The Brexit-Referendum in June 2016 is considered to be an existential turning point in the European Union’s history. It also seems to be the preliminary culmination of problems and crises which haunted Europe these last years, including the financial crisis, the further rise of populist and Eurosceptic forces not only in those countries that seem to relentlessly turn to illiberalism, a growing division between member states on questions such as the relocation of refugees as well as deteriorating relationships with mighty neighbours like Turkey and Russia. Therefore, the future of an “ever closer union” seems to be obscurer than ever before. At the same time EU President Jean-Claude Juncker and French President Emmanuel Macron and others took the initiative and laid out various extensive proposals how to proceed in the upcoming years. But what is the young generation’s attitude towards all this? In what kind of Europe do young people who mostly experienced their countries only as members of the EU want to live? How do they see the future of a Union that is social, democratic and embraces its responsibility in the rest of the world?
From October 9 – 13, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union organised a one-week capacity building for the post-Brexit generation under the motto “Why we’re stuck and how we want to get out of this”. 15 young Europeans were invited to Brussels in order to discuss different aspects of the current challenges the EU is facing and to develop concrete strategies for possible solutions. The participants came from ten different countries and most of them have already benefitted from various stays abroad. The diversity of the group not only lay in the wide geographical range of the participant’s home countries but also in their professional background: the group comprised university students, PhD-candidates, researchers, activists and politicians as well as young people working in the fields of public administration, economics and international relations.
The capacity building was made up of three daily sessions, each of them starting with an input-presentation of one of the young participants to which an expert panel reacted and commented on in order to eventually discuss the respective topic with the whole group. The 25 invited experts were academics, representatives of NGOs and think tanks as well as high-level actors of the European institutions such as the European Parliament, the European Commission and the External Action Service.
The first day served as an introduction day to discuss the main reasons of the European identity crisis. During both the morning session with experts and the afternoon session with a Member of the European Parliament, the lack of solidarity among member states, which was shown in an exemplary way during the Eurozone crisis and the need to create mechanisms to solve asymmetries within the Union, was defined as one of the major challenges. Moreover, the need for more transparency and for educational projects funded by the EU in order to restore citizen’s interest and involvement in EU politics was enhanced.
The aim of the four remaining days was to deal with different issues corresponding to the three overall topics: ‘social justice’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Europe’s obligations towards its neighbourhood and the world’. During the second day once more the need for more solidarity among member states and European institutions came up for discussion but was extended by the demand of more solidarity between people as a precondition for a more stable union. In this context, the groups welcomed the initiative of a European Solidarity Corps but emphasized that this can only be considered as a sub measure within a wider European educational project. Furthermore, it was claimed that further harmonization in the field of social and labour policy is needed in order to combat social injustice, unfair salaries, unemployment and diverging living conditions between regions.
In the following sessions, problems such as the lack of trust in the EU, the lack of transparency, misinformation about the EU and the tendency that the EU is rather blamed for policy failures it is not even responsible for than for achievements were outlined. Again, the necessity to reinforce the importance of education to reach not only elites but literally everyone and to make clear what the EU’s responsibilities in fact are was emphasized. Additionally, other measures like facilitating the access to documents of the Council’s decision-making process, monitoring false news on a transnational level as well as strengthening the participation of national parliaments and enhancing elements of direct democracy were discussed.
The topic of the EU’s role in its neighbourhood and around the world was covered on the fourth day. All participants agreed on the demand that in an international environment with more and more transnational threats like climate change and terrorism, the EU is more challenged than ever to take over responsibility in the world. In this context, a closer cooperation between NATO and the EU as well as a closer cooperation between individual member states in the field of security as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty by the possibility of Permanent Structured Cooperation was promoted by the participants. In the context of the EU’s foreign policy, the group critically reflected on the European Neighbourhood Policy which is widely perceived as a mean to push the EU’s values on countries whose socio-cultural histories are different. Therefore, an even more flexible and differentiated approach for a more effective policy towards neighbouring countries in the south and the east was demanded. In the context of the situation of migrants and refugees coming to Europe, the need for enhanced conflict prevention measures from the side of the EU was emphasized.
The last day was dedicated to three parallel workshops, each of them dealing with one of the thematic blocs. The aim was to discuss the conclusions of the week in a smaller group with one single expert who would then give further input on how the developed ideas could be extended. The day ended with a final presentation of the group’s findings of the whole week to a sounding board with representatives from Brussels’ major media outlets. Their comments also served as a last feedback on the outcomes of the capacity building, on which the group will continue to work on in the next weeks in order to draft a completing policy paper with conclusions and proposals for solutions on the discussed issues which will be published on the homepage of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.
Despite the diversity of the participants’ geographical, professional and political background, the whole group displayed a very dynamic attitude and gave room for constructive and intense exchange from the very first day. Due to the small number of participants and high-level experts sitting all around one table, a very informal and familiar atmosphere was created in which fruitful discussions emerged. The number of questions, remarks and proposals by the participants during the sessions was often so high that the discussions were extended as personal conversations with the experts during the following tea and lunch breaks. Even though not everyone shared the same opinion regarding the different topics, participants nevertheless agreed on a general consensus on core issues and the necessity to look for alternative approaches to solve the challenges the EU is currently facing. Bringing in their different perspectives and experiences, they developed far-reaching ideas for needed changes both top-down and bottom-up. At the same time, the discussions with different experts showed that under the current political circumstances an extensive modification of EU policy bears difficulties. However, this dilemma did not restrain the participant’s motivation and energy to define and critically reflect on concrete measures that could be taken to shape a post-Brexit Europe. A Europe that is more social, more democratic and more responsible towards its obligations in the world.