With the 2019 European Parliament elections just around the corner, many of us question the Brussels-based institutions and their capability of directly influencing our daily lives. Youth participation in the past elections has been extremely low, growing concern among political leaders. Initiatives of the European Parliament encouraging young individuals to vote have been in place for months, steadily preparing for the May elections. However, many of us still remain indifferent to the EU, doubting whether our individual vote in the sea of around 400 million eligible to vote can have a real impact on our future.
Yet, indifference is often rooted in unknowing. Thus, in advocating for youth to become active citizens through participation, it is critical to recognize the impact that the European Union, in particular, the Parliament, has and can have on the youngest demographic groups. The EU affects a variety of areas linked with youth. From education and employment prospectives, through social challenges to climate change, the involvement of European legislators is extensive but often overshadowed by national regulations, which are the result of EU-enacted laws. Unaware of the EU legislative process, we tend to undermine the role of the EU both within its borders and beyond.
In fact, the European Union is striving to tackle social injustice and inequality, by setting EU-wide standards and promoting certain behaviours. These priorities are determined by in the EU Youth Strategies, issued by the European Commission to several institutions, one of which is the European Parliament. The current youth strategy is defined in three key terms: Engage, Connect, Empower.
Through engagement, the EU aims to foster youth participation in democratic life by, for instance, encouraging youth to vote in national and EU-wide elections. The significance of EU elections in this context must be highlighted. The European Parliament is the only directly democratic body within the EU architecture, allowing citizens of Member States to influence decision-making at the EU-level. Over the past decade, European leaders have shown increased interest in hearing the voices of youth - the further creation of a European Youth Parliament (EYP) or the European Youth Event (EYE) has stimulated youth debate on contemporary issues and boosted active citizenship – both national and European.
Having myself participated in a session of the EYP last November, I was inspired by the knowledge and passion expressed by my peers. The ability to share ideas with political leaders increased my confidence in the Union institutions, proving that opinions of youth are essential. During a panel presided by Vice-President of the Commission, one of the delegates brought to the attention of the President the distribution of plastic water bottles throughout the event. Paradoxical as it was (as the EU is a strong advocate for environmental mindfulness), weeks later the Parliament put to a halt the use of plastic bottles, replacing them with glass water pitchers and reusable cups. This small, but ironic example sparked my hope – I realized that, more than ever, young people can influence even the largest institutions.
The EU Youth Strategy aims to connect youth across the EU, thus advocating learning mobility, European solidarity, as well as inclusion and inter-cultural understanding. Many of us have been beneficiaries of this idea, either by pursuing studies in another EU country or by participating in the Erasmus+ program (thereby taking advantage of financial support the EU offers to facilitate its initiatives).
A few years ago, while still attending high school in Warsaw, Poland, I considered pursuing my bachelor’s degree in a different European country. With the possibilities that the EU provides, opportunities for education are endless. I decided to attend university in The Netherlands. What is more, next fall I will be taking advantage of the Erasmus+ program by studying at the University of Vienna. Learning mobility is one of the things I value about the European Union the most – I can be confident that my diploma will be recognized across all European states and expand my employment opportunities.
However, EU support is not limited to education or employment. Summer and winter holidays are the perfect example of the EU bringing children and youth together – by creating the Schengen zone, the EU allowed us to travel freely across its Member States. The ability to learn foreign languages, experience other cultures and meet fellow Europeans is a fundamental objective of the European Union, creating inclusive societies, building tolerance and respect and, finally, stimulating cultural education. The idea of empowerment is closely connected. By setting common standards for quality, innovation and recognition of youth work, the Union supports domestic policies and guarantees equality of opportunities for youth.
It is clear that the European institutions have made efforts to improve the standard of life for us, children and youth. Nevertheless, challenges remain – discrimination is still an issue within the EU, social exclusion is on the rise with the refugee crisis, and technological development is impacting our employment prospects. Youth cooperation and engagement in tackling these issues are needed to guarantee cohesion, peace and economic growth and prosperity. The Voices of Youth must be heard.
The upcoming European Parliament elections are the ideal forum for young people (of voting age) to express themselves by choosing candidates resembling their views on the future of Europe. Acting as conscious citizens, we can change our lives and those of future generations. Voting in elections should not be a possibility, but the responsibility of every mindful citizen. The European Union is not indifferent to us, so why shouldn’t we return the favor? Be responsible, be active, be European. Vote.
I am a second-year student, currently pursuing an LL.B in International and European Law in the Netherlands. Interested in European affairs and legal tech. I am also passionate about travelling, squash and cooking.