Never mind ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, Brexit must not be brutal on youth

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Never mind ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, an Italian MEP has warned against a ‘brutal’ Brexit.

Brando Benifei, co-chair of the European Parliament’s Youth Inter-group, is concerned that Britain’s imminent departure from the EU will particularly detrimental on young people.

Speaking at an event in Brussels organised by Euractiv, the 32-year-old centre-left MEP, a former Erasmus student in the UK, remarked that many young Britons have jobs “dependent on the internal market”.

He said: “They are impacted by the EU but they don’t know it. We need to avoid a brutal impact on young people.”

Benifei name-checked citizens’ rights as a particularly important concern for young people in the Brexit negotiations. But he told the event, entitled ‘Young people and Brexit: Are we listening to the next generation?’that he was “pessimistic” about the negotiations. He said: “As a legislator, I need to say that the situation is bleak – we are going towards the ‘no agreement’ path.”

Julie Girling MEP also spoke at the event, held on the same day that she left the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) to join the European People’s Party (EPP. She was as downbeat as Benifei, saying: “Everyone is going to see a diminution of living standards.”

Girling pointed out: “Young and old is just one of the axes of division.”

Isabelle van de Gejuchte, Senior Advisor on Policy Engagement for the British Council, which has undertaken research on young people’s views on Brexit, said that although 69% of young people had voted ‘Remain’ the UK’s referendum, 30% had voted ‘Leave’. She said “a substantial minority” of young Britons have “low international exposure” and “feel cut off from globalisation”.

Van de Gejuchte echoed Girling’s point that British voters were also somewhat split on North-South lines (with the former more inclined to have voted Leave). She added: “Participants in our survey found fears of a growing social divide in the UK after Brexit.”

Amy Longland of My Life, My Say, which describes itself as a ‘youth-led, non-partisan movement’ and acts as the secretariat for a UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on a ‘Better Brexit for Young People’, said: “Politics just doesn’t work for most young people.”

Girling, however, said: “When I was 18, people were much more engaged. As life got more comfortable, at least for most people, engagement went down.”

She added: “Last Friday I was in the depths of Devon for an event on Brexit – 300 people turned up, but very few were young.”

Girling also said young people are often not registered to vote, and praised a voter registration drive led by the opposition Labour Party in the run-up to the May 2017 UK general election as “terrific”.

She admitted that many politicians could do more to engage with young people. She said: “We need to spend less time in big [institutional] buildings and more time in the community.”

Girling added: “Young people have moved on to other forms of social media, beyond Facebook and Twitter. Some on my age-group just give up with social media – they think they have done their bit as they have a Twitter handle, but young people have already moved on.”

European Youth Forum Secretary-General Anna Widegren was also a speaker at the event. She said: “A lot of young people feel betrayed by the outcome [Brexit]. They are not being ‘reached out to’ and this has to stop.”

She added: “We need to ensure citizens’ rights are safeguarded; freedom of movement should not be lost, and Erasmus+ [the EU-sponsored student exchange programme] must continue.”

“We are not a generation that recognises borders,” said Longland.

Girling also criticised British Prime Minister Theresa May’s long-promised major review of higher education funding in England, announced on 19 February. She said: “You will lose people’s interest if you take a full year to look at tuition fees.”

The discussion also turned to the possibility of a second UK referendum. Girling joked: “Don’t tell them [voters] that it’s ‘another referendum’; tell them it’s a different type of vote.”