Judging by the media attention that numerous EU-sceptic movements have drawn these past few years, it would appear that Europe has entered the age of its disintegration. From Clacton’s by-election which has delivered UKIP its first MP in Westminster to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s illiberal dream of rapprochement with Russia, the media outlets pay only a lip service to those who oppose the drowning noise of anti-immigration, anti-EU, protectionist and anti-progressive rhetoric poured out into the European public sphere. The outcome of misinformation on the one hand and total resignation of pro-EU advocates on the other has resulted in one thing – Europeans have learnt the cost but forgot the value of the EU membership. This is even more so when it comes to young people who more often than not take benefits of the EU for granted as they do not remember the age of fragmented nation states.
Young generations of Europeans pay little attention to political affairs not only in their home countries but also in Brussels. The spread of political apathy as part of a global trend has resulted in disenchantment and ideological vacuum which has been since exploited by populists of the likes of Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban or Timo Soini. The issue of the EU’s future has been hijacked by anti-EU advocates often preying on young voters who, indifferent to politics and betrayed by mainstream parties, are susceptible to their simplistic solutions to complex issues. But it does not have to be like this. Young people could not only become politically engaged, they could also become immune to extremist and nationalistic claims. The solution? An EU-wide referendum on membership.
Unconventional as it may be, such a referendum would bring a number of benefits; first of all holding a vote on Europe would finally put to rest the issue of leaving the Union; second of all, the EU would free itself of the baneful indifference which is currently firmly anchored among the political elites both in Brussels and national capitals; and last but not least the EU referendum would ignite the interest in the European Union of those who currently pay the least amount of attention to it and who benefit from the EU in disproportional amounts. But how can I be so sure of these benefits? Here is my reasoning:
The key to this is the realization that the future of the EU is not only threatened by Eurosceptics but also by a total political apathy of younger electorate who will grow up knowing little, if anything positive of the EU. It has become symptomatic of the democratic societies that the level of political engagement has been on the decrease for years now. To prove this point let us look at the turnout from the last European Parliamentary elections where the overall participation did not even reach 43%. In countries such as Slovakia, for example, the turnout was abysmal 13%. , For those who are not aware, Slovakia is a country with one of the youngest populations in the EU and just like in the US (here, here, here) the quality of our participatory democracy is sliding down the slippery slope into oblivion.
Nevertheless, and as each rule has its exceptions, we too have had a chance to recently observe an important deviation from the wide-spread apathy of the youth. That deviation was Scotland. On 17 September some 81% of the Scottish public voted to determine the country’s future in a referendum on the country’s independence from the rest of the UK. The electorate was faced with a very consequential decision concerning a very complicated issue but with a very simple question: YES or NO? While there is no cohesive analysis of the breakdown of the voter turnout along the age groups we do know that 80% of the sixteen and seventeen year olds registered to vote. We can also measure the turnout in the demographically youngest areas – Dundee – 78.8%; West Dumbartonshire – 87.9%; and Glasgow – 75% where the turnout was above the average for any recent elections held in Scotland, including the Parliamentary elections of 2010 and European elections of 2014. Moreover, beyond quantitative measuring of the turnout, we should also recognize the excitement generated and the wholehearted engagement of young Scots in a campaign preceding the polling day.
How can we account for such high turnout against the backdrop of otherwise solid political apathy? Pippa Norris argues that young people turn away from politics when elections have no direct impact and when voting becomes an unsatisfying form of engagement i.e. marking a ballot presents little opportunity for engagement which does not necessarily have an impact on the political outcome. The Scottish independence was everything but this. It offered a tight race and a clear choice between two distinct futures with an imminent and very real change. Young Scots, previously indifferent to politics felt it necessary to take advantage of the information available, educate themselves and make an informed choice. Where arguments and visions clashed the level of democracy improved. Why not then use a similar tool to reinvigorate our common European public sphere?
The EU referendum would be a perfect occasion for young Europeans to educate themselves not only on the cost of the EU – which is on daily basis protracted in our media outlets – but also on its value. And indeed, it is young Europeans who benefit from the EU most. This is predominantly thanks to the EU’s greatest, albeit not exclusive asset – i.e. the Single Market which is also and not by coincidence the biggest in the world. With their higher levels of mobility, young people are more likely to more likely to exploit all that the Single Market has to offer. From Erasmus study exchange programmes, a Youth Guarantee scheme, automatically recognized higher education qualifications in all Member States to more visible aspects of the European integration such as the common currency, no or reduced border checks and free healthcare across the continent; whether for studies, work or indeed holidays the EU offers opportunities otherwise unavailable.
In other words and put simply, the European Union plays a significant role in the life of a young European. But facts and perceptions are often two poles apart. It is therefore time for young people to recognize these benefits as subject to the EU membership. Following the example of Scotland, EU Member States should consider holding an EU referendum not only to end their internal debates of whether to leave or stay but more importantly to restart the necessary process of the European integration and to improve our common European democracy by turning political apathy into a learning exercise and engagement. The use of the referendum may seem as controversial. But it is quite the opposite. The perception of it being controversial is not because of the referendum itself but because of it having been hijacked by the anti-EU advocates. There may be a cost attached to this referendum, notably some countries such as the UK leaving the EU. But if we have learnt anything from the mistakes we have made so far it is putting price above the value. Building a stable and engaged Europe, a revival of our common European democratic space and the fresh start for necessary integrationist efforts are all but insignificant benefits the referendum can bring for Europe.