Give young people a say over Brexit

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

Young Brits voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. [Ed Everett/Flickr]

If the EU and UK want to build public support for the Brexit negotiations, they need to include the younger generation. After all, young people that will be most affected by the process, write Sophie Pornschlegel and Marcel Hadeed.

Sophie Pornschlegel and Marcel Hadeed are leaders of the Post Brexit Europe programme for grassroots think tank Polis180.

On 23 June 2016, 52% of UK citizens who voted in the referendum decided to leave the European Union – a first in the long history of the European integration process. Our British neighbours have always had a turbulent relationship with the EU, starting with two rejections of membership in 1963 and 1967, due to French President Charles de Gaulle’s reluctance to let them be part of the European Economic Community (EEC). According to him, British traditions – maritime, isolated and transatlantic – were clearly distinct from European ones. The bottom line was that the Brits were not “continental” enough in their soul and were therefore “incompatible” with the European project. Fifty years later, De Gaulle’s premonition seems weirdly accurate.

But instead of focusing on the past, decision-makers and the public must focus on the future and find appropriate solutions to the mess Brexit has created. Despite the government’s promise to make a success of Brexit, it will be a disaster on both sides if it is not tackled properly. And if Theresa May stays as vague as she was in her speech at the beginning of January, Brexit will create even more uncertainty – not to mention the damage it will cause to the UK’s territorial integrity, economy and society.

Failure to reach a good deal will hurt the young

Eight months after the referendum, it seems like British politicians have very little idea how they will manage its consequences. The heinous campaign of UKIP and Tory ‘Leavers’, that catered to nostalgia, racism and disillusionment (“Taking back control”, “Keeping immigrants at bay”) starkly contrasted with their inability to deal with the consequences after 23 June. While Labour has not provided any opposition to speak of, Theresa May and her ministers seem to be deaf when European heads of state and government explain that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Even after May’s January speech, the British public is still waiting for an explanation as to how Britain is supposed to stay “global” when it leaves the single market and stops immigration. The only concrete proposal so far has come from Liam Fox in a tweet: Britain should export “innovative marmalade to France” (#exportingisGREAT). Instead of innovative jams and other creative proposals, the UK needs clear ideas about what future it wants and what rights it is willing to slash for the sake of national sovereignty.

Brexit has revealed the tensions between generations. More than 70% of young voters chose to remain in the EU, but only 64% of them (aged 18-24) went to the polls. 59% of over 65s wanted to leave, with 90% of them casting their ballot. The comparatively low turnout of young people is an expression of their renunciation of the politics they are offered. The baby boomer generation has failed to make democracy attractive to the young – after all, the lack of job opportunities, growing inequality and rising of tuition fees in recent years have not greatly contributed to the building of trust in their elected governments. Rather, the young have to deal with a less welcoming, harsher economic situation than ever before. In addition to the dire facts, politicians have also failed to address the younger generation in their political discourse, leaving the public arena to angry pensioners. As Brexit is so crucial to future generations, it is time the young got a voice.

EU must replace failing crisis management with new, fresh ideas

On the other side of the Channel, the EU’s crisis management cannot continue to fail as it has done in the past. After the breakdown of the global financial system in 2008, rampant youth unemployment has surged to over 50% in Southern Europe, leaving the young generation desperate for jobs. The inability to deal with the refugee crisis in 2015 led to the collapse of Schengen, threatening the freedom of movement of EU citizens and the ability of the young to connect, exchange and live without physical and mental borders.

Current politicians all over Europe find themselves unable to reform the EU properly. Instead, they stubbornly hold onto the status quo. In the meantime, Europe has been taken hostage by populist forces, rattling the sabres of nationalism and bashing the little legitimacy the EU still enjoys in the public eye. In this light, Brexit is yet another symptom of the slow crumbling of Europe. And it is the younger generation that will have to live with the consequences.

Rather than “containing” the consequences, European decision-makers should pro-actively shape its development and define in advance the best deal for the EU – and its citizens. But in order to do so, politicians desperately need new ideas as to their vision for Europe and the ability to act on them. This is where young people can and should play a role as key contributors to the Brexit negotiations, shaping the process with innovative ideas. Many initiatives have been started, such as the 1989 Generation initiative, “We are undivided” or new think tanks such as Polis180. Young people are not apolitical. They want change.

Article 50 will be triggered in March, and the following two years will not be a piece of cake – neither for the EU27 nor for the British government. We all need to be aware that young citizens will ultimately suffer the most from a mismanaged Brexit, long after the 65+ year-olds are gone. This is why they need a voice in the process – in the EU, and in the UK. In the EU, young people will not accept another status quo solution. And in the UK, young Brits have – more than ever – the right to be heard and to shape a process that will ultimately define British politics in the decades to come.


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