Europe's youth comes of age as the EU faces crises on several fronts
Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30
They are known are the Erasmus Generation, a reference to the EU programme that allows higher education students to study in another EU member state.
Some say the Erasmus programme, which started in 1987, has been one of the most successful initiatives when it comes to fostering a sense of European identity.
Thousands of Irish students have lived and studied in other member states through the programme, forging professional connections and friendships across borders.
Now, as Sandro Gozi, Italy's Secretary of State for European Affairs, outlines in his new book, the Erasmus Generation has not only come of age, it is "already in power" at a moment when Europe finds itself pummelled by multiple crises.
The Erasmus Generation, he says, is "[one] that has benefited to the full from the opportunities the EU has offered it: freedom of movement, a single currency and increased exchanges between European universities; a generation of young people who saw the Berlin Wall come down and who believe in freedom and solidarity throughout our continent; a generation committed to furthering these successes and preparing the best possible future for our children."
Coming up behind the Erasmus Generation, who are now in their thirties and forties, are Europe's millennials, those born after 1986 and whose adult lives have been shaped by the economic crisis that struck in 2008.
Millennials accounted for 24pc of the adult population in the 28-member EU in 2013. A Pew survey published last year showed that Europe's millennials, despite grappling with high youth unemployment and horizons shrunk by the continent's financial crisis, are surprisingly upbeat. When asked where they would place themselves on a ladder, where 10 represents the best possible life and zero represents the worst possible life, a median of 56pc say they currently stand somewhere between the seventh and 10th step. Young Germans were the most satisfied; and young Greeks the least happy. Interestingly, the Pew study found that Europeans born after 1980 were also more likely to be satisfied with their situation in life than people born before 1965.
Over the past week, I have attended two events focusing on Europe's Erasmus Generation and the millennials that come after them.
The first, billed a European Millennials Lab, brought together several dozen Europeans aged under 30 to the University of Siena in Italy to discuss the continent's future and their place in it. The second was a gathering of the European Young Leaders network in Marseille to examine challenges faced by the continent, including migration and violent extremism, but also to explore how Europe can develop its relationship with its southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbours.
These days Europe can often feel like a continent knocked sideways. The effects of the economic crisis continue to be felt. The flow of refugees from war-torn Syria and other countries has triggered anxieties that are in turn exploited by far-right parties which are becoming more popular. Terrorist attacks, like those in Paris last year, have made people fearful and again fuel an increasingly shrill and reactionary politics, allowing populist voices to rise.
With their continent pulled in several different directions, Europe's youth also find themselves pulled in different directions. In several cases, the far right is finding support among frustrated young Europeans. When the National Front made historical gains in the first round of France's regional elections last year, it was striking that the largest demographic voting for the party was those aged between 18 and 30.
Youthful disaffection can manifest itself in other ways - thousands of Europeans have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, many of them joining Isil. Attitudes to the European Union can vary among those who have known nothing but an integrated Europe in their lifetime.
The youth voting for the National Front in France may sympathise with its Eurosceptic message. In the UK, however, polls have shown that a majority of those under 25 are opposed to a Brexit and want the UK to remain in the EU.
A little-explored facet of Ireland's first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 - the treaty was rejected, and then passed in a second ballot - was the fact that the biggest age cohort voting 'No' was those under 35.
Not that this necessarily indicated growing Euroscepticism among the generation born after Ireland joined the EU.
Many I spoke to who voted 'No' described themselves as committed Europeans; they simply had reservations about some of the directions the EU was going in.
The conversations in Siena and Marseille this week involved young Europeans who are passionate about the idea of the European Union and care deeply about its future.
They are aware of the responsibilities of their generation as the rapidly ageing continent they call home struggles with economic woes and security threats in a context where the decades-old debate about what it means to be European has taken on a new urgency.
The Erasmus Generation and its millennial siblings are to be tested like never before.