The next European generation

The European Union turns 50 Sunday, celebrating the treaty that first joined six former enemy states in a "common market" that has since blossomed to 27 members. Historians describe the EU as an amazing security success, keeping peace through open trade. But can this formula inspire a new generation?

World War II is by now a long way in the past for the under-25 crowd. And the EU, counting nearly a half billion people, is a strange bird, difficult for even Europeans to understand. It's not a sovereign "United States of Europe," but with its own parliament and court, for instance, it's much more than just a loose collection of democracies tied together by economics.

The EU's drive toward greater unity has been stalled. Voters in France and the Netherlands blocked a constitution in 2005. Related to that, many countries are saying "enough, already" to adding new members, such as Turkey.

Given these turnoffs, keeping young Europeans as EU enthusiasts is crucial for the Union's future – a future that could lead to more economic growth, a unified voice in world affairs, a "green" agenda, and continued influence for democratic reform with its Eastern neighbors.

In important ways, those in the younger generation are actually more optimistic about the EU than the member-state population generally, according to a 2005 Eurobarometer poll. They're more open to closer political unity and less concerned about EU rules governing their daily lives.

In a sense, they're more "European" than their parents, having come of age at a time when citizens of member states can now freely travel, work, and study in each other's countries. Young Poles wait tables in Dublin, Germans can go to university in Paris, and youths fly to the sunny Mediterranean on low-cost airlines.

A hefty 62 percent of EU citizens ages 15 to 24 rank these lifestyle benefits as the foremost advantage of membership – a full 10 percentage points more than all EU citizens do.

But today's young people appear much more concerned with the prosperity part of the EU's peace-through-prosperity formula, than they are with the peace part. In the 2005 poll, young people ranked "maintaining peace and security" in Europe as the third priority, while "fighting unemployment" is the EU's most important task.

Economic growth in core EU countries such as Germany, France, and Italy rebounded in 2006, but even so, unemployment among EU youth runs at an average 17.3 percent, compared with 7.9 percent for all EU workers.

The EU can push its members toward goals for job creation, R&D spending, and a much more friendly environment for business start-ups. But it's really up to individual nations to deliver. For the most part, the core EU countries have yet to reform their highly regulated labor markets, and this works against job growth.

The EU's security work is not over. The Balkans still lurk as a hot spot that could be cooled by the prospect of membership. And Turkey's eventual membership could help the EU bridge a cultural chasm with its own 15 million Muslims.

But the next generation has a different emphasis. They take peace for granted, instead seeking work. But with more jobs, they may then reach out to enlarge the EU.

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