University graduation ceremonies usually elicit feelings of pride, accomplishment, and a future of unbridled possibilities. But the atmosphere at the commencement at the College of Europe near Warsaw, Poland on Thursday will likely be tinged with the hint of another air: uncertainty.
The College of Europe, with campuses in Natolin, Poland and Bruges, Belgium, traces its roots back to 1948, when a Spanish statesman proposed the creation of a college where university graduates from diverse backgrounds and heritage could further their studies and live together. At the time it was founded, it was the first institute for postgraduate studies in European affairs. But in more recent generations, it’s become known as a sort of finishing school for future members of the European Union bureaucracy—on average, 20-25% of graduates end up in EU institution jobs. And its commencement Thursday will come exactly a week before British citizens decide whether the U.K. should remain a member of the bloc, closing out a campaign that has featured vicious attacks on Brussels’ elite, the very aides and officials many of the college’s graduates will someday become.
The “leave” campaign—which saturated British and European media with criticism of the EU’s bureaucracy—has inched ahead in recent referendum polls. A vote in favor of leaving would sap the bloc of its second-largest economy, dilute the group’s relevance, and potentially encourage other euro-skeptic nations to consider doing the same.
What do you say to 125 or so graduates funneling into this unwelcoming environment?
The commencement speaker, University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, plans to start—rather wisely—with a joke about not being fluent in French, one of the two languages (along with English) that all College of Europe students must speak.
Borysiewicz, the son of Polish immigrants to Wales, who shared his prepared remarks with Fortune, will then dive into a rather fiery pep talk, reassuring the graduates of the relevance of the EU. The ideas underlying the bloc—”That this community of nations, bound by geography, can achieve more, and do better, by working collectively. That these countries can avoid war with each other, and improve their lot, by acting in concert”—make the group “one to which we should always aspire to be a part of,” he says in his remarks.
In voicing his “unambiguous” support for Britain to remain in the EU, Borysiewicz says his own line of work—he’s an infectious disease specialist—has benefited from funding from the EU that has helped launch collaborative research projects that tackle matters so large in scale that one institution could not have done it alone. In those ways, the European Union, he says, “is not simply a bureaucratic abstraction.”
Yet he acknowledges that the EU is by no means perfects and he calls on the College of Europe graduates to reshape it since no matter what happens a week from today, the bloc isn’t going away.
To people across the continent who have survived the lasting damage of conflicts still within living memory, the EU’s existence is evidence of the triumph of peace-making through institution-building. As next week’s referendum reveals, my generation is deeply ambivalent about the European Union and its institutions. This ambivalence is also apparent elsewhere, as extremist groups across Europe reject the underlying openness and democratic values of the European project. Despite any misgivings about flaws in existing institutions, the essential vision remains the same: A community of nations providing opportunities for trade, for employment, for security, for collaboration, for mutual cultural enrichment and for peaceful coexistence. It will soon be in your hands to make the institutions fit the vision.
That message will no doubt resonate with the graduates and faculty of the College of Europe, which has not taken an official position on the referendum, but “believes in a wide European Union” and “regards Britain as a vital European country,” according to director of communications Richard Washington. “Obviously, we’re committed to the idea of a stable and effectively run European Union and effectively run European union relations with neighboring countries,” he says.
Washington downplayed the potential shadow a so-called Brexit could cast on the school. “[W]e are a place where a lot of graduates end up in European Union institutions,” he said. But in recent years, the school has “greatly broadened the pool of people that we bring here,” Washington said, citing the enrollment of students from countries like Georgia and Tunisia. “Their objective is different. They want to return to their own countries to set up NGOs.”
Washington said the College of Europe’s Bruges campus was founded in 1949 in response to what seemed like an impossible idea—to unite Europe around a set of values that would keep it from slipping into the destructive period it was then exiting. The college’s Natolin campus too was launched as a way to get countries like Poland and Hungry into “some kind of European unity” in the wake of the Revolutions of 1989. That mission won’t change if Britain decides to leave the EU, Washington says. It will still be dedicated to “guaranteeing that new generations can come and learn about finding solutions for the European continent.”