Young Europeans want EU action to defend environment, free movement and democracy

Young Europeans are a diverse generation, but they share three key ambitions for the European Union to be a society of free movement; of social and environmental values and of shared liberal values, according to Young Europeans Speak to EU, a new report from a project led by Professor Timothy Garton Ash at Oxford’s European Studies Centre.

Based on three years of research, more than 200 interviews, and extensive polling across the EU and UK, the 100-plus page report has been drawn up by more than two dozen young Oxford researchers, who make a series of recommendations for EU action based on their findings. These findings include remarkable polling results, such as that 74% of Europeans think the EU would not be worth having without freedom of movement.

Young Europeans are defined as those born after the 1989, for whom personal travel and freedom of movement are found to be their ‘formative’ experience, rather than the life-changing moments such as the fall of the Berlin Wall that shaped older generations.

Our results suggest that freedom of movement and personal travel is formative for young Europeans in the same way that the fall of the Berlin Wall was formative to older Europeans.

According to the report, ‘Our results suggest that freedom of movement and personal travel is formative for young Europeans in the same way that the fall of the Berlin Wall was formative to older Europeans…

‘In our March 2021 poll, only one-fifth of young Europeans claimed to have never personally benefited from freedom of movement in the EU, compared to the 59% of over-50s who said they had not benefited.’

The report finds free movement is a key asset of the EU, yet not all Europeans are content with the trade-offs inherent in this policy. Although the report finds three quarters of Europeans agree that ‘if it did not offer the freedom to travel, work, study and live in other EU member states, the European Union would not be worth having’, it also finds many Europeans believe freedom of movement has had more costs than benefits for their country.

Although the report finds three quarters of Europeans agree ‘if it did not offer the freedom to travel, work, study…the EU would not be worth having’, it also finds many Europeans believe freedom of movement has had more costs than benefits for their country

The report authors, young Europeans working with the Europe’s Stories project of the Dahrendorf Programme at the European Studies Centre, maintain this freedom of movement should be understood as a ‘positive freedom’. And they suggest individuals should be given support to ‘help them realise their migration aspirations’.  According to the report, ‘The absence of formal restrictions on movement of people across or within borders does not in itself make people free to move.’

In bold language, the authors continue, ‘We want the EU to promote and widen access to EU-wide schemes that already encourage free movement, such as Erasmus, Discover EU and the European Solidarity Corps.

‘We want the EU to enable those Europeans who want to migrate to actually do so….We want the EU to extend the right to free movement to third country nationals who are EU residents.’

Aside from freedom of movement, the report identifies environmental issues as an overwhelming concern for young people, a majority of whom would like to see the EU become a leader in the fight to address the climate crisis.

Aside from freedom of movement, the report identifies environmental concerns as an overwhelming concern for young people, a majority of whom would like to see the EU become a leader in the fight to address the climate crisis.

With different national strategies throughout the member states, the report’s authors call for the EU to play a larger role, not just relying on national strategies, ‘The Council and Commission should follow an intermediary reduction target of at least 60% and rule that member states have to end fossil fuel subsidies.’

The report authors maintain, ‘In general, the [European] Parliament’s proposals are closer to what Europeans want [rather than national governments] and therefore the Commission should follow the Parliament on climate policies in the future.’

The report calls for drastic action to be taken to ban short haul flights – when the journey could be done by train in under 12 hours

Although young Europeans place travel high on their list of priorities, the report calls for drastic action to be taken to ban short haul flights – when the journey could be done by train in under 12 hours. And, it suggests provocatively, the EU should ‘lead by example and ban its officials from taking short-haul flights for business trips if there is a train connection of under 12 hours journey time for the same route’.

The report adds, ‘An inter-rail pass should be given to every EU citizen turning 16 without an application process, valid for five years within the European Union.’

The authors also call for investment in an overhaul and extension of the continent’s rail system, ‘The EU should aim to improve the European railway system…In the longer term, the EU should support a large-scale expansion of the European railway system and subsidise train fares.’

And according to the report, young Europeans are also concerned about political illiberalism and economic and social policy. The report calls for ‘the six member states with no mandatory minimum wage to finally introduce one’. And, it says, ‘The EU should seek to push the minimum to a dignified 50% [of each member state’s national median wage] in the long run.’

Remarking on the erosion of democracy in several EU countries, notably Hungary and Poland, the study authors call for action against ‘illiberalism’ in member states, ‘We call on the European Union to protect democracy from illiberalism in Hungary and Poland…the European Union has a rich toolbox to safeguard liberal democracy and the rule of law. We believe that it is high time that the EU finally uses these instruments properly and backs up its words with deeds.’

Maintaining the need for a more united foreign policy across the European continent, the authors call for Europe to act as a ‘green civilian superpower, with the potential to accommodate both its interests and values, by setting and protecting its red lines of its own’. Although the report’s polling suggests ‘do not, on the whole, prioritise foreign policy or consider it necessary for the EU to position itself as a superpower’, they argue, ‘Young Europeans have a strong desire for the EU to stand for liberal, open and egalitarian values.’

The authors call for Europe to act as a ‘green civilian superpower, with the potential to accommodate both its interests and values, by setting and protecting its red lines of its own’….[and] they argue, ‘Young Europeans have a strong desire for the EU to stand for liberal, open and egalitarian values.’

Further highlighting the importance of liberal values, the report authors envisage a more active role on the international stage for the EU, ‘As Europe transitions from the role of reactive strategic spectator to that of proactive global actor, it should endow itself in practice with the requisite degree of strategic, technological and industrial autonomy.’

Finally, the authors consider some of the areas where young Europeans’ wishes for Europe’s future necessitate trade-offs and compromises.

The report’s strong message to EU policymakers concludes by saying, ‘European institutions must first prioritise performance, considered against tangible outputs.’

It asks the EU to improve its communication with young Europeans, starting by not lecturing them but listening to them.

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