Written for the Guardian -31/05/13
Ukip’s recent rise in popularity and the increased fervour behind talks of an EU referendum has placed the matter of the UK’s future within Europe at the forefront of the mainstream agenda. But when I read these headlines, something just doesn’t ring true. David Cameron’s claim that the people of Britain are unhappy with the relationship between Britain and the EU does not reflect my own experiences – or those of my peers.
I studied as an Erasmus student in both France and Italy. Not only did I come away fluent in two languages, but this experience informs my outlook in all kinds of ways – whether by informing my ability to translate reports for work or by giving me a lasting sense of snobbery for inauthentic Italian restaurants back in the UK.
A recent report from the Fabian Society shows that the majority of the 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed claimed they would vote yes to EU membership in a referendum. Far from donning rose-tinted glasses about the current state of the EU, the report reveals that the majority of young people, despite economic instability and the burgeoning eurozone crisis, still feel positive about the UK’s involvement within the EU.
What’s clear here is there is a discrepancy between Ukip’s and the Tories’ anti-Europe rhetoric, and the views of the pro-European majority among the younger UK generation. Why do rightwing political parties continue to dismiss young people’s views – and the potential to be gained from staying within the EU for younger generations?
My Erasmus year instantly placed me within a network of young people from 27 countries and reputable universities to study in. To be exposed to so many different opportunities, cultures and people (and given a grant for the privilege) all under the umbrella of “Europe” connected me to the EU in a way that makes the overly simplistic makings of the EU referendum derisory.
The reality is that young people are less likely to vote – and issues surrounding Europe are no exception; only 29% of people aged 24 or younger voted in European elections in 2009. However, it would be lazy to mistake this lacklustre political presence among youth for apathy. The young may be disillusioned with the democratic process, but for most of us, the EU serves more of a cultural function than a political one. But because this level of engagement doesn’t translate into a cohesive or valuable entity in political terms, it’s all too easily dismissed, and for the right to continue to portray the UK as an aloof and distant cousin within the European family.
Many young Brits are currently facing limited opportunities, so why is shrinking them further by UK withdrawal being discussed? As youth unemployment rises and hideous terms like, “benefit scrounger” and “Neet” bounce around current day vernacular, youth engagement within the EU presents a mass of opportunity. EU schemes such as the Leonardo Da Vinci programme and the European Voluntary Service allow young people to work and live abroad as well as encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. It’s crucial that the chances for young people are widened, not limited, and our views taken into account (and where have we seen this before?) instead of being disregarded for the ideas of the privileged few.
It’s a chilling and all too familiar story, to listen to the constant stream of white middle-class rightwing politicians claiming separation from the EU would be best for the country as they prove time and time again that they do not speak for me or the majority. When Cameron speaks for the supposed majority about Britain’s overburdened relationship to the EU, he undermines the fruitful experiences and voices of those who reject the sovereign and individualistic mentality that surrounds the EU debate. Instead of flailing and jumping to the drum of Ukip, it’s time the Conservatives listened. We need Europe and future generations should not be left bearing the consequences of decisions they did not make and outcomes they did not vote for.