91 MEPs under the age of 40 were elected to the European Parliament at the May EU elections. Although their number is slightly lower than during the previous legislature, young MEPs “would still represent the third largest political group in the European Parliament,” according to Adam Mouchtar, managing director of the EU40 project.
The EU40 group, which aims to bring together younger MEPs, is not open to all. It refuses to accept MEPs further right than the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), unless they “prove they respect fundamental democratic principles” and do not seek to “destroy Europe”.
But the concept does not necessarily resonate with all of the newly-elected young MEPs, who “would like to confront populists because they usually can’t hold an argument,” according to Brando Benifei, the newly-elected Italian member of the Democratic Party (PD).
“I think it’s good to discuss with everyone. I would like to confront them on youth issues as well. Often they don’t want to discuss, this is my experience in Italy, their arguments are sometimes very frail and they don’t withstand debate. Instead, I think it’s useful to discuss with them, maybe something good can come out of it,” he told EURACTIV. He added he does not consider Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement as a Eurosceptic movement.
“The leaders are extremists, anti-euro and populists but the elected people are very different, if they act autonomously, they are very different, and maybe we will find out that these elected MEPs are people we can work with,” he said.
Under the current circumstances, Grillo’s party which is set to form an alliance with Nigel Farage’s UKIP, would probably not be welcome in the Under 40 group.
French Green MEP, Karima Delli, 35, who is beginning her second term, has no desire to collaborate with far-right and extremist parties. She finds the group less useful than the intergroup on youth issues, although she admits it renews the image of the Parliament.
>> Read her profile: Karima Delli, Activist and MEP
“For me the Under 40 group did not have the impact it should have had because in my opinion it is useless to meet just because we’re young, we need to target specific issues. The youth issue was much more powerful in the intergroup. Youth is a transversal issue for all topics,” Delli said.
Making youth a priority
Although all agree that it is important to have youth representation in the European Parliament and give young people a chance to make a difference, hopes are high that the next legislature will take the matter “to the next level.”
For Benifei, whose party leader, Matteo Renzi is also an Under 40 politician, youth issues must be on top of the next Parliament priorities.
“We discussed it with our Prime Minister [Matteo Renzi], one of the priorities of the forthcoming Italian EU presidency will be to reduce youth unemployment and put in place the right policies to do that,” he said.
The Italian Socialist delegation in the European Parliament is the strongest and is said to have “saved” the European Socialist and Democrats in the elections.
“We had the Youth Guarantee but we need a stronger response and more resources to tackle this problem,” Benifei said.
Employment, housing, environmental challenges, mobility are all priority issues for young people and the society as a whole, “and even though we might disagree on the approach with our conservative colleagues, we all agree on the importance of the matter,” Karima Delli said.
A ‘less elitist’ Erasmus
Mobility is an issue that often comes up when speaking to the young generation of EU lawmakers, with a special focus on the need to reform the European student exchange programme, Erasmus.
“I was myself an Erasmus student in London,” the young Italian MEP said, “and it’s a central project for the EU, involving young people. However I think that we need to make this project more accessible to everyone, now it’s still a bit elitist. Only university students can use that project and only if they can sustain it financially because the grants are too low.”
“We consider that Erasmus was very good but was reserved to a certain category of people, usually the elite, so we put in place Erasmus+ which will allow students from the technical field and even young unemployed to take advantage of that mobility,” Delli said.
The new young MEPs are also very much aware that youth representation in the European Parliament must serve first and foremost the young people across Europe who, “do not see or feel what Europe can do for them concretely.”
“These young people are born with Europe, they are aware of it, but they can’t see what Europe does for them, because what they need is for Europe to solve economic, social and environmental problems,” Delli concluded.
Delli’s view is shared by recently reelected Slovenian Socialist MEP, Tanja Fajon. She has great hopes for the next generation.
“It is obvious that the EU needs new directions to take, and these should be defined by young people. In the next legislature our most difficult common fight will be a fight against a Europe of fear, of populist and nationalist rhetoric, of hate speech and intolerance. We need an alternative and progressive Europe, a society based on dignity and descent life for all.”