Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Opinion

The East/West divide in Europe is breaking down

  • Democracy may currently be battered and on the defence, but young people still believe in it — just like the young eastern Europeans in 1989 who broke the walls in their desire to live in democracy with freedom and more prosperity (Photo: Valentina Pop)
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In the minds of young people, the persistent divide between western and eastern Europe seems to be breaking down.

Based on the findings of Young Minds, a recent GLOBSEC publication tracking the attitudes of young Europeans, Austria, Greece, Ireland, and Slovakia's young citizens agree that democracy is the only way forward — despite themselves feeling unrepresented.

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They are also prepared to lead their countries forward and do not omit the social aspects in regard to migration, climate policies, and minorities.

With its unique norms, rights, and values, democracy may currently be battered and on the defence, but young people still believe in it — just like the young eastern Europeans in 1989 who broke the walls in their desire to live in democracy with freedom and more prosperity.

However, too much uncertainty from external and internal crises in Ireland, Greece, and Central Europe has dialled down the ideational notion of democracy.

While being strong supporters of democracy, young people are far from feeling naïve about the current state of democracies in their own countries. Youth from Slovakia and Greece are very openly critical of the corruption and "personalisation" of their politics, centring around a handful of strong personalities bickering.

The Austrians and Irish join the overall consensus that there is considerable space for improvement in their own countries, from going back to the plurality of choice and real representation to stopping toying with democratic norms and rights.

Despite their criticism, young people display a convincing understanding of the ultimate benefits which democratic rule offers in comparison to any other alternatives.

Whether it is connected to more needs-related advantages like the freedom to travel and study anywhere in the EU, which resonated mainly among Slovaks, or human rights, self-expression, and keeping politicians accountable, as voiced by youth from Austria, Greece and Ireland, there is an unshakable support for a future linked with European democracy, no matter from which corner of Europe they come.

Contrary to the fear being perpetuated about the next generation as one with a short attention span (the span of a TikTok video) and without firm ambitions, young Europeans are expressing their willingness to take responsibility for the future development of their countries and the EU.

The next generation is too interested, committed and informed (although admittedly, at times, victims of disinformation) for policymakers to ignore their voice.

Protests and petitions?

Having said that, young people often define active engagement as participating in various levels of elections, which, despite its undisputed importance, does not fully grasp the role of a politically-active citizen.

Other important activities, such as participating in protests, launching citizen petitions, being active in civil society and various other interest groups, or possibly above all, being a member of youth wings of political parties, are rarely exercised by today's youth.

Party politics have disillusioned some, others do not possess the knowledge of engagement channels nor fully grasp complex policies and EU institutional frameworks, but most understand that their turn to take the reins of leadership is approaching.

And youth across Europe is clear on the next priorities for the EU. Issues such as climate change, migration, minority rights, and gender equality are stressed.

United around a social and human-centred approach, young people from Ireland to Austria and Greece to Slovakia insist on re-framing solutions to today's and tomorrow's challenges.

Despite being often simplistically framed as a "digital generation" detached from the physical world, the youth seems to care deeply about the social consequences which generational crises might pose on our societies' most vulnerable.

Less than a year before the 2024 European Parliament elections, the European youth showcases the ability to break down divides often enhanced by populist narratives.

Nonetheless, they sometimes lack comprehensive knowledge of political and policy processes and institutional structures, and young people are also susceptible to disinformation.

While democracy currently finds itself bruised and contested, young people still firmly believe in it. Young Slovaks do not connect to the older generation's twisted nostalgia for communism, and young Greeks still hold pride in the roots of democracy.

There is some relief to be felt that the next generation, even if new tech savvy, has a deep 'human dimension' outlook on policies. Coupled with a sense of leadership responsibility, all that is left is to engage them meaningfully, represent them rightfully, and educate them comprehensibly. Are we up to the task?

Author bio

Lukas Dravecky and Vladislava Gubalova are both fellows at the Bratislava-based think-tank GLOBSEC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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