When the European community was under construction in the 1950s, young people played a crucial, unifying role. They protested along the Franco-German border to demand the frontier's demise, and in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to push for faster integration among member countries.
“Youth as a symbol or as a reference were essential for the idea of a united Europe,” says Christina Norwig, the German author of “The First European Generation.”
But today, as the EU faces its greatest test of legitimacy since its founding, young people have been largely absent from the fight.
Polls show young people as among the most convinced Europeans. But suffering under high unemployment, angered by bureaucracy and business interests in Brussels, and complacent about the linear progression of the project, they have not risen up in defense of it. Yet many see them as key in this high-stakes era, and hope the political shocks of 2016 may have awakened a new sense of urgency.
It won’t compare to that of the 1950s, when young people had directly experienced war, says Ms. Norwig, whose book traces the US-backed European Youth Campaign of the '50s.
“But if all pro-Europeans in all the countries would stand up against those fellow citizens who adhere to nationalism, that would have the potential to revive the European idea,” she says. “It will not happen naturally. We need some kind of initiative. We need some kind of campaign again.”
Young Europeans today are far more likely to share a European identity across countries than older members. The drop in support for the EU in recent years is higher among those 50 and older than among those 18 to 34, according to a Pew study of 10 EU nations.
Yet in a Eurobarometer poll from last year, more than half of young people in Europe, or 57 percent, say they have been marginalized and excluded from economic and social life in their countries in the wake of the global financial crisis.
It’s given rise to an ambivalence that is clearly seen in André Carvalho, who was born in 1986, the same year Portugal joined the EU. He calls himself a “Europhile.”
As a student at one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Coimbra, he was actively engaged with the Portuguese branch of the Union of European Federalists, a political organization seeking to promote deeper integration. Five years later, Mr. Carvalho is pursuing his master's degree in European Careers at Sciences Po in Bordeaux, an opportunity that’s possible partially because of EU funding. But these days he doesn’t consider himself a “Euroactivist.”
“The EU has been taken over by neoliberals that decide everything behind closed doors,” Carvalho scoffs.
Like many across the indebted south, his skepticism has grown with austerity politics. In Eastern Europe, the euphoria of joining the EU has given way to resentment over limited economic prospects and corrupted politics at home. In post-communist Slovakia, for example, youths are supporting the anti-EU, anti-immigrant hard right.
Analysts blame a generation that in the east didn’t have to fight for democracy, and in the west grew up with all the rights and privileges the EU entails.
“They see the EU as something that belongs to them, a comfort zone that they take for granted,” says Óliver Soto Sainz, a political scientist at Madrid’s Complutense University. He also notes an impatience among youth today. "They prefer going to demonstrations and other forms of participation that are usually less effective, and then they get frustrated. What yields greater results if you’re trying to change something in the EU? Lobbying, contacting [European parliamentarians], developing a long-term relationship – sort of like a marriage. That’s not very appealing to most young people," he says.
Marina Costa Lobo, an analyst at Lisbon’s Institute of Social Studies, says this is compounded by the fact that, like all EU residents, they lack a deep understanding of how the EU works and what its end would herald. “Young people feel they have even less to lose when it comes to the European Union because they lack information on what they get from it,” she says.
More defense of the EU?
The young activists of the 1950s were fighting for a new order. They often spoke in terms of life or death for a united Europe, Norwig says.
Today that rebel spirit is hard to conjure when it comes to the EU, especially in the era of anti-establishment politics.
Angelos Pappas, a 24-year-old Greek graphic designer, says he joined pro-EU protests ahead of the country’s July 2015 referendum on the terms of the EU bailout package. It wasn’t the most popular position for young people. “I was called traitor and 'Merkel slave,' ” he says, referring to austerity policies championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The political uncertainty that 2016 ushered in – with Britain’s choice to leave the EU and the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic – may lead to more direct defense of the EU as an entity. For example, after the “Brexit” vote, which young people largely rejected, a series of pro-EU marches were organized. Amid lower-than-average voter turnout among youths generally in Europe, according to EU statistics, many hope the repercussions spur young people to the polls in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, which all face elections this year.
Vincent-Immanuel Herr, an activist from Germany, agrees that his generation has taken their stable childhoods in the EU for granted. He says EU citizens have much to learn from non-EU citizens, such as Ukrainians, who aspire to join the bloc.
Still, he’s noted a change in the past year. “I think people realize that ahead of us, there will be more rocky times, we’ll need more input from our side,” he says.
Increasing understanding via travel
Mr. Herr and his colleague Martin Speer, with their organization Herr & Speer, have proposed the idea of a free interrail pass upon each European’s 18th birthday, which top leaders of the EU have supported. Dismissed as a political gimmick by some or beside the point amid crippling youth unemployment by others, Mr. Herr argues that it is the way to grow a European identity, the difference between “being pro-EU in theory and being pro-EU out of experience.”
Indeed, despite classic movies like “Before Sunrise” or “L’Auberge Espagnole,” which romanticize rail travel and study abroad, very few Europeans have access to that kind of interchange. A free rail ticket would make it universal, not elitist, Herr says.
Other projects share similar aims. The EU recently launched the European Solidarity Corps for those between 18 and 30 to volunteer abroad, fostering exchange and addressing high youth unemployment at the same time. Erasmus, a study-abroad program for European youths, marks its 30th anniversary this year with a series of celebrations, exhibits, and debates.
The desire to travel and know the unknown was also prevalent in the activist movement that Norwig studied from the '50s. If the context is different, the benefits of mobility experiences are the same.
“What we see now with nationalism and xenophobia, those with the least contact with foreigners are the most xenophobic, those who have never felt like a stranger, they have no empathy,” she says. “I think a lot of Euroskepticism and hatred comes from simply not knowing ‘the other.’ ”
Iñigo Cruz, the former president of the Erasmus Student Network at Complutense University in Madrid, says he never cared about Europe until he studied abroad. Today he runs a blog and is part of a radio show that tries to deconstruct the EU for young people.
He is not without his criticism of the bloc, but believes its founding ideals are as relevant today as 60 years ago. “I think there's still much to be done," he says, "but I believe this is the only project that will prevent another war in Europe.”