European youth will not bridge Europe’s divides

Contrary to Western stereotypes about progressive youth, young Europeans are quite polarised and disunited.

Protesters attend the Global Climate Strike of the movement Fridays for Future, in Hamburg, Germany on November 29, 2019. [File: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer]

The European Union comprises a diverse set of countries, each with its own peculiar historical experiences, economic ambitions and contemporary political cultures. As the bloc expanded from its original core, this growing diversity has caused immense friction.

In the United Kingdom, anxiety over EU migration following the eastward expansion of the union resulted in a Leave vote in the 2016 referendum on its EU membership. Meanwhile, conservative policies and actions that harm the rule of law in Hungary and Poland have provoked repeated condemnations and warnings from Brussels. Likewise, the tendency of Europe’s “frugal four” – Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands – to put fiscal conservatism above European solidarity during the COVID pandemic has caused tensions.

These developments have raised many questions about the future of the bloc as its unity has been once again put to the test. Some fear that disintegration is possible, while others put their faith in the EU’s youth to mend these growing fissures.

Some observers have pointed to increasingly progressive views among young Europeans who embrace left-liberal and pan-European values and believe in the union acting together on important issues, such as climate change and migration.

Three-quarters of young people in the UK aged 18 to 24 voted to remain in the EU. That same age group is also by far the least likely to vote for the Conservative Party. In Germany, if only people aged 18-34 were to vote, the Greens would surge to first place and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) would crumble to the level of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). In Ireland, those under 34 overwhelmingly voted for the left-wing Sinn Féinn in the 2020 general election, with those 18-24 also disproportionately supporting the Green Party.

Many hope that if these trends continue and the makeup of governments shifts to the left in coming years, they will push for a new brand of progressive European unity. But, while in many Western European countries the political preferences of young adults may tend towards the progressive pro-European left, this is not the case elsewhere.

In Central and Eastern Europe conservative values, anti-establishment sentiment, and even far-right ideas are notably popular among large segments of the youth. For example, when in 2016 a mock election was held among 6,000 high school students in Slovakia, the right-wing We Are Family party came out on top with 16 percent; right behind it was the neo-fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) with 15 percent. In Croatia’s presidential election last year, right-wing anti-establishment folk singer Miroslav Škoro won 32 percent of the vote of those 18 to 29, almost double his nearest rival.

There is also a stark difference in attitudes between youth from various European countries on key social issues. For example, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey, people aged 18 to 34 overwhelmingly support gay marriage across Western and Northern Europe. By contrast, in Central and Eastern Europe, the majority opposes it. In Poland and Hungary, half oppose or strongly oppose gay marriage, while in Latvia and Lithuania, the proportion is as high as 70 and 74 percent respectively.

On the issue of ethnic and religious diversity, Central and Eastern Europe is also much more nativist. In the Czech Republic, just 16 percent of young people would be willing to accept a Muslim as a member of their family and just 51 percent would accept a Jewish person; in Romania, these figures are 32 and 44 percent respectively. By contrast, in countries like Denmark, Norway and in the Netherlands more than 90 percent of the youth would accept a Muslim or Jewish member of the family.

Ingrained social conservatism and nationalism, homogeneous communities, and disillusionment with politics all play a role in the disproportionate support for right-wing and far-right parties and candidates in Central and Eastern Europe. However, it is worth noting that this geographic divide in political attitudes among the youth is quite fluid.

For example, in Italy, considered part of Western Europe, a recent poll found 45 percent of people aged 18 to 21 intended to vote for far-right parties in the country’s next election. At the same time, in Poland, a recent survey found that for the first time since 1990, more young people identify as left-wing than right-wing or centrist.

In other words, youth not just in Central and Eastern Europe do not overwhelmingly espouse progressive, pro-EU views. The underlying issue facing the EU is that there simply is no common political, social, or economic experience among youth in the bloc. People raised in provincial Slovakia or Lithuania share little in common with those growing up in Parisian suburbs or Berlin’s diverse city centre or in impoverished areas of Spain and Greece, where youth unemployment can reach as high as 50 percent.

The EU has attempted to give European youth a common experience through educational exchange programmes like Erasmus, founded to foster trans-European connections, but their reach is as limited as their impact on political and social views.

Such programmes also underline a greater problem when it comes to education, where students move from south to north and east to west far more often the other way around, and some do not return at all. The continued lack of a common experience of youth in Europe means that, like the politicians of today, those poised to take over the political scene in the future hardly see eye to eye on major political issues.

Western stereotypes about the political preferences of young adults give a skewed picture of actual youth attitudes across Europe. Indeed, the uncomfortable truth is that younger European generations are just as diverse in their political and social attitudes as their elders.

Therefore, the idea that Europe is moving towards a bright progressive future under the leadership of its young people is a delusion at best. Rather, European unity and success are contingent on learning to manage and live with these divides and establishing strong institutional safeguards to ensure the stability of the Union. Europe does have a collective future, but what it does not have is a clear path for European citizens to affect that future.

Instead of hoping for a new generation to bridge Europe’s glaring divides, today’s progressive pro-EU leaders should focus on democratising EU institutions. The power to choose decision-makers in Brussels would give European youth a sense of agency – that they have a stake in Europe’s future – and perhaps that would instil a strong conviction in European unity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.