Speech by President von der Leyen at the Opening of the Catholic University's Academic Year

Source: European Commission (EC) i, published on Sunday, December 19 2021.

Magnifico Rettore,

Your Excellency, Archbishop Delpini,

Minister Gelmini,

President Monti,

Honourable Members of the Italian and the European Parliament,

President Prodi,


Distinguished guests

Dear students and faculty,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today, in this stunning hall, surrounded by art and history. But most importantly, I am glad to be with you, students and teachers, who fill these ancient cloisters with life, passing knowledge and values from one generation to the next.

Today, we celebrate together the first century of the Università Cattolica, and the beginning of your 101st academic year. Since December 1921, Cattolica has raised generations of Italian leaders. The post-war generation, who wrote Italy's Constitution and rebuilt the country. And then the following generation of leaders - who made Italy an industrial power and a strong democracy at the heart of Europe. Among them, there is also one of my predecessors as President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi - who is here with us today. Professore, what an honour. And now, a new generation of leaders is being raised here. The generation who will shape the post-pandemic Italy. And that generation is you, the students who are here and listening today. In just a few years from now, you will be young professionals bringing with you fresh ideas and new energy. The future is in your hands, it belongs to the next generation of Europeans.

And this makes me confident, even if the fourth wave of the pandemic is upon us, and in spite of all the uncertainties we still face. You are not just the first generation of digital natives, the most interconnected and the most educated generation in our history. You are also showing a great sense of responsibility towards the planet and people around you. Since the beginning of the pandemic, young people have truly led by example. Here in Italy, over 80% of people your age are now fully vaccinated, a higher percentage compared to people a few years older than you. And at Università Cattolica, you have put your skills at the service of others, also thanks to professors and staff who have always encouraged solidarity and volunteering. For instance, I was told that senior students created study groups to help freshmen. And in Piacenza, marketing students are helping local NGOs to reach out to new donors. In these two years, young Europeans have taught us so much. So I would plain and simply want to say: Thank you. Thank you for setting the example. And for urging us to aim higher. The future of Europe is in good hands. Now I would like Europe to give something back to you. I believe Europe must work first and foremost for the next generation. Voglio un'Europa al servizio dei giovani.

Because, let us face it, the generation before you, the Millennials, entered the jobs market in the middle of the financial crisis. For many of them, it took years before they could find their first job. In recent years, the situation started to improve. But still, one young Italian in four does not study and does not have a job. So of course, many of you are questioning the economy and the world you are inheriting from us. Because too often they do not match your aspirations about life. Europe's young people today do not only aspire to good jobs that pay well. You also want to work for ethical companies that take responsibility for the planet and for others. You demand fair working conditions and the chance to build your own family. And you are absolutely right. You deserve nothing less than that. Because it is your future that is at stake.

And the tide is finally turning. Thanks to European solidarity and to Italy's successful handling of the pandemic, the Italian economy is growing faster than at any time in this century. Italy's economic output will rise to pre-crisis levels already mid next year. That means, by the time the most senior students among you graduate. Demand is growing and companies are hiring. Never in recent years have so many jobs been vacant. And yet, too many young people are still unemployed. In these months of economic recovery, youth employment has picked up more slowly than the overall employment rate. It is time to fix this. I want an economy that works for young people like you. An economy that matches your expectations. A European Union for the next generation.

Our Union has taken many different shapes through the decades since it was created. At the beginning, Europe was all about peace and reconciliation after World War II. It was about finding our place in a world split by the Cold War. Teachers and graduates from this university had a huge role in bringing Italy at the centre of Europe, and in shaping the idea of Europe. And then, generation after generation, Europe was always work in progress. Step by step, it has grown from an economic community to a political Union. Thanks to the European elections, Erasmus and the Lisbon Treaty, a European citizenship has progressively emerged. And in these last two years, Europe has taken a new step forward, in how we responded to the pandemic. For the first time in our history, we joined forces to produce and procure vaccines for all Europeans. It is because of this that we now have all the doses we need to face the fourth pandemic wave. And for the first time in history, we have put together a Recovery Plan financed by our European Union, to help each Member State recover and reshape its economy. We called it NextGenerationEU. With these two decisions, we have already entered a new phase in the history of our Union. So what is this new Union doing for your generation? What are the great issues of our times that our Union must address? What is our mission for the 2020s and beyond? I would like to answer with three words: Planet, innovation, and democracy.

Your generation is more aware of climate change and more vocal in demanding action than all previous generations. Rightly so! The impacts of climate change are already upon us. They will get worse and worse in the coming decades if we do not act now! Climate change is man-made! But because of this - this fact is empowerment, obligation and responsibility to do something about it. You know what our future could look like if we are to stop the current trend. We will have a circular economy. The energy that will heat and cool our homes will be from renewables. The cars we will drive will be electric or powered by clean hydrogen. Actually, most of us will not even need a car to go to work - because cleaner alternatives will be available to all. Now with NextGenerationEU, we have the money to speed up the transition towards the sustainable economy you rightfully call for. The Italian recovery plan, financed by NextGenerationEU, is investing for instance in the new metro line right here in Milan. NextGenerationEU is helping Italians renovate their homes, to cut energy consumption and energy bills. It will build new high-speed railways and allow you, studènti fuòri-séde, to go back home faster and with low emissions. We are unleashing a green investment wave unseen in European history.

Beyond investment, the transition to a more sustainable economy needs new ideas and new lifestyles. The European Green Deal must become tangible and touchable in everybody's life. We need to add a cultural and emotional dimension to it. This is why we have launched the New European Bauhaus project. We have to rethink the way we build our buildings and our cities. We want them to be more sustainable, but we also want them to be beautiful and affordable to everyone. Sustainability, aesthetics and inclusivity. These are the three core principles of the New European Bauhaus. And here in Milan, you are already putting these three principles in practice. In fact, one of the first projects to be awarded under the New European Bauhaus was developed right here in Milan. It is an urban renovation project for an area on the outskirts of the city, called Porto di Mare. The plan is to turn the area into a 15-minute neighbourhood - where all essential services can be reached on foot, in less than 15 minutes. Schools, connections to the city centre, and a new food district with shops and restaurants. Everything will be on a human-scale and more sustainable. With the New European Bauhaus, and the European Green Deal, we can co-create the Europe of the future - more liveable, at peace with the planet, fit for your generation. I am glad that Cattolica has become a partner to the New European Bauhaus and has decided to focus on linking beauty with social inclusion.

The second mission for our Union is innovation. Italy has always been a country of innovators and creative minds. Just look at the new Innovation District here in Milan, in the former EXPO area. It is already attracting bright researchers and big companies from all over the world. Or think about the boom of ‘smart agriculture' in Italy. A new generation of farmers is using artificial intelligence and drones to make Italy's food even more high-quality and sustainable. Only if we invest in innovation can we create the good jobs you seek, and can we make Europe more competitive on global markets.

Let me take just a couple of examples of how Europe is doing so. On the one hand, we are investing heavily in digital technologies. NextGenerationEU will, for instance, bring high-speed internet connections to factories, farms and families across Europe. And it will help small businesses digitalise their operations. On the other hand, we want to invest in young people like you, who are the best engine of innovation. Here in Italy, NextGenerationEU will support talented young people who cannot afford university, both with scholarships and by tripling the capacity of student houses. It will help universities hire young researchers. And it will fund new PhD programmes, designed to match the skills that companies need. More than 15% of Italy's recovery plan - EUR 31 billion - will go to education and research. And every euro we invest in education and research is a euro well spent. Allow me to quote your speech, Rector Anelli, at the opening of the last academic year. You noted that universities were born in times of transition and transformation. They were first created in the late Middle Ages, when philosophy, science and technology were transforming quickly. And then, they were born again in the 19th century, during the industrial revolution. In both cases: ‘Universities were the by-product of the transition, but also an engine of change. They fed on the past, to rethink it and shape the future.' I am confident, just like you, that universities will once again be an engine of change. Because they are ‘creative institutions', as you just said. A place to learn from the past, and innovate our way into the future.

The third mission I would like to talk about has to do with revitalising our democracy in a digital and globalised age. Just like our European Union, our democracies, too, are a constant work in progress. Democracy is never completed, it must always be worked on. And this is what makes it stand out from autocracy. Think about Università Cattolica's one hundred years of history. This University was created at a crucial moment for Italy's democracy. Millions of people had just gained the right to vote for the first time. The Italian Catholics had just accepted to join Italy's democratic life, and had elected their first representatives. Those were times of great expectations and hope. And yet, in the blink of an eye, Italy's democracy was destroyed by Fascism. And the same happened just a few years later in my country, Germany. Nazi Germany brought horrific death, unprecedented suffering and devastating destruction over a whole continent. But after the war, democracy was re-built on stronger foundations. We built a European democracy. Each of our democracies is slightly different and unique. It is shaped by our people and our history, by our own cultures and constitutions. But ultimately democracy in all its forms comes down to the same thing. It gives people a voice. It gives the ability to change things at the ballot box. In democracies, we even fight for people to be able to be against us. To be able to speak their mind. To change their mind. To be free to be yourself - so that if you are different from the majority, you are always equal before the law. A system where power is given and taken away by citizens and framed by checks and balances. Democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That is democracy. But we must not take democracy for granted.

Today, this democracy is facing new challenges. Much of our public debate happens on social platforms that are privately owned. The opponents of democracy are using modern technologies to manipulate our democratic debate through systematic disinformation. They seek to muddy the waters so much that truth and facts become impossible to distinguish from lies and falsehoods. And this erodes and undermines public trust. I see it as our mission to both protect and expand our democracy. I want Europe to protect people from illegal content online and disinformation, making social media platforms more responsible for the content they host. I want Europe to protect people from hate speech and hate crime, adding them to the list of crimes in our Treaties. And I want Europe to protect our democracy from every kind of backsliding, and protect the rule of law at all corners of our Union. But this is only part of our job. I also want Europe to engage more with you, and listen to what you have to say. What you demand from Europe. And what your dream of Europe is.

It is for this reason that I have proposed to make 2022 the European Year of the Youth. We want you to make your voice heard. We will open up new spaces to discuss European policies with you, where you can tell us about your aspirations for Europe. And we will encourage each Member State to do the same. Our democracy needs your engagement. So speak up, and Europe will listen. Voglio un'Europa per i giovani. E voglio un'Europa dei giovani.

Last month, Pope Francis sent a powerful message to young people like you. He spoke about these pandemic times, and how to move past them. The Pope said: ‘Whenever a young person falls, all humanity falls. Yet when a young person stands up again, the whole world rises as well. Dear young people, what great potential you have in your hands! What great strength you have in your hearts! If our world is to arise, it needs your strength, your enthusiasm, your passion.' This is true for the world, and even more so for our Union. If you rise up, Europe will rise up. Because Europe belongs to you. Europe - that is you!

So let me conclude by wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a great new academic year here at Università Cattolica.

Buon Natale, e viva l'Europa.