Βy Leonie Haenchen
An upsurge for the Eurosceptics, last-minute UK participation after months of Brexit chaos, and an expected political fragmentation within the chamber: the upcoming European Parliament elections have been anticipated with concern. Voices from both sides of the political spectrum have claimed the EU is ‘at a crossroads’, with the elections outcomes possibly marking the beginning of ‘a new era’. While indeed much is at stake, one problematic signifier for the EU’s future has been looming for much longer: the election turnout is decreasing steadily over the past years, sinking from 61,99 per cent in 1979 to only 42,54 per cent in 2014. Today, a good 41 per cent of all European citizens are unaware that the EU Parliament is directly constituted upon their vote.
In this context, our #PressEU_NextGen campaign set out to turn abstinence and disinterest into awareness and literacy among the population. We began with a series of discussions on a variety of topics such as “The EU, Universities and Youth”, “European Arts and Culture Policies” and “Human Rights and Values in Europe.” We visited different municipalities and cities across Northern Greece and invited more than 15 different speakers from different contexts to speak about their views and work. After each talk, we gave the floor to the audience for questions or input. Later we took our campaign out to the streets, joining the Mobility Fair organised by the Erasmus Student Network and the Recycling Festival of the Pavlos Mela municipality, where we approached passerbys, distributed material and engaged them into conversations about the EU. We celebrated Europe Day on May 11 in the pedestrian zone of Agia Sofia in cooperation with the EU Parliament Liason in Greece and the local Europe Direct team. We held a “Party for Europe” together with local bar Ypsilon and, lastly, invited an orchestra to play the “Ode for Joy” at Thessaloniki’s largest shopping mall.
Although we hoped to reach people from all stakes of life, we especially aimed to target the so far least-participatory share of voters: young people have increasingly abstained from the voting booth, forming the age group with the lowest turnout in all EU countries except Sweden (not including Belgium and Luxembourg, where voting is compulsory). This worrying ratio is expected to repeat itself: according to a recent poll by the TUI Foundation’s European Youth Study, only one in two EU citizen between 16 and 26 years old considers the upcoming elections important.
Given the dimension of these numbers, #PressEU_NextGen was not the only campaign out there attempting to catch the interest of young voters. With “This Time I’m Voting” the EU launched a large-scale effort to build activism from the grass-roots level. People could sign up to become engaged and would find material such as flyers, banners and info brochures available for download. More than a quarter million registered and young activist groups sprouted across the EU. The idea was not to advertise specific political topics or party agendas but stay neutral and merely promote the election process itself.
While surely impressive in size, renowned youth scholar Dr. Klaus Hurrelmann from the Hertie School of Governance remains critical of the impact of such campaigns: “I doubt that this will really turn something around. If it’s really about getting more young people out to vote in the elections then this has to be about content: topics need to be addressed that young people care about,” he told a group of ARD journalists. Indeed, the new generation recently mobilized in masses to campaign for action against climate change. The movement “Fridays for Future” has generated millions of supporters across the continent within a matter of months – a wave of engagement the EU can so far only dream about. After the common market, the introduction of the Euro and the Eastern enlargement, the EU today lacks a concise project to fight for. In our series of open discussions, we have experienced a similar trend: whenever the program suggested a particular focus such as introducing opportunities to work, travel or study in other EU countries, the interest seemed a lot higher.
Many of the young people have not only never witnessed a collective European fight for new large-scale improvements, but lack the experience of how life has been before. “In my opinion, the biggest problem is the young citizen’s perception that the European Union and most importantly, the benefits and the pros of the existence and operation of the Union, are granted,” Giorgos Papageorgiou, law student, president of the Network of Youth Engagement in Katerini and one of the speakers at our #PressEU_NextGen debates told us. Though still in his undergraduate studies, Papageorgiou has recognized that the EU offers a variety of opportunities across the continent in his field of work. To cultivate a common European consciousness, an understanding for European history and the need for a united Union is what Papageorgiou deems necessary to win back the young voters.
A European consciousness is challenged by the deceptive conventionality of the EU’s impact on our lives. Much of the laws adopted in Brussels have subtly lingered into the daily routines of its citizens without much notice. The platform “EU & ME” collects some of these seemingly mundane appearances: from EU-wide validity of driver’s license and insurance cards, waste management, no roaming cost, drinking water standards or the right to return products bought online. “The European Parliament decides on a long series of everyday matters,” says Lina Papadopoulou, Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, after a speech for one of our debate. In her eyes, a lack of interest persists because people are just not aware of these decisions being made on EU-level. All too often, the crucial connection between what is decided in Brussels and what eventually ends up impacting living standards is not always visible.
Both Lina Papadopoulou and Giorgos Papageorgiou agree that universities can play a crucial role in disseminating EU know-how and connecting young people on European level. The exceptional success of the EU’s Erasmus exchange program proves that there is a demand. Universities can be a first gateway to the European experience: a collaborative space in nature, universities hold the key to various levels of participation and therefore can educate and train the young generation how to make use of their democratic rights. To include students like us into a campaign project such as #PressEU_NextGen is a first step to rebuild a political consciousness in from ground-level.
Most importantly, we have experienced the value of dialogue. Going out onto the street through our events allowed us to peek insight different generational, ideological, and economic milieus of urban Greece. Responses were encouraging, critical or indifferent, yet each of them broadened our own perspective and helped us to develop a better understanding of how people view the EU. At times this meant to accept an unbreachable rift in opinions and merely hope to have planted at least a tiny seed for thought. Eventually, it became clear that people will speak up, if given the chance to.