First, a declaration of interest. I am one of the 3 million European citizens who live in the United Kingdom. Like many, I campaigned for Remain and was devastated when, in the late evening of June 23, it became clear that the Leave campaign had won.
And yet here we are. The past cannot be rewritten – the Remain campaign cannot be replayed with fewer numbers and more attention to the many achievements of the Union during the last 60 years. As Theresa May has famously declared, Brexit means Brexit. The speed with which the Special European Council (Art. 50) agreed on its guidelines in the meeting of 29th April suggests that the 27 remaining Member States agree with May. There is no going back for the UK – at least for now. In this context, how can the forthcoming negotiations between the Union’s institutions and the British government reflect the views and the interests of Millennials?
The report “10 cornerstones for a Dialogue Between the Progressive Family and the Millennials Generation” suggests an initial answer to this question. The results of a survey shared with twenty thousand Millennials around the world have revealed that the Europeans among them “are a generation that wants to live in an interrelated Europe and a peaceful world. [The] Millennials’ generation […] remains convinced about the necessity of both international and European cooperation”.
Indeed, one of the many interesting elements of the recent election of Emmanuel Macron as French president was the support that the pro-EU candidate received from Millennials. According to a poll by Ipsos, 66% of 18-24 and 60% of 25-34 year-olds voted for Macron. This said, such support was far from wholehearted. In the first round of the election, 51% of 18-24 year-olds and 48% of 25-34 year-olds voted for either Marine Le Pen or for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who respectively defended abandoning the European project or considered such a possibility. Millennials are frustrated with traditional politics. Yet, for the time being, they are still willing to give the Union a chance.
To avoid contributing to the disaffection of Millennials vis-à-vis the EU, it is crucial that Brexit negotiations do not nurture populist narratives – which, as Cas Mudde explains, oppose elites (described as morally questionable) to a homogenous people (seen as pure). Demands that the rights of EU and British citizens be protected before negotiations of the future EU-UK relationship begin (evident in the European Council’s guidelines, in the official statement by PES, in Gianni Pittella’s words as president of the S&D group, and in the position of the parliament) underscore the fact that the progressive promises of the Union are now embodied by millions – and hence that the former is much more than a technocratic or an elitist project. So does the Council’s desire to achieve an agreement that serves “the best interest of both sides.”
In this context, and encouragingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that Brexit has led to a heightened consciousness among EU citizens of the fragility of the Union – not to mention of their identity as Europeans. As a result of this, and paradoxically, Brexit provides an opportunity for politicians to remind citizens of the massive impact of the Union in the development of several of its Members States (such as my country, Portugal), whose universities and schools it has renovated, in whose infrastructure it has invested and whose beaches it has cleaned. Additionally, millions of Millennials have studied, worked, travelled, fallen in love and made friends around the continent; they have also enjoyed more opportunities to fulfil their potential in their home countries. Highlighting such stories and their relevance to the lives of Millennials may contribute to repairing the broken link between them and politicians, as the aforementioned report on Millennials suggests.
This is why the forthcoming Brexit negotiations must reflect the fact that the Union cannot be reduced to a complex set of regulations. Not compromising on the four freedoms is key in this regard. Freedom of movement is a progressive value: the poorest have always travelled in search of a better future. More broadly, Brexit cannot become an opportunity for the UK to pick and choose from a set of opt-ins and opt-outs, as Stewart Wood has remarked, hence questioning the principle of “an ever closer union”. Rather, if further exits are to be prevented, the Union must build a future based on increased solidarity. In this direction, the Council’s statement that the four freedoms are indivisible is highly encouraging.
As many have remarked, Brexit is a lose-lose situation. Despite this difficult context, it is possible to ensure that its negotiations remind Millennials of the many reasons why they should support the European project. As Sergei Stanishev, president of PES, has affirmed, “our duty is to remain united”. Let us do so.