Europe’s story should reflect a space of exchange between people who want to create change – not the pantomime of exchanges between politicians.
Young people, growing up with the internet as a given, know how easy it is to connect with other people around the world. We’re also used to an incredibly fast-paced flow of diverse information. But while we know that enduring and meaningful links are harder to create, certain stories – and who tells them – seem to get stuck.
Europe is a case in point. While the debate rages on about the UK breaking away from the EU, our identity in European politics is of a politically apathetic ‘lost generation’. This narrative creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that silences the anger and vibrancy of young people across Europe. If the only voices allowed into the ‘debate on Europe’ are Eurosceptics or Brussels technocrats, no wonder young people aren’t inspired to participate in the conversation.
However, that isn’t stopping young people from using Europe as a platform to amplify the agency of local actors and facilitate people-driven action on an issue that binds together the futures of people across the region: climate change.
As a case in point, the conventional story of European energy politics is that Poland is firmly against climate action. And yes, the current government is pursuing more coal and shale gas. But this story doesn’t recognise the Polish Youth Climate Network, a youth-led organisation of volunteers who less than six months after their creation organised four days of workshops for young people alongside the UN climate summit in Warsaw. At their PowerShift for Central and Eastern Europe, they welcomed young people from the Balkans to Scandinavia to western Europe, empowering them to tackle climate change through digital activism, pan-European campaigns and parallel community energy schemes – and resist both the political impasse of their governments.
Participating in the European youth climate movement has shown me just how false the narrative on Europe and its youth is. It has shown me that the incredible thing about Europe is how many people, projects and experiences it encompasses, and demonstrated how an old network can support new and diverse citizen engagement.
But in order for the real story to break through, when there’s an opportunity for young people to voice their opinions it shouldn’t be ignored.
In this month’s European elections, young people shouldn’t let Russell Brand tell their story – or UKIP take their voice in the European Parliament. Voting isn’t everything, but it is one way of participating in Europe’s story – and it stops young people and their interests being written out.