occupation’ of Crimea.

“France did not endorse the OSCE resolution which acknowledged Russia’s occupation of Crimea,” he said.

His biggest concern with this regard is how any country can call for such an action without knowing what is happening on the ground. This is why the senator, together with a group of ten French legislators, visited Crimea last week in order to check the realities of the peninsula with their own eyes. He belives that what he and his colleagues saw in Crimea had nothing to do with the image that is drawn by the media and governmental officials.

“We met no signs of ‘occupation’ there, even no militaries on the streets, except military orchestras,” he said.

It is in Europe’s interests to understand the shared history of Europe and Russia. A member of the French National Assembly’s Commission of National Defense and Armed Forces Nicolas Dhuicq, who also accompanied Senator di Borgo during his trip to Crimea, brought up the issue of the increased level of indifference in Europe towards Russia.

He argued that “Europe could have disappeared several times in history and never existed in its current form without Russia’s involvement.” He referred to the time of the Mongol-Tatar invasion and the Nazi aggression as clear examples of a crucial role that Russia played in European history.

Meanwhile, former French Ambassador to Russia Claude Blanchemaison offered a model that could potentially be used to improve relations between Europe and Russia. He brought up the idea of Franco-German relations as a potential model for interaction between Russia and Europe.

France has been attacked by Germany three times during the twentieth century. However, the two countries managed to find a way to interact in order to exclude a chance of war.

The Ambassador stated that the two countries brought each other as close as possible by introducing a free movement of people, goods and services. This increased the level of exchange with each other to a degree that excluded a chance of war between them.

“In the 1990s we even started to produce history books together in order to unify our common history,” Ambassador Blanchemaison said pointing out that the key to successful interaction with any country is a cultural youth exchange that helps people and nations to understand each other better.

Most importantly, the panelists agreed that exchange should take more of a bottoms-up approach rather than a top-down approach. According to them, only such an approach can spark the genuine interest of youth across the Greater Europe to learn and understand each other better.