The biggest lesson for Europeans from Brexit

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

Pro EU supporters demonstrate on the balcony of a building in Westminster. [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/EFE]

The biggest lesson of all for Europe to learn from Brexit is the importance of mobilising young Europeans to vote, writes Roger Casale.

Roger Casale is Founder and CEO of New Europeans, Winner of the #SchwarzkopfEuropeAward 2019

Having made so much before the financial crash about the importance of building a Europe of the citizens (“We the men and women, citizens of Europe, have united for the better” Berlin Declaration, 2007), European leaders are now struggling to articulate a positive vision for Europe’s future grounded on the experience and participation of citizens.

A renewed focus on the idea of a Europe of Citizens is exactly what is needed, however, to ward off scepticism and revitalise the European project.

Ironically, an organisation (New Europeans) that was started in the UK but which is now based in London and Brussels, has just won this year’s Schwarzkopf Europe Award.

UK citizens did not just wake up to the prospect of the UK leaving the EU on the day after the referendum. Increasingly it has been dawning on the British that they will lose something valuable when (and if) Brexit day arrives – their rights to freedom of movement, non-discrimination and political participation within the EU. It is a text book case of not knowing what you have until it’s (nearly) gone.

Europeans would be mistaken to think that the EU is any less at risk of a Trump or Brexit moment. Next year’s European Parliamentary elections offer the perfect opportunity to Steve Bannon and leaders such as Salvini and Orbán to stage a tsunami of protest votes aimed at tearing the heart out of the EU institutions.

This exactly mirrors the opportunity that Nigel Farage had in Britain at the European elections in 2014 in which UKIP famously “finished first”.

The lesson we should learn is that it is painful, expensive, and possibly impossible to repair the damage to the institutions of a country once the power of right wing populism is allowed to “let rip”. It is much better not to let this happen in the first place.

In the UK, we have failed to make the positive arguments for Europe and for migration and free movement.  Since 2010, the gap in the polls between the two main parties in the UK, Labour and Conservative, has been so narrow that neither side has wanted to make any bold positive statements on these issues for fear of bleeding votes to the populists.

As a result, many unfounded and negative statements about the EU have gone unchallenged (although some might argue that it was ever so).

In particular, the idea was reinforced in the public space that migration from the EU was the nation’s biggest “problem”. In fact, it is part of the solution to the challenges facing an ageing population and an economy in which competitiveness was falling.

The obsession with EU migration was a relatively new development in the public discourse and the failure to tackle it head on is having potentially catastrophic consequences for the UK.  Not only is there a real and present danger that the UK will actually leave the EU and the Single Market – it is also highly likely that it will be unable to attract the EU27 citizens it needs to the UK in the future to serve the post-Brexit British economy.

The British government has over-played its hostile environment strategy and the negative rhetoric about EU migration has now gone too far. Compounded by two years of instrumentalization of EU27 citizens in the Brexit negotiations, even some Brexiter Ministers and MPs recognise that a failure to recruit from “the continent” can undermine the prospects that Brexit can be made to work successfully.

The biggest lesson of all for Europe to learn from Brexit however is the importance of mobilising young Europeans to vote.

It was wrong that 16-18 year olds in the UK were not enfranchised for the Brexit referendum as they had been two years earlier for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

However, the much bigger problem turned out to be the lack of participation by those who were entitled to vote, and in particular those aged between 18 and 25.

Young people in Britain have been hugely negatively impacted by the Brexit referendum and that is exactly what will happen in the rest of Europe if young people cannot be mobilised to vote.

Firstly, young people’s material prospects are less rosy than those of their parents’ generation – there is a risk that this generation will be poorer than its predecessor.

Secondly, young people face a loss of rights, particularly the right to freedom of movement.

If that is not enough, there is a third challenge that young people now face.

They are growing up in a world where it is possible for politicians to lie without being held to account. They can see that elections and referendums can be lost or won not on the basis of facts and argument but as a result of remote interference, turbo-charged through the targeted manipulation of big data.

New Europeans, and civil society organisations like them, have a critical role to play in the run up to the European elections in 2019 because they have the capacity to mobilise young Europeans to get out and vote.

If politicians in the EU are afraid to make the same case for a Europe of citizens now as they made before 2008, even though there is a much bigger need for it, then it is up to individual citizens and civil society actors to do so.

The bestowing of the Schwarzkopf Europe Award on New Europeans is a signal that the need to mobilise and empower young people as citizens of Europe is being recognised.

It is also an invitation to all of us, to listen to the voice of an organisation that has cut its apprenticeship in the years before and after the Brexit vote and has an important message for Europe which we will do well to heed: “It is much harder to repair the damage caused by populists than it is to vote them down in the first place. Don’t get complacent!!”

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