October 12, 2016
As Europe heads into a tumultuous autumn, the 1989 Generation Initiative prepares for the coming year. But with the EU being caught up in innumerable fights, the necessity to focus our efforts has become readily apparent. That is why in August, the Initiative’s Content Team launched a survey to let young Europeans share their view on EU politics. Our goal was to fine-tune the subjects of our events, so we can ensure our work over the next 12 months will be as relevant as it can be. Now that we’ve finished analysing the results, let’s have a look at the responses.
When asked what the EU’s top priority should be, the top three responses (84% of the total) were Social Cohesion & Democracy, Migration and Economy & Unemployment. Unsurprisingly, Social Cohesion & Democracy received the most attention, with 49% of respondents believing this should be the Commission’s priority. This is because respondents see it as a solid base from which the EU can tackle all the other problems including the economy and the refugee crisis. We should make sure that citizens can recognise the EU’s role, a large part of which is to prevent a splintering of European societies. Without social cohesion & democracy, the EU will lose focus on its most important facet: its citizens.
Migration, on the other hand, was viewed as a cause of division both between member states as well as between citizens. The EU’s response to the topic is seen as lacking in effectiveness, and failing at asserting European values at home and abroad. One recurring theme was the need for the EU to take action to restore democracy abroad, in amongst Europe’s neighbourhood. The economy meanwhile was prioritised by some because it affects youth and youth unemployment, as well as its importance in further European integration.
Ensuring the EU’s Future Existence
We also wanted to know which reforms were necessary to ensure the EU still exists in 5 years’ time. Three main themes emerged: Economic reforms, institutional reforms, and increased democratic accountability.
On the economic front, several reform ideas were suggested, including a common unemployment regime, integrating taxation systems, and ending austerity programmes which have prevailed since the Eurozone crisis began in 2010. On the institutional front, a recurring idea was the need for deeper integration at the EU level of various policies: Foreign policy, a common welfare state, as well as a taxation and a fiscal union.
Respondents who chose democratic accountability as an area of focus suggested that a directly elected Commission President would make the EU better accountable to the citizenry. Others believed the European Parliament should have a better representation of citizens (for context, today seats in the EP are not weighted directly based on population size. Instead, bigger member states having slightly fewer seats, and smaller one’s slightly more).
What’s next for Britain?
We also wanted to know your assessment on Britain leaving the EU – if they would do so at all, and under what terms. Some thought Britain’s terms would prevail in the negotiations (37%), some though the EU’s terms would (33%), and some thought that there would be no change in the state of affairs following a vote to leave. Nevertheless, the vast majority of respondents (70%) believe the vote will trigger a change of affairs, and in the case of Article 50 (initiating the official exit-process) not being triggered, either Britain will have to adopt full membership or gain further opt-outs; at least some change of one form or another is predicted.
The next question is of high relevance to us at the 1989 Generation (and to many who took the survey, no doubt): Why isn’t our generation more engaged with EU politics?
An interesting line emerging from answers was that “the political and institutional systems represented by Brussels are distant and conceived for another historical era”, meaning that the EU institutions fail to relate to young people and do not tackle (or perhaps even attempt to tackle) the issues our generation is facing.
Because of the distance between the institutions and young people, this feeds into the idea that the gap between the EU’s actions and our generational needs cannot be filled from the bottom up, that the EU cannot be influenced by our ideas. Many do not engage in EU politics, instead focussing on things like the Erasmus+ programme, without relating this to decisions made by EU institutions. Many people who took the survey suggested that changes in education, towards a more Europe-orientated education, would be key in the re-engagement of the younger generations. Another interesting finding is that some young Europeans don’t trust the current system at all, despite 71% of respondents believing the EU to be a democratic system.
A democratic institution?
An ongoing debate across the continent with relevance far beyond the Initiative is whether people believe the EU is a democratic institution. Survey participants in large parts voted for yes (71%), and only 29% answering no. Diving further into the data shows that 21% of respondents believe the EU to be structurally democratic, but that it fails to connect with the demos.
Those who perceive the EU as undemocratic feel that it is so big and remote that only big corporations are powerful and close enough by having their lobbying resources based in Brussels to influence, impact, and be represented by the EU level. Common concerns relate to the role of civil society, small businesses, as well as the lack of understanding of how they can participate in EU decision-making and have an impact. The EU needs to act on rebuilding its negative image as an institution that currently only serves the interests of corporations.
Another concern is the fact that the Commission is not elected. Respondents recognised that there is an issue with the limited ability of citizens and smaller member-states to influence EU decisions. On the other hand, many who answered ‘yes’ on the question of democracy believed that the EU’s institutions were in some cases more transparent than national institutional processes.
Participants here also recognised a trend towards greater democratisation, citing the introduction of the ‘Spitzenkandidaten‘ process as a step forward. However, even among those who answered yes, there was a feeling that EU processes and institutions were distant and disconnected.
What we learned
What can we infer from all this? That the EU has a lot to offer, and its disintegration would be a disaster for Europe, particularly for our generation. The EU is a democratic institution, although a flawed one. It suffers from distance and communication issues, and its citizens from a lack of information about the EU’s inner workings. But much of what has is needed for change has to take place beyond the halls of power in Brussels. Instead it has to come from pro-EU civil society organisations and movements (like ours), national institutions, and a more passionate defence of the EU by citizens. Together, we can protect the core of the European Project and ensure achieves bigger goals that are relevant for us all.
We’d like to thank everyone who took the time and participated in the survey. The results play a vital part in the Initiative’s effort of strengthening the continued evolution of Europe.
In our next post we will discuss how those learnings informed our decisions on the thematic focus of the 2017 event cycle, and which events you can look forward to over the next 12 months.
Top image used under CC license from European Youth Event.1989 Generation