For a significant cross-section of the population in the UK, many will now detect a light from the dark end of the EU-tunnel, which we entered when former pro-European Prime Minister Edward Heath brought this country into the Common Market back in 1973. With the largest proportion of seats in the new European Parliament, Nigel Farage and his fellow party members can begin to roll back this apparent blip (as big as that blip may be) of history and reclaim British independence, as it has always been. However, as future generations have since grown up as part of the European existence, the reality of how young people perceive their place in Europe may be quite different.
When simply looked in the context of some of the comments by their representatives, like Stuart Agnew’s views on Erasmus as a “glorified student exchange programme” or former MEP Godfrey Bloom, who seemed happy to dismiss an array of nations overseas as “bongo bongo land”, it begins to look seemingly unlikely the future generation would be in support of some very conservative views to say the least. However, for many young people in this country, a greater disconnect underlies in their understanding and perceptions of Europe in comparison to that of the older generations who are generally less inclined to support our membership of the EU. As an example of contradictory statistics, a respectable 41% of 18-25s in the UK, in a poll conducted by ICM research, showed they remained in favour of our continuing European membership (vs. 32% against), generally for the benefits of freedom of movement and the opportunity to find further work abroad. Nevertheless, with just a 34% turn-out at the elections of their MEPs, and a majority share for the Eurosceptics, surely we cannot accept that this is wholly reflective of the attitudes of Generation Y in the UK, despite that this in itself is not a certainty. A report titled ‘Reconnecting UK Youth to Europe’ noted in its conclusion that “Young people in the UK do not have a competent understanding or knowledge of what the EU can offer them.” The report, whilst showing that there is an overwhelming desire to have a closer knowledge of European membership and be more informed about its political processes, will always continue to stumble if they still feel underrepresented or that the EU is a distant world from their own lives.
As a clear example to reconcile the somewhat frosty relationship between young people and the UK, Eurodesk and the Youth in Action programme have come together to fund the UK Young Ambassadors, an international participation opportunity for young people aged 18-25 across the UK, which is managed by the British Youth Council. Besides taking part in events such as the European Youth Forum ‘Structured Dialogues’, the project has taken volunteers to numerous conferences in the Commonwealth nations and the United Nations. As an initiative which creates meaningful participation on an international scale and for the Ambassadors to learn about European decision making, alongside being an influence in the policies that are created, it is a unique asset to the diverse variety of opportunities already available for young people in the country’s borders. Although, as with the mainstream media’s apathy to regularly report on the activities in Brussels and the fact many Ambassadors must have some greater interest to politically engage in what the Reconnecting report identified as an 81% figure of young people who believe their age group find it hard to ‘connect’ with the EU anyway. The challenge remains for them to bring the issues discussed in the continent, like unemployment or engagement in youth policy more broadly, to domestic politicians who can see no further at the moment than to continue scratching their heads over the great ‘UKIP threat’ to their reputations.
With the 34% figure of the overall turn-out to the elections in May aforementioned, the signs clearly demonstrate little has still changed since the last change of government in 2010. This lack of alternative has been identified by a report from the Fabian Society, which articulated the case for “a platform that shows the political alternative in Europe and creates a high visibility among young voters.” Where such an alternative lies though generally remains nebulous, which as demonstrated by the European Commission elections, it was clear that either the presiding groups of the socialists or the pro-EU conservatives that were realistically in the running, the shape of the Union still represents that one of a two-horse race with no clear change in sight. Without a clear measure in sight to start reform, and the work of projects like UK Young Ambassadors lying in the shadows of the continental Eurosceptic fervour in countries like the UK, we sadly have to confront a new deal for the lives of future generations after ours, and ones after it, which must contemplate the UK as a state that is no longer part of the club.
Find out more about the UK Young Ambassadors.