Bringing Europe’s Youth on Board

Posted on 07. November 2012

by James Kilcourse

james-kilcourse-2012-2015-modifiedWhen asked to support a more integrated EU in the coming years, young Europeans will ask themselves two questions: ‘What has Europe done for me?’ and ‘What is the EU really for?’

“More Europe” has become the rallying cry of the politicians and officials tasked with reviving the fortunes of the Eurozone. Talks are already underway on a European banking union, a number of Member States have agreed to create a Financial Transaction Tax and European leaders have proposed several ambitious steps towards closer economic and political integration. Herman Van Rompuy has explained his vision for the next ten years of Economic and Monetary Union, which focuses on four key building blocks. The fourth and final building block – strengthening democratic legitimacy and accountability – is by far the least developed, but is the pillar upon which further European integration rests.

Discussions on the issue of legitimacy tend to focus on the institutional changes that would make the EU more democratic and accountable, as well as the need to educate and inform Europe’s citizenry about the processes of EU decision-making. These steps will take time and, even then, will not create a European demos overnight. In the meantime, there is a failure at national and European level to understand that the issue of the EU’s legitimacy will ultimately be decided by Europe’s youth, a sector of the population that has different problems, different needs and a very different Weltanschauung to the generations that are currently making decisions in Europe.

When asked to support a more integrated, even federal EU in the coming years, young Europeans will ask themselves two questions. The first is: ‘What has Europe done for me?’ Unfortunately it is Europe’s youth – who played no part in the disastrous policies that contributed to this recession – that has been hit hardest by the crisis. Youth unemployment rates are soaring across Europe. Those lucky enough to move beyond internships into stable employment are likely to receive less pay and entitlements than their older colleagues did when they entered the jobs market. The highly negative consequences of youth unemployment and disaffection are well understood by national and European officials, yet the problem is not given the priority that it deserves.

Europe’s initial response to the financial and economic crisis – a headlong rush into austerity – undermined, and continues to undermine, the very provisions that are of most value to the young, including education, research and innovation, and job creation. Europe’s youth is paying the price for an older generation’s mistakes, yet this older generation remains in the driving seat and has thus far failed abjectly to inspire us with confidence. There appears to be very little urgency attached to the concerns and needs of Europe’s youth, both at national and European level. One example will suffice: the European Youth Guarantee, which was proposed by the European Parliament in July 2010. The European Commission is expected to come forward with proposals for this initiative in December 2012, two-and-a-half years later. While the European Youth Guarantee is by no means a panacea to the problems of Europe’s youth, it could certainly be a part of the solution. However, it is still not clear when this scheme will be delivered.

The second question that Europe’s youth is likely to ask is: ‘What is the EU really for?’ It is on this question that the inter-generational divide is perhaps most profound. For older generations, the EU is the world’s most successful peace project. The horrors of the Second World War, the Cold War and the break-up of Yugoslavia are reason enough to ensure that older generations truly value the peace and stability that European integration has brought to this continent. The success of integration is such that most young Europeans simply cannot imagine the idea of two EU Member States taking up arms against each other. Therein lies the problem: the narrative of European integration is lost on Europe’s youth. If the EU is to engage with its young citizens, it must find a new narrative that justifies the continued existence of this peculiar and remarkable political entity.

As a group of young European citizens, FutureLab participants are well placed to understand the concerns and expectations of Europe’s youth and to try to explain the value of European integration to a twenty-first century audience. National and European policy-makers must also address these issues as a matter of urgency because the decision-makers of tomorrow are the increasingly alienated and disaffected youth of today.