In the beginning of May, celebrations of Europe Day took place across the continent. Commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration provided an opportunity for Europe to reflect on all the strides that have been made in terms of cooperation and integration. While it cannot be disputed that significant progress has been made, it is crucial to be critical and to be aware that many more achievements have to be made for the European Project to be considered a success. As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pointed out: ‘The European Union was born in the aftermath of a terrible war and we still live in an unpredictable world. Robert Schuman’s words therefore remain as valid today, as they were at the time.’
In order to respond to numerous challenges Europe is facing today, over 100 young people gathered in European Economic and Social Committee on the occassion of Europe Day to discuss different issues with stakeholders ranging from representatives of the civil society to the representatives of the European Commission. The aim of the conference, titled ‘Schuman declaration 65 years later – wishes of the young generation for Europe’, was for young people to develop recommendations for future action on European integration (social, economic and political), democratic innovations and active citizenship, as well as on education and learning mobility.
Discussions during the conference brought attention to critical issues that European institutions must address at this point. Pointing out the increasing rise of populism and nationalism as a consequence of the crisis that many believe was mishandled by the European institutions, one of the proposals called for the creation of a ‘European Republic’ and a need for European citizen-based solutions to European problems. The proposal emphasized the importance of citizens’ involvement in transnational political debates and decision-making processes.
Such processes were challenged, as participants of the conference called for a more inclusive voting system for European Parliamentary elections, proposing Member States to standardize their EP election systems and requesting greater accountability of the European Commission by introducing the direct election of the European Commission President by the European citizens.
The importance of fighting corruption on the European level was also tackled. While corruption is significantly lower in some Member States than others, it is still present to some degree in each of them, and presents a widespread concern among citizens. Young Europeans want to see a change urgently and wish for stronger actions such as the creation of an independent committee that would periodically check on the level of corruption in each Member State.
One of the most controversial proposals called for the EU Member States to introduce unconditional basic income in order to improve living standards and ensure that all citizens have the possibility to be active participants in society. While unconditional basic income is still perceived as a controversial idea, some have argued that its implementation on the European level could be feasible, and it shows that young people require more action to balance social inequality.
In line with that, gender inequality was also acknowledged as an important issue, as importance of education and greater awareness about the issue was emphasized, as well as empowering women in all professions. Young people expressed their concern about the Maternity Leave Directive, currently blocked by the Council, and have issued an urgent call for action on this matter. It is time for Europe to start acting, and not only talking about gender equality!
The empowerment of citizens was a recurring topic, as one of the proposals highlighted the importance of a common European civic education. The Commission and Member States should adopt the initiative, as it would increase active participation of citizens, thus creating citizens who make informed choices and take a proactive approach in different issues they consider important.
Emphasis on active citizenship is not the only improvement young people are hoping to see in the education systems of Europe. The quality of education and opportunities for mobility are crucial as they contribute greatly to professional and personal development. Several proposals emphasized the importance of recognition of non-formal education, and especially the recognition of practical experiences of students in NGOs. The education system must change in order to adapt to today’s reality, where students are often learning more outside of classrooms than in class.
Another proposal was the creation of big European research centres across Europe, carrying out research in all fields of study. These centres should receive constant funding in order to preserve the autonomy of research and to guarantee a future in Europe to the best researchers, especially young researchers, from all European countries. There was a strong call to stop cutting on education and research, and to invest in excellence and inclusion.
The outcome of this conference shows that young people have a deep understanding of a great variety of issues Europe is facing with and that they are able to think beyond their pressing need for employment. It is time for institutions to acknowledge the capacity of young people to address relevant problems and their enthusiasm to offer solutions. Young people should be actively involved in decision-making processes and should be able to influence the future of their Europe.