Frank Burgdörfer: From AEGEE to the European Movement


Dis­cussing pol­i­tics with AEGEE alum­ni Frank Burgdör­fer is fun. Because it’s always an exchange of ideas on a very high lev­el. Many AEGEE mem­bers had the plea­sure to expe­ri­ence these talks, since Frank Burgdör­fer was the face of the Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­tics Work­ing Group from 1997 till 1999 — and turned it into the most active work­ing group of its time. Even when he left the asso­ci­a­tion, he con­tin­ued his ideas and projects – on a new lev­el. Togeth­er with oth­er alum­ni, Frank found­ed the asso­ci­a­tion: “Cit­i­zens of Europe” – or “AEGEE for adults”, as he told the Gold­en Times. He also found­ed x³ Burgdör­fer & Ness, his own think tank – and a few weeks ago he became board mem­ber of the Ger­man chap­ter of the Euro­pean Move­ment.

Frank Burgdoerfer
Frank Burgdör­fer and the oth­er EBD board mem­bers

GT: Con­grat­u­la­tions to your elec­tion as board mem­ber of the Net­zw­erk Europäis­che Bewe­gung Deutsch­land (EBD), the Euro­pean Move­ment in Ger­many! For all, who don’t know the Euro­pean Move­ment: what is it about? How many mem­bers does it have?
Frank Burgdör­fer: The Euro­pean Move­ment, found­ed in 1948, aims to mobi­lize cit­i­zens and to advo­cate a demo­c­ra­t­ic Europe based on indi­vid­ual rights, the rule of law and equal­i­ty. On the Euro­pean lev­el, it con­sists of 33 inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tions — among them AEGEE — and 38 nation­al coun­cils. Rep­re­sent­ing 238 Ger­man mem­ber organ­i­sa­tions, the EBD is the largest of the nation­al move­ments. Here AEGEE is for­mal­ly rep­re­sent­ed by the Aachen anten­na. The sec­re­tary gen­er­al coor­di­nates our activ­i­ties assist­ed by 12 co-work­ers and 2 interns.

GT: So what is the EBD doing?
Frank: Our aim is to con­tin­u­ous­ly demon­strate in all rel­e­vant pub­lic debates that the Euro­pean idea is not an ide­ol­o­gy sup­port­ed by a mono­lith­ic group, but a very basic con­vic­tion shared by var­i­ous peo­ple and groups with very dif­fer­ent back­ground and inter­est. Our aim is to make solu­tions to Euro­pean chal­lenges pos­si­ble by mobil­is­ing broad sup­port. We pro­vide a strong net­work and var­i­ous forums in order to enable dia­logue among our mem­ber organ­i­sa­tions and between them and deci­sion-mak­ers in gov­ern­men­tal insti­tu­tions and par­lia­ments.

Frank’s most active peri­od in AEGEE: at the Pres­i­dents’ Met­ing in Novi Sad in March 1999.

GT: What’s your task in the board?
Frank: Between the gen­er­al assem­blies, the board guides the activ­i­ties of the net­work. In a body of 24, almost every­body is elect­ed as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a spe­cif­ic group of mem­ber organ­i­sa­tions, such as think tanks, foun­da­tions, huge NGOs like the Euro­pean fed­er­al­ists, polit­i­cal par­ties, labour unions or busi­ness asso­ci­a­tions. I am one of four board mem­bers with­out such a spe­cif­ic affil­i­a­tion. I plan to voice the inter­est of small mem­bers such as Cit­i­zens of Europe, the organ­i­sa­tion which sug­gest­ed me, and of all those organ­i­sa­tions which are based on vol­un­tary involve­ment. I will con­tribute my knowl­edge, my expe­ri­ence and my inter­na­tion­al con­tacts. I am try­ing to approach my new respon­si­bil­i­ty with hum­ble­ness, curios­i­ty and ded­i­ca­tion, in order not to dis­ap­point my sup­port­ers and to con­tribute to the suc­cess of the EBD.

GT: Does the Euro­pean Move­ment organ­ise own events like AEGEE?
Frank: We pro­mote the activ­i­ties and events of the mem­ber organ­i­sa­tions. Events realised on a net­work lev­el are open to mem­bers of the mem­ber organ­i­sa­tions. After impor­tant meet­ings in Brus­sels we invite rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Ger­man min­istries for “DE-brief­in­gs“ to present the out­come and tell us about the course of debates. In “EBD exk­lu­siv“ events a lim­it­ed num­ber of peo­ple can have inten­sive and per­son­al debates with inter­est­ing peo­ple, recent­ly for exam­ple with the Nor­we­gian min­is­ter for EU affairs. We keep con­tact with Euro­pean Move­ments in oth­er coun­tries. Final­ly, we also have projects such as newslet­ters on spe­cif­ic top­ics, the prize “Euro­pean Woman of the Year“ or the school com­pe­ti­tion “Europäis­ch­er Wet­tbe­werb“.

Frank Burgdör­fer, talk­ing with AEGEE-Europe Pres­i­dent Oana Mailates­cu at Ago­ra Udine in Novem­ber 2000.

GT: What are the main dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties of the Euro­pean Move­ment com­pared to AEGEE?
Frank: In my per­cep­tion, AEGEE is a Euro­pean move­ment in the best sense of the term: based on clear Euro­pean prin­ci­ples, but leav­ing it to its mem­bers to realise them in a vari­ety of activ­i­ties and projects. In con­trast to the Euro­pean Move­ment as a whole, AEGEE con­sists exclu­sive­ly of stu­dents. Thus AEGEE is in effect focused stronger on the devel­op­ment of the indi­vid­ual skills and per­son­al­i­ties of its active mem­bers. And they are not hold­ing respon­si­ble func­tions in soci­ety yet.

GT: You found­ed the organ­i­sa­tion “Cit­i­zens of Europe”. The name sounds a bit like AEGEE
Frank: You are not wrong. The founders include Bern­hard Klein, who used to be sec­re­tary of the IPWG and Pres­i­dent of AEGEE-München, for­mer AEGEE-Europe Pres­i­dent Ger­hard Kress and his lat­er wife Min­na Nikolo­va, the founder of AEGEE-Bla­go­ev­grad. Among us we jok­ing­ly said we would estab­lish “AEGEE for adults“. The idea was to pro­vide a plat­form for activ­i­ties involv­ing peo­ple from all over Europe – but adjust­ed to the needs of peo­ple hav­ing job and fam­i­ly. Thus we chose the sim­plest con­struc­tion pos­si­ble: a local asso­ci­a­tion reg­is­tered in Munich, where most of us lived at that time, which would be open for mem­bers from all over Europe and led by a small board, while rely­ing on big or small project teams wher­ev­er pos­si­ble.

GT: How did it work out?
Frank: It has been a con­tin­u­ous up and down. After stu­dent time, it is even hard­er for peo­ple to ded­i­cate them­selves for longer peri­ods. Over time, with a lot of tri­al and error, we man­aged to devel­op a cer­tain port­fo­lio of projects: con­fer­ences, train­ings, an annu­al short-film-fes­ti­val and oth­er arts projects. We have reli­able part­ner insti­tu­tions all over Europe, which coop­er­ate with us or host our events. In our Berlin office, there are reg­u­lar­ly three vol­un­teers from dif­fer­ent Euro­pean coun­tries, one of them tak­ing care of the online jour­nal “Europe & Me“. A very recent one was Olimpia Par­je by the way, who is quite well-known in AEGEE. Mean­while we also sent about 35 peo­ple to part­ner organ­i­sa­tions for usu­al­ly 12 months with­in the EU’s Euro­pean Vol­un­tary Ser­vice pro­gramme.

GT: Why did you decide do leave the board of Cit­i­zens of Europe after ten years?
Frank: Assur­ing enough con­tin­u­ous activ­i­ty in order to pay the office rent and being in charge when­ev­er some­thing goes wrong and when­ev­er there is con­flict kept me busy for years. At a cer­tain point I realised that all this activ­i­ty did not bring me or the asso­ci­a­tion any fur­ther. I had the strong feel­ing that new peo­ple in charge were need­ed in order to make fur­ther devel­op­ment pos­si­ble. The 10th anniver­sary was a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to hand on respon­si­bil­i­ty. Join­ing the EBD Board as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Cit­i­zens of Europe two years after means a chance to still sup­port the Cit­i­zens and is a great chal­lenge for myself.

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Frank Burg­do­er­fer at the pop­u­lar AEGEE event “Sum­mit of 28”

GT: Cur­rent board mem­ber of Cit­i­zens of Europe is Hol­ger Schmitt. What did you think when you heard he was elect­ed to the CD?
Frank: I con­grat­u­lat­ed him. I know Hol­ger quite well since AEGEE-Berlin some­times uses Cit­i­zens of Europe’s meet­ing room and roof ter­race. And they are much bet­ter than us in organ­is­ing par­ties when we have inter­na­tion­al guests.

GT: Let’s talk about your AEGEE back­ground. When, how and why did you join AEGEE?
Frank: After return­ing from Eras­mus in Göte­borg in sum­mer 1996, I was look­ing for a Euro­pean sur­round­ing, for a chance to meet peo­ple, to learn, to devel­op. I par­tic­i­pat­ed in two events of the „Europe & Euro“ project of AEGEE-Europe and got con­vinced to come to the Pres­i­dents’ Meet­ing — the pre­de­ces­sor of the EBM — in Veszprem. There I pub­licly dis­agreed with AEGEE-Europe’s Pres­i­dent Ser­gio Caredda’s approach how to estab­lish an Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­tics Work­ing Group (IPWG). He was busy as AEGEE pres­i­dent any­way. And obvi­ous­ly many peo­ple present decid­ed to put this unknown imper­ti­nent guy to a test.

GT: How do you remem­ber your time as pres­i­dent of the IPWG? What were the high­lights?
Frank: I had a chance to expe­ri­ence which won­der­ful things are pos­si­ble with­in AEGEE’s net­work. In the midst of many polit­i­cal tur­bu­lences we realised a Sum­mer Uni­ver­si­ty in coop­er­a­tion with AEGEE-Beograd, dur­ing which the dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion and per­spec­tives of the Balka­ns were dis­cussed. The year after, in 1999, we launched a series of events enti­tled “Ten Years of Tran­si­tion” in dif­fer­ent cen­tral Euro­pean coun­tries and con­tributed to what was called the “Peace Acad­e­my Project”, which took place main­ly in the South of Europe. My basic idea was to demon­strate how a strong work­ing group con­sist­ing of ded­i­cat­ed and expe­ri­enced experts on a top­ic can be an ide­al part­ner of locals if it comes to real­is­ing events of high qual­i­ty.

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Frank Burg­do­er­fer with oth­er mem­bers of Cit­i­zens of Europe

GT: What are your best and worst mem­o­ries of your time in AEGEE?
Frank: In a huge organ­i­sa­tion, there is cer­tain­ly also some­thing like “inter­nal pol­i­tics”. Some hurt­ing and dis­ap­point­ing per­son­al expe­ri­ence in that regard is not for­got­ten, but the won­der­ful mem­o­ries are dom­i­nant. There was a con­fer­ence about Koso­vo con­flict, which we realised in Budapest at the Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty in 2000, exact­ly one year after the NATO attacks. We gath­ered stu­dents from all coun­tries involved in the war, even from the US and Cana­da. It was tensed, it was pas­sion­ate, and we all learned a lot – and even pub­lished a sci­en­tif­ic book after­wards.

GT: Impres­sive! Do you have oth­er exam­ples?
Frank: Then there was the schol­ar­ship pro­gramme “Edu­ca­tion for Democ­ra­cy”. For 15 stu­dents from Ser­bia and Koso­vo, who we brought to Ger­man and Dutch Uni­ver­si­ties for a year, I organ­ised 10 sem­i­nars at var­i­ous loca­tions. I got to know won­der­ful peo­ple, some of them are good per­son­al friends since. And final­ly I would like to men­tion my last project: a huge sim­u­la­tion of deci­sion mak­ing in the Euro­pean Union, which took place in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Obvi­ous­ly it affect­ed my pro­fes­sion­al life: today my com­pa­ny makes more than half of its turnover with sim­u­la­tions of polit­i­cal process­es.

GT: You have so much expe­ri­ence with dif­fer­ent Euro­pean organ­i­sa­tions, you know AEGEE from inside and out­side. What do you see as strengths and weak­ness­es of AEGEE?
Frank: Today I agree with my friend Ger­hard Kress: AEGEE is doomed to run in cir­cles. He said this when I just became active and did not want to hear it: in AEGEE, every gen­er­a­tion needs to learn the same lessons again, is chal­lenged by the same prob­lems. But – and this is impor­tant — always dif­fer­ent peo­ple learn and move for­ward. In effect, AEGEE has sig­nif­i­cant­ly changed the lives of thou­sands of peo­ple. It made them more open, it gave them a per­son­al idea of what “Europe“ can be, it widened their hori­zon, gave them friends they oth­er­wise nev­er had met and it final­ly helped them devel­op self-con­fi­dence. I am one of the many peo­ple who would live very dif­fer­ent lives with­out AEGEE.

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Frank, giv­ing one of his count­less work­shops

GT: Is AEGEE tack­ling the right Euro­pean issues with the right strat­e­gy?
Frank: I am too far away from AEGEE to answer this ques­tion. Through­out the last 15 years, stu­dent life has changed, our soci­ety has changed and Europe has changed. Impor­tant is in my point of view, that AEGEE enables peo­ple to do what they deem impor­tant, that it encour­ages them to address what they believe to be rel­e­vant and that it strict­ly sticks to some basic prin­ci­ples such as “actions speak loud­er than words” and the idea of a con­ti­nen­tal net­work of friends. With­in this con­text, what­ev­er hap­pens is right.

GT: You were one of the few AEGEE mem­bers who became entre­pre­neurs. You have degrees in eco­nom­ics and polit­i­cal sci­ence and could have eas­i­ly found any kind of com­pa­ny job. Why did you instead found your own com­pa­ny?
Frank: I like to be cre­ative and inde­pen­dent. I con­sid­er it a priv­i­lege to cov­er my liv­ing cost by sell­ing essen­tial­ly my own ideas. And all my vol­un­tary activ­i­ties, like also now in the EBD Board, would be dif­fi­cult to realise if I had to stick to a reg­u­lar work­ing sched­ule and could not decide on my time rather freely.

GT: Can you tell us more about your com­pa­ny x³ Burgdör­fer & Ness? What do you do there?
Frank: We devel­op ideas, how to explain polit­i­cal process­es and com­pli­cat­ed polit­i­cal issues in a com­pre­hen­si­ble way. We pro­vide this as a ser­vice to pub­lic insti­tu­tions, main­ly to their visitor’s depart­ments. And we offer train­ings for com­pa­nies who have an inter­est in under­stand­ing pol­i­tics, for exam­ple the dynam­ics of inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences or the exact pro­ce­dures of law-mak­ing.

GT: What do you per­son­al­ly do at x³ Burgdör­fer & Ness?
Frank: My task – sup­port­ed by a team of course — usu­al­ly is to analyse com­plex real­i­ties, to reduce them to their core. And then to trans­late them in pic­tures, metaphors, mod­els, which peo­ple can eas­i­ly com­pre­hend. Often by being active them­selves, by tak­ing over cer­tain roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties with­in a sim­u­lat­ed sit­u­a­tion.

Frank Burgdör­fer turned the IPWG into the most active work­ing group of its time.

GT: You are an expert on Euro­pean pol­i­tics. A lot of coun­tries in Europe have pop­ulist or nation­al­is­tic gov­ern­ments. What is the right strat­e­gy for the EU to deal with them? And what can AEGEE do?
Frank: We should not pan­ic and give them an even big­ger stage. The Euro­pean project has made our nations stronger and wealth­i­er, it has made all of us freer and gives as chances in life we would not have oth­er­wise. Europe puts us in a posi­tion to solve our prob­lems effec­tive­ly. Togeth­er we can improve our eco­nom­ic and social mod­el, togeth­er we can take influ­ence on glob­al devel­op­ments, togeth­er we can help over­come prob­lems in our neigh­bour­hood. As indi­vid­ual nations, we would be irrel­e­vant. We have all argu­ments on our side. We need to demon­strate that we mean what we say – and that there are demo­c­ra­t­ic Euro­peans from very dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal fam­i­lies who share the vision of a Unit­ed Europe and stand for it. Nation­al­ists pre­tend that they stand for free­dom while Europe means to lim­it own options. The oppo­site is true: As Euro­peans we have options and choic­es we would not have oth­er­wise. Togeth­er we can define what we want to hap­pen – where­as nation­al­ists can react only. In pro­ce­dur­al ques­tions we should not be dog­mat­ic, regard­ing our val­ues and prin­ci­ples we must. AEGEE does a lot if it comes to demon­strat­ing what being Euro­pean means. It might not reach a lot of pub­lic atten­tion – but it gives peo­ple the very con­crete expe­ri­ence that Europe is pos­si­ble. AEGEEns belong to the very few who actu­al­ly mean “Europe” when they say “we”. And that is the essen­tial point.

GT: Which strat­e­gy should the EU have towards Rus­sia and Ukraine?
Frank: In my point of view, essen­tial Euro­pean val­ues are at stake: That all Euro­peans and all their nations are equal, that vio­lence against oth­ers is not accept­able, that inter­na­tion­al treaties are to be ful­filled. There­for this is a con­flict about the very fun­da­men­tals of the Euro­pean project. Tak­ing a very clear and bold posi­tion does not serve Ukrain­ian inter­est only, but Euro­pean inter­est in gen­er­al. We are defend­ing what made us strong. The chal­lenge is to find means to deal with pro­pa­gan­da, with fic­tion – not only in Rus­sia but also here in EU. We are observ­ing here two com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent approach­es to pol­i­tics, inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and media. Every step we make on the Euro­pean side is con­tro­ver­sial­ly debat­ed, con­tin­u­ous­ly ques­tioned and reg­u­lar­ly attacked. Moscow hopes that this will be our weak­ness only, we must show that this is our way to define con­sen­sus and to pre­vail in the long run. The offi­cial Rus­sia is cur­rent­ly enjoy­ing itself as a pari­ah in the inter­na­tion­al scene. Con­tain­ing it will hard­ly be pos­si­ble – in the end the con­flict is about either chang­ing Rus­sia or allow­ing it to dam­age Europe. How­ev­er, I am con­fi­dent: eco­nom­i­cal­ly and with regard to the polit­i­cal con­cept we stand for, we are stronger. Nobody ever man­aged to fool a lot of peo­ple for a long time, as Abra­ham Lin­coln said. If we stand unit­ed, this con­flict will in effect even strength­en the basis of the Euro­pean project.


About Frank Burgdörfer

Born in 1972 in the South-West of Ger­many, Frank Burgdör­fer has been active in soci­ety since his youth days. As teenag­er he played in sev­er­al bands, was free­lance jour­nal­ist for a local news­pa­per, board mem­ber of a cul­ture and sports asso­ci­a­tion and also worked on the farm of his par­ents. After this, Frank studyied eco­nom­ics in Gießen and polit­i­cal sci­ence in Munich — his the­sis was deal­ing with the EU and the desin­te­gra­tion of Yugoslavia.

Frank was AEGEE mem­ber for only four years, but left a strong mark on the asso­ci­a­tion. From 1997, the year he joined, till 1999 he was Pres­i­dent of AEGEE’s Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­tics Work­ing Group, in the fol­low­ing two years he coor­di­nat­ed AEGEE projects on the Balkan. In 2002 he found­ed the aso­ci­a­tion Cit­i­zens of Europe, whose chair­man he was for ten years. In 2007 he became found­ing part­ner of the con­sult­ing com­pa­ny x³ Burgdör­fer & Ness. In the same year Frank joined the “Team Europe”, the pool of speak­ers and lec­tur­ers of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. Since 30th of June 2014 Frank is board mem­ber of the Ger­man Euro­pean Move­ment brnanch Europäis­che Bewe­gung Deutsch­land (EBD).


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