The EU is full of its problems. Let’s stay in so we can solve them.
“Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong: it is a geographical expression.” So remarked the first Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck during a speech to the Reichstag in 1872. Fast forward 144 years later and the question of what exactly Europe is and what this means to citizens has never been more pertinent, especially here in the UK. Young Brits have become accustomed to news of populist parties on the right and left winning across the continent. Unless a message of change and hope can be communicated, these young people now have their opportunity to deal a bloody nose to the heart of the European establishment.
The debate on the future Europe has become increasingly multi-faceted, with arguments over economic stability now becoming intertwined with moral questions regarding the intake of refugees from some of the most war-torn nations in the world. Painting a simple narrative through identifying a common threat, in this case the EU, has become a common feature in political discourse across the continent. From Spain where the Podemos, became the third biggest party after the 2015 election, despite only being founded a year previously, to Poland where the Law and Justice party (PiS) is now being subject to a European Commission investigation due to amending its constitutional tribunal. Despite these parties being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, they have offered their respective voters change through rejecting the economic and political agendas of the EU.
Another key route to success for both these parties was their ability to mobilise young voters. During the 2015 Polish Presidency election, the right-wing candidate Andrzej Duda successfully won the contest with the backing of 60% of young people aged 18-29. Duda had the ability to show that an anti-establishment platform would deliver radical change and this repeated itself during the victory of PiS at the Polish parliamentary elections. In Spain, Podemos secured votes from a large number of young Spanish voters, with an opinion poll concluding that rejection of the Peoples’ Party of Spain was strongest among the youth.
What these two national profiles highlight is the electoral power held by young people, who traditionally have been excluded and disinterested in participating at the ballot box. Most worryingly for the pro-EU campaigns here in the UK, it demonstrates that framing the European establishment as the political bogeyman is extremely effective in galvanising support.
The natural instinct to overcome such threats over the EU would be to fight fire with fire and pour scorn over suggestions that it was Europe to blame for everything from unemployment, to strained public services to erosion of national sovereignty. However this strategy must be avoided at all costs if the future of the UK is to lie within the EU, but this must be more than a PR exercise of how good young Europeans have it at present.
Solutions to some of the biggest challenges European nations will face in the years to come on energy security, food supply and climate change will have to be found by the present younger generation. Answers to complex global problems cannot be resolved by resorting to only national or regional solutions, they require truly international solutions. Take for example climate change, it’s estimated that up to 200 million people will be displaced due to climate change by 2050. Whilst the EU still features the same bureaucratic processes found in all political institutions, uniquely it allows a mere 7% of the world’s population to stand in solidarity and punch above its weight. On climate change this will be absolutely vital in safeguarding our planet, as well as other major issues.
Solving the current problems of the EU, for example low levels of participation and sluggish responses, cannot be resolved by retreating to splendid isolation. The EU has proved itself to be a beacon of decency and democracy, with some of the most oppressed people from across the world coming here to seek sanctuary. These ideals of tolerance and equality are at the heart of the EU and the vast majority of its citizens.
This vote on Europe is one far greater than merely settling a geographical expression; it is about setting a future path in which future generations must walk. Young people across the continent, including the UK, Spain and Poland are united in their shared experiences of struggling to find a job, having a secure home and facing discrimination. These problems should not be endued in isolation but must be solved through working in cooperation and forging a better EU for all of us, together.
This article originally appeared on YO! Mag on 19 February 2016, the official magazine of the European Youth Forum, a platform of European youth organisations. It was written by Liam Beattie.