Young people do not think too deeply about the European peace project, but they casually accept the benefits of the international community. However, they do not give the EU institutions good grades. A change process is urgently needed. Otherwise, the EU risks losing its most important electorate.
Landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, the flight from Munich arrives on time, with our patchwork family on board. We are spending a week in Paris with our American daughter and our German son. Our daughter automatically rummages in her backpack for her blue (U.S.) passport, anticipating a long line in front of a stressed passport control officer.
Her younger German brother asks in surprise, why does she need her passport? “We're inside the EU.“ Like most of his generation, he takes the advances of the European Union and the Eurozone as a matter of course.
He has never experienced border controls between France and Germany, never paid with Francs, Pesetas, Lira or Marks. And he has already forgotten that until recently there were high roaming charges, if you wanted to make mobile phone calls outside your home country. He knows the basic idea behind the “European Peace Project” only from his history lessons. For him, the Cold War is also from a dark, distant era.
A matter of trust
The unlimited freedom of travel within Europe is accepted as a given by the younger generation, as much as an Erasmus year in Sweden, or the search for jobs across the continent. A political idea has dramatically changed our lives in a few decades.
But is that reality strong enough to sustain this European idea for the future? What if trust in all political institutions is fading, but especially in European institutions? When young people in particular do not listen to politics and do not feel that their ideas and concerns are being taken seriously?
Business enterprises, such as those I know as a member of management committees and supervisory boards, are always expected to embrace “disruptive change” and immediately adapt to new conditions, new markets, new technologies. On the contrary: political institutions must above all be stable. To change EU treaties (where every country has veto power) is by design a slow and arduous process.
In addition, the (soon to be) 27 EU countries are very diverse and of different sizes, making it difficult to agree on institutional reform on a regular basis. Here too, the time has come for a change process. This is not necessarily about “more Europe“ but about “more confidence“. My personal rule for an effective transformational change process: “Those affected must become those involved” should also work in Europe.
The UK referendum on leaving the EU was fundamentally a vote of confidence. The British obviously trust their own institutions, which are almost a thousand years old, more than they trust EU institutions. This is true even though anyone who currently watches the British parliament on TV (inside or outside of Britain) is probably shaking their heads in dismay.
With a narrow majority vote, the British people have shown that they do not have enough trust in the EU – perhaps wrongly and fueled by a sometimes-biased presentation of European politics by their own politicians or media. Nevertheless, shouldn’t EU politicians, including (and especially) heads of state, draw some important conclusions from this referendum, for the benefit of future generations?
A White Paper with scenarios for slightly more or less Europe, as the outgoing Commission President has put it, is not enough. And the very vague "Declaration of Rome", which is now two years old, is unlikely to have convinced (or even reached) young people – despite the pomp and PR around it. Of course, we can make it easy on ourselves, and refer to the general disinterest of the younger generation in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Although the young British were predominantly pro-European, a large group of them actually did not vote. Just over half of those between 18 and 24 years old participated in this vote which was so important to their own future. It shows me that we as Europeans have failed to engage them. A constant reminder of the achievements of the past cannot sustain a highly complex construct such as the EU over the long run.
Without new ideas for the future, the European idea will be forgotten. The lack of engagement of the younger generation will very likely become the biggest challenge and the most serious threat to the EU over the next decade.
Feeling like Europeans
There is also some good news. The TUI foundation's latest study “Young Europe” seems to indicate that we have made a small comeback in Europe over the period 2017/18. The Foundation interviewed young Europeans aged 16 to 26 in all EU member states.
71 (previous year: 61) percent of respondents said they would vote in favor of keeping their country in the EU during an imaginary referendum. 66 (vs. 58) percent of young people no longer see themselves exclusively as citizens of their home country, but also as Europeans.
But, as feared, only 33 percent trust EU institutions such as the European Commission and the European Parliament. And not even one in five think that the political system in his/her own country works as it should. The vilification of the EU as a safe resting place for bureaucrats will not stop – especially with the growing populist currents throughout Europe.
It is too simple (and effective) for a certain category of politicians to distract attention from their own shortcomings, by pointing to Brussels and Strasbourg. Inspiring people with authorities, policies, contracts and committees is difficult in any case.
We have to take their questions, problems and concerns seriously and that includes difficult topics such as: Climate policy, organic farming, data and consumer protection, tax fairness, healthy competition, stricter banking supervision and the Digital Single Market.
There are many successful proof points to tell about the EU; for example, in the field of tourism. Today many people can be happy about cheaper airplane tickets: that is because the EU has made it possible through the liberalization of aviation since 1987.
At the same time, it has strengthened safety standards, and public health insurance protects travelers when traveling across the EU. Tourist destinations and cultural monuments are often obtained with EU funds. Terrorism, a frequent concern of international travelers today, is fought by the EU member states together.
Coherence through tourism
Tourism companies are predestined to further popularize the European idea; and they take that seriously. After all, it is the personal ties between people from different European nations that make understanding and tolerance possible. Without the busy travel between the north and south of Europe in the 1960s and 70s, the history of European unification would be hard to imagine.
From 2008, after the financial and economic crisis, tourism in southern Europe was the central pillar of many economies: that included the investments of tourism companies in hotels and infrastructure, the jobs and internships provided especially for the many unemployed young people.
In tourism, the formal entry barriers are low, and the development prospects are very good. The transfer of education, prosperity, environmental and social standards through tourism ensures that the living conditions in the countries of northern Europe and southern Europe are converging more and more over time.
And it’s also about the people: it was the personal contacts between German tourists and Greek hosts, which contributed to the fact that the German-Greek friendship was never seriously threatened. No one should be surprised if a tourism company and its leaders are fervent Europeans.
For it is important to make Europe strong, also with regard to developments in the wider world. Old certainties suddenly disappear. The transatlantic alliance is drifting out of focus, and not just since Donald Trump moved into the White House. The center of power of the global economy is shifting to Asia. By the middle of this century, none of the EU countries will be able to compete on their own with the world's major economies.
The management consultancy PWC described this loss of global significance in their study “The World in 2050“. According to this report, within 30 years Germany will be the only EU country among the ten largest economies in the world, in ninth place – behind newcomers such as Indonesia and Mexico.
In such an environment, it is a complete aberration to seek salvation in the return to a simple nation state. And yet, exactly this has just happened in the UK.
Out of the comfort zone
EU members must act now and begin the process of change. Not just with rational explanations of the achievements of the EU, and not with more commissions where more smart people discuss how we want to live. But with a real reorganization and new motivation for the citizens and their elected representatives. If we want to inspire the youth to be in favor Europe, we have to face their questions and leave our comfort zone.
Political reorganization. There are many well-known lawyers in this field with far-reaching suggestions. Long ago we already could have voted to put the programs of our political parties into a European framework. The European Council, which consists of the heads of government of all member states, could be transformed into a second chamber of parliament, similar to the German Bundesrat.
Digital initiatives must also be promoted and accelerated. The development of the Digital Single Market, the creation of a single European digital infrastructure, including the development of our European broadband network, and the intensification of cooperation on cybercrime are all just some of the issues we need to tackle, in order to remain competitive as Europe and attractive to our younger generation of “digital natives”.
And don’t we all agree that 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels are too many? Lobbying is not bad in and of itself, because it is a legitimate tool in the political decision-making process. But it must be transparent, and it must not develop a life of its own.
Otherwise, the citizens turn away, especially young people, who feel especially helpless against this apparatus. Even instruments such as the European Citizens' Initiative, a vehicle of direct democracy, made to address concerns of young people, are too often abused for the purposes of lobbyists.
That must be prevented. It is clear that the inertia and resistance will be enormous. But that must not hinder us. The EU has always been a place where well-established process leads to compromise between the differing interests of countries. That was their strength. They must now build upon that strength.