Student Forum on European Political Cultures at Villa Vigoni

Report by Felix Flegel (economics), Ana Elisa Gomez Laris (American studies), Lisa Korbach (archaeology), Leonard Palm (journalism, art history), Saskia Plura (physics) and Catharina Sachse (ethnology, public law)

From September 16–19, the German-Italian Student Forum “Political Cultures as Part of Europe’s Cultural Heritage – Internal Divergences and Global Perspectives” was held at Villa Vigoni e.V., located on Lake Como in Italy. Six Q+ students were selected on the basis of an internal application process, and they joined another 20 students invited by Villa Vigoni to attend the conference, each bringing with them their interdisciplinary perspectives. The three-day conference, which has been held at Villa Vigoni for the past seven years, encourages dialogue between German and Italian students on the most important topics facing their countries, as well as on topics of relevance to Europe and the international sphere.

In preparation for the student forum, the Q+ group met for an introductory seminar. To begin, each student introduced themselves and shared their views on the topic of the forum. This already gave rise to the first discussions – and was a sign of the debates that were to come. This preliminary Q+ meeting was meant to provide a solid foundation of knowledge, ensuring that everyone was starting on the same page with respect to the content that would be covered at the conference. For this, Till Hilmar, a doctoral student in sociology at Yale University, gave the students an overview of the organizational structures and legal foundations of the European Union. Till Hilmar, whose research interests include the House of European History in Brussels and the creation of a pan-European narrative of history, introduced the problems, debates, and decisions that are currently confronting the European Union. Excitement was growing by the third part of the seminar, when the specific schedule of the forum and organizational issues were discussed. It was a fantastic opportunity for us students: traveling to such a remarkable place so rich in history to take part in discussions of such significance – all in the elegant setting of the villa.

The topics of the forum, which were discussed in German, Italian, and English, were wide ranging and fascinating – as too were the diverse perspectives. Invited speakers presented their ideas on political cultures in the EU from the perspective of their respective disciplines. This included discussions of abstract concepts such as “The Culture of Consensus” from a member of the Center for European Union Research in Budapest as well as more practical considerations like dealing with “Fake News” with a political scientist from HU Berlin. Two representatives from the European Union – one from the European External Action Service in Brussels and another from the Ufficio del Parlamento Europeo di Milano – spoke about the question of EU foreign policy and the challenges of internal unity. We also turned our sights farther afield: two speakers from the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin and the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan gave us insight into the Chinese and Russian perspectives on European values and the actions of the European Union.

In the discussions that followed these talks, students demonstrated both understanding and courage: in response to some critical remarks, a high-ranking EU bureaucrat even blushed as some students skillfully refuted his defense. They countered his tactical diversions with well-founded arguments, shedding light on his diplomatic vagaries, refusing to shy away from political disagreements. Instead, they maintained that the EU was a good thing, but improvements, which they enumerated, were indeed necessary.

In this way, form and content came together at the student forum: during the many discussions about political cultures, a political culture formed among forum participants. At first, we listened attentively, with curiosity (and not without a dose of skepticism) to the in-depth, comprehensive lectures given by the renowned speakers. In the discussion that followed, all students were equally involved. Given the space and time to do so, we got the chance to put forth our own positions on the topics, but we also put our weight behind others if their arguments were convincing. It was never about arguing out of vanity or for argument’s sake. Instead, it was about staying on task and finding out what was right.

After learning and discussing in this way, a third step was now needed in order live out, and put into practice, everything that we had experienced. As we said goodbye at the end of the forum, we agreed to continue the journey together: in our search through the problems of European democracy, we had found the solution within ourselves.

This all was made possible thanks to Ignazio Vigoni Medici di Marignano, who bequeathed Villa Vigoni to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1983. Mr. Vigoni did so on the condition that Germany turn the villa and its entire property into a center for German-Italian culture. The Vigoni family had a connection to Germany long before this bequeathal was made: Heinrich Mylius, who was born in Frankfurt, emigrated to Milan in the 1790s at the age of 20. He gave Villa Vigoni to his only son Julius as a wedding gift. After Julius’ early death, his widow Luigia Vitali married Ignazio Vigoni. Their marriage resulted in the birth of a son, who in turn also had a son – the Mr. Vigoni who bequeathed today's Villa Vigoni to the German state.

The commitment to support German and Italian cultural exchange was passed down from generation to generation – from the Mylius couple, who were acquainted with Goethe and Schiller and supported scholarships for students from Frankfurt and Milan, to Ignazio Vigoni, who declared in his will: “With this legacy I intend to honor and give new life to the tradition that reaches back to Heinrich Mylius and Goethe.”

In addition to recurring reminders of the memory of Julius, the villa and its large gardens create an atmosphere of goodwill conducive to exchange. Strolling through the grounds of the villa after an exquisite 3-course meal from the villa’s on-site kitchen, one discovers myriad places to sit, and these spaces serve to encourage the European dialogue started at the conference to be continued in the private sphere. In the many rooms and on the verandas of the two villas, the staff of Villa Vigoni has imperceptibly created spaces where cultures can come together – places where the idea of Europe can be further elaborated and put into concrete terms.

In all of the interesting, multifaceted conversations at our forum, there was one thing that we could all agree on: we want and need the European Union. Yes, of course there is room for improvement, and the European Union should also be subject to continuous improvement and further development. Just how the European Union will be in the future is something that no one knows. Each has his or her own ideas about this – but people can only weigh in with their ideas if the basic foundation of the European Union remains in place. It is this very idea of a European community, however, that is currently threatened by conflicts in EU states.

This is why it is now up to each and every one of us to stand strong and send a clear message for Europe in the election of the European Parliament from May 23-26, 2019. For this upcoming election, a great initiative was launched to get people to turn out and support the European Union:

A more comprehensive report was written by all participants and will (soon) be available on Villa Vigoni’s website.

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