“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” This sentence from the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy has been used so often and in so many situations, and yet it can hardly be called a cliché. Also in this context it still remains true and powerful: European young people are not yet lost.
The situation is dire. So much cannot be denied. Youth unemployment keeps rising month after month and is approaching the mark of 25% in the euro zone. But does this turn people away from Europe? Does the average young person know enough about Europe for this? And what future do young people see for the European Union in 2020?
These and other questions formed the content of the first edition of the Europe on Track project, winner of the European Charlemagne Youth Prize 2013, last week in Aachen. At a time when the European integration project is being questions and the outlooks for many young people look bleak at best, AEGEE/ European Students’ Forum has taken the initiative to question European youth on their vision of Europe and their role in it. As one of six travellers I covered over 7,500 km by train to interview 200 young people.
From Brussels to Istanbul many interviewed youth were indeed anxious about their current and future chances on the job market, both at home and abroad. Many don’t stand idly by however, and are further training themselves in youth organisations, on projects, or in non-formal education. Yet they are aware that even this is often not enough, for non-formal education is still insufficiently being recognised and it remains difficult for them to turn this invaluable experience into a meaningful job. The Youth Guarantee can play a role here, but can still be improved.
Moreover, for many the European integration project remains limited to politics and business, while on the ground many barriers remain before we can truly speak of a free movement of persons. Some examples include the difficult transfer from the French education to the German job market, the mutual incompatibility of the Dutch and Belgian residence rules, or the drastic consequences of the fast integration of the new member states.
Few however, have lost their faith in a better Europe. Among youth the interest for European politics is low and many indicate “not knowing what they are doing there in Brussels”, but this largely seems to be a reflection at the European level of the lack of interest in, or even aversion from national politics. Remains of communist regimes, insufficient attention for youth in political programmes, and a feeling of impotence to chance any of this, are the most commonly cited reasons for this disinterest.
But it is not yet too late. As European Parliament president Martin Schultz said last week: “The elections of 2014 will be crucial to regain the confidence.” Many elections and other events have already been called crucial and just as quickly have been replaced with other horizons, but we cannot afford to be discouraged by this. Each opportunity to turn the tide of Euroscepticism can be the decisive one. The European Students’ Forum is therefore industriously preparing the successor of its 2009 success project: Y Vote.
Many young people are more than ever concerned with the institutional discussions and the changes these could bring about. For many a stronger union is indispensable to get us out of this crisis and a federal Europe seems a done deal: it is integration or disintegration for this Erasmus-generation. Young people are most easily convinced by other young people, and it is therefore the task of these enthusiastic youths to engage others and pull them along. This is exactly the aim of Y Vote 2014 as well, by again heading to the UK with a campaign on Euroscepticism.
But they cannot do this alone. Regardless of the number of projects and campaigns to stimulate young people’s interest in European politics and integration, political programmes and discourses must also be adapted to offer them a point of recognition and to demonstrate that Europe has a tangible — and often positive — influence in their daily life. Too often politicians at the national level blame Brussels for unpopular measures, and media report only on the negative aspects of European integration.
Young people are shouting that we can no longer continue like this, and they are prepared to do something about this. The least European policy-makers could do, is to actively support and guide these young people. We will gladly cooperate with this!