As the shocking outcome of the Brexit referendum made utterly clear, Europe lacks a credible response to populist deceit. When overlapping economic and political crises threaten the wellbeing of ordinary citizens, technocratic arguments cannot inspire enthusiasm for the EU. A more emotional approach is needed. After a prolonged and self-imposed period of silence, it is time for the Erasmus generation to get organised, speak up and take the lead.
The EU’s founding fathers came together grudgingly, having lived through some of Europe’s most abhorrent experiences – totalitarianism, continent-wide conflict, genocide. Today’s Europeans see the continent as a space for freedom. For many young people, studying abroad on an Erasmus scholarship is the first step in breaking into Europe’s cultural complexity, pursuing the most rewarding educational, professional and social opportunities on offer. They see the EU as more than overregulation, fiscal austerity and ineffective responses to crises. By sharing life-changing experiences with friends from all over Europe, the Erasmus generation feels “European” and embraces togetherness. They are not reluctant peers, but the first generation of “Europeans”.
Despite its great attachment to the European cause, the Erasmus generation is one of the least politically-engaged groups. In June, only 36% of Britons aged 18-24 participated in the Brexit referendum, as opposed to 83% of people over 65. A similar phenomenon could be seen at the European Parliament elections in 2014, when a plethora of anti-EU movements seized an impressive number of seats. Several Erasmus alumni are professionals now in their late thirties or early forties. They are experienced and highly-qualified. But with the notable exception of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, they haven’t yet taken on roles of high responsibility.
Brexit has shown European integration is not irreversible, and nobody can be complacent about the status quo. The time has come for Europe’s enthusiasts to make their voice heard and be more passionately involved in the making of Europe – finding a middle way between the idealistic arguments of the technocrats and emotive drivel of the populists. Their enthusiasm about the European project may be infectious, and instil some optimism for the future. By highlighting to even the most sceptical European the benefits of economic integration for ordinary citizens, they can refashion the European narrative beyond halting old animosity between war-prone countries, and focus on the emergence of a truly European people.
“The time has come for Europe’s enthusiasts to make their voice heard and be more passionately involved in the making of Europe”
More than 90% of Europeans have no direct experience of the Second World War. Barely 50% have clear memories of the Cold War. Living in a peaceful continent – one that for centuries ran with
blood – is now taken for granted. So Europe needs new arguments to appeal to today’s Europeans. The Erasmus generation proves that Jean Monnet’s original plan of ‘uniting men’ rather than forming coalitions of states was not utopian. But rather than calling on prominent artists and scientists to explain what being European means, as the Juncker Commission recently did, Brussels should turn to its most genuine supporters. An abstract idea of European identity can turn into a reality only as a result of spontaneous, mutually-beneficial and continuous social interactions between individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
To increase its influence in the debate, the Erasmus generation needs to mobilise itself with active citizenship initiatives that transcend traditional parties and lay down the foundations for truly pan-European movements. Being fervent supporters of a fully-integrated Europe, they can push for more solidarity between countries when a crisis strikes or can build momentum for ambitious plans sketched out in Brussels. The Five Presidents’ Report, which called in 2015 for further economic (and, in reality, political) integration, cannot work if imposed from the top without popular backing.
Social networks are powerful tools for mobilising Europe’s optimists, creating groups at a national level that can turn into proper political movements represented in Brussels. With their ideologies becoming outdated, traditional parties are inadequate promoters of the European dream, which was often just a corollary of their political platform. UKIP existed to remove the UK from the EU, the Front National and Alternative für Deutschland question several of the European pillars like labour mobility, and Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle wants to discard the euro. Why shouldn’t pro-EU voters create their own pan-European movement to defend their values against those who want to destroy them?
“The focus of the European Commission should shift from building transcontinental infrastructure to creating a truly European identity”
But strong engagement is not enough. Numbers matter too. Only five percent of all university graduates participate in this student-exchange programme, so the Erasmus alumni may be perceived as yet another elite. This is against the original spirit of the programme, which aimed to open up the continent to all Europeans. EU optimists should realise that the majority of the population, who have never had educational and professional experiences abroad, see only the costs of European integration. For the group of EU enthusiasts to grow and amplify its voice, Brussels should invest in a comprehensive common linguistic policy, in courses on European civics, and in exchange programmes for adults. As Italian intellectual Umberto Eco once provocatively said, ‘the Erasmus idea should be compulsory – not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and any other worker’. Like it or not, the EU makes the most vulnerable, such as the least-skilled, even more vulnerable. To be engaged in a constructive and enlightened debate with the whole population, the Erasmus alumni should only be inspired by the European project, not blinded by it.
The focus of the European Commission should shift from building transcontinental infrastructure to creating a truly European identity, using the Erasmus alumni as a powerful tool to dissipate some of the pessimism surrounding the European project. And even more importantly, EU leaders should persuade younger generations, through ad hoc educational programmes, of the importance of actively participating in the political debate. The Erasmus generation is the living example of what the European Union is all about. It is now the group’s own responsibility to spread the word.
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