Britain and Europe

Don’t think it’s all over: how to restart Britain and Europe?

9 March 2017

How do millennials foresee the potential for pan-European relations post Brexit? 

Maria Freitas

The Dialogue on Europe project is a pan-European initiative led by Das Progressive Zentrum and the German Federal Foreign Office that aims to give younger generations the opportunity to express their views on the European Union and its direction and engage in an open discussion with politicians, civil society representatives, the media and experts.

On the 27th February 2017 the initiative organised its eighth town hall gathering in London, UK, in partnership with Policy Network. The event was framed around the future of European-British relations, particularly after the country’s EU referendum to leave the union, and how young people – millennials (those aged 15-35) – perceived this change.

The EU referendum result in the UK has not only sent shockwaves around the world but is also seen as an outcome that signifies a major disruption for millennials. In fact, millennials claimed to have had their future stolen by the older and previous generation of baby boomers.

In this context, the partners of the initiative promoted four workshops with different themes that aimed at fostering a dialogue between millennials on how they could be catalysts of future cooperation and most importantly be part of the discussions that will decide the future of their country and its relationship with the EU.

The following report summarises the outcomes of some of the debates which took place at the event.

Digital innovation

For millennials, the new digital world and the innovations that it has brought with it are seen as an opportunity. In short, millennials are not overwhelmed by technological progress but instead they embrace it. However, millennials also understand the disruptive effect that technological progress can mean for governments and the society, prompting their call for pre-emptive preparations of both the states and its citizens.

As for governmental action, millennials believe that everyone should be empowered to enjoy modernity and therefore call for digitally inclusive policies, notably on the field of education. Millennials are convinced that governments should promote digital skills focused modules at every level of education and incentivise companies to upscale their employees’ digital knowledge. Digital education could be the answer to make education more inclusive. For this generation, digital innovation also brings unprecedented opportunities in the field of healthcare and aging whereby the integration and analysis of big data could on the one hand save peoples’ lives and on the other revolutionise medical research. Last but not least, millennials are very supportive of the idea of e-democracy and especially e-voting as they see it as promising step forward to surpass young peoples’ lack of engagement and reconnect them in democratic processes. However, it should also be noted that even though young people are expressing preference for online engagement they are also aware that some challenges and pre-conditions should be attended to make online voting safe and transparent.

If on the one hand many millennials are working online nowadays and appreciate the flexibility it provides, they also feel that governments should ensure social protection and safety nets through regulation. The economic crisis has had a long-term impact on millennials preferences and hence the older they get the more they express the willingness to be target of inclusive re-distribution policies by their governments.

In summary, the digital era is changing contemporary society in three dimensions: the way we work, the way we live and the way we engage in politics. Millennials called for embracing the positive changes that digital innovation brings and address the negative downsides with constructive and forward-looking solutions.

Cultural exchange

For millennials, cultural exchange is about creating new understandings and building relationships with their peers from other countries. That is also why specific and positive reference was made to the Erasmus programme of the European Union as tool promoting not only these dimensions but also the sense of European identity. An important downside was also flagged – even though Erasmus provides an important formative experience for young people it is difficult to access by those who do not have the means. With specific reference to the UK, millennials expressed concern on the cuts in funding of cultural and language exchange programmes in the country as it can potentially exacerbate anti-European manifestations and xenophobia. In the end millennials see the cultural exchange programmes as tied with the government’s political agenda and political will. Because of this, they also called for a stronger involvement of civil society to counter the loss of cultural understanding and to maintain the relationship with the continent in a post-Brexit future scenario.

Educational cooperation

Millennials had a specific plea to readapt educational systems to the new digital era but also making it more inclusive. An enhanced educational cooperation should thus be promoted on four levels: more mobility across the EU, exchange programmes between students, professors, academics and apprenticeships and last but not least, include reference to the European Union and European topics in all levels of education. Especially on the latter point millennials believe that both civic education and political literacy should be promoted in early age and that education is a springboard to empower people and diversity of thought. That is also the reason why millennials expressed deep concern about the rising tuition fees on the one hand and the difficult integration into the labour market after their studies on the other. They call for government intervention to attract the private sector to offer internships opportunities and address the impact that young British citizens could face in terms of studying abroad opportunities and recognition of university qualifications.

Populism and political disaffection

The recent wave of political disaffection has strengthened populist political movements and parties that run on an anti-status-quo/anti-establishment agenda on both sides of the Atlantic. Brexit and Trump have become core elements of a new public political narrative that grows on the basis of societal and economic cleavages and polarisations. Millennials inferred very quickly that it is difficult to square out the dilemma of being popular without being populist in an era of nationalism and where contemporary politics does not seem to provide effective answers to citizens’ fears. For progressive politics the challenge lies in proposing an empowering vision of the future and sense of security that addresses both the citizens’ concerns and demands. The strategies suggested to regain voters support from populist forces were better communication and stronger engagement through social media and knocking on doors but also for progressives to be consistent and transparent in their message and promote a new style of leadership.

Maria Freitas is a policy adviser at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (Feps).

For more insights from Feps on the millennial generation, see the following studies:

The Future Starts Now! 10 Cornerstones for a Dialogue between the Progressive Family and the Millennial Generation

FEPS Young Academics Network Call to Europe VII “Millennials and Politics” report

The social and economic preferences of a tech-savvy generation

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