Europe can bounce back by building trust with young people

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Youth Event inauguration in Strasbourg, 2014. [Wikimedia]

Young EU citizens want to reclaim ownership of the European project and make it a force for good in the world. With culture and art, they could help cultivate an identity that would go deeper than legislation and regulation, writes Danuta Hübner.

Professor Danuta Hübner, PhD, is a Polish MEP (EPP) who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee. She was the European Commissioner for Regional Policy from 2004 to 2009.

Europe can and should bounce back by building trust with young people who hold the future of the EU and turning them into engaged citizens,

When I think of Europe, I think of the simple dreams it held for me as I was growing up on the other side of the Iron Curtain: human dignity, freedom, democracy. Back then, those dreams were forbidden and we looked West toward a free and unified Europe, sensing that it held the key to our future.

Back then, European integration was something fresh and young.

And indeed, when the European community was under construction in the 1950s, young people played a crucial, unifying role.

They protested along the Franco-German border to demand the frontier’s demise, and in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to push for faster integration among European countries. They were fighting for a new order. They often spoke in terms of life or death for a united Europe.

But for the young people of today, the EU is just a natural environment in which they grew up. And you usually find flaws, errors, inconsequences in the natural environment you grew up in. Thus, when young people look at the EU, they do not see it as fresh but rather as stale and corrupted by political compromises.

They are unhappy with the current policies, like austerity, lack of political clout to change the world for the better, underdeveloped social dimension. Their opinion is often not just, because the EU, despite sometimes appearing old and slow, can still have the mobilising power for initiating and implementing big, good projects.

But I sympathise with the impatience of the young people. They are actually the ones that want more Europe, integrated at a greater speed, faster in meeting the real needs of European citizens.

I looked at some of the voices of the young people who spoke their opinions under the hashtag #New Narrative for Europe.

And there I saw what really held the interest of young people who will, I am certain, be future EU leaders:

Protection of personal freedoms and broadening public expression, increased mobility and making European travel a means for intercultural understanding, adopting new technologies in the cause of direct democracy, instituting a broad European education, better inclusion of young people in mainstream European parties, fighting extremism, social integration of immigrants and taking advantage of their potential for resolving conflicts in other parts of the world, making the EU a force for good in the world.

In other words, the new generation wants to reclaim ownership of the European project. And this is the old idea of citizenship. They often express their affinity for the EU differently than preceding generations: their main instrument is social media, flash mobs, informal networks, spontaneous events.

We were used to a different way of doing things in Europe: institutionalised practices, developing long-term relationships, effective lobbying for legislation. We were, and are, probably more patient, perhaps our expectations were too low. In this respect I think that actually, young people can push us to faster action, give us a sense of urgency.

Perhaps it will be the mission of the young people, of this generation, to stem the rise of populism, and to define Europe anew. We need an infusion of a new spirit.

Europe needs a stronger narrative — its people need more common stories, shared experiences, heroes to love and look up to. The Portuguese should be willing to share in Scandinavian jokes, and Latvians should learn to sing French chansons like it often happens in the Erasmus Program.

At a time when our Union faces internal challenges from populist movements and neo-totalitarian regimes, we mustn’t forget that culture and the arts can be forceful weapons and help cultivate an EU identity that reaches deeper than the laws and regulations.

On the political level, we will know that the beginnings of the Union as a real community takes hold, when Italians or the Dutch will care about the war in Ukraine, and when Poles and Hungarians will be willing to help Greeks and Italians in their refugee influx problems.

Europe is bouncing back in a big way. One of its big project announced in the new MFF perspective is more than doubling financing of programmes for young people (such as ERASMUS+ with €30 billion and the European Solidarity Corps with €1.3 billion, including €700 million to support Interrail passes for young people):

Europe wants to regain the trust and the confidence of its citizens, also the young ones, who will feel emotionally connected to Europe as the expression of their aspirations. . This is a great example of what the UE does to empower people. It also makes them engaged citizens.

And what the EU badly needs is to create such critical mass of engaged citizens to advance its agenda, concentrated on tangible results which should become a fundamental pillar of the new, institutionally-reconstructed Union.

The question is: how to create this critical mass? Where is it to be found?

My response would be that it is to be found in universities, in conference halls, in cafes of the cities of Europe, in all other places where the young people congregate.

These are the places where the wonderful motto of this year of European Youth Event (EYE2018) “The plan is to fan this spark into a flame” will become a reality.

Subscribe to our newsletters