by Kyle Shishkin and Nick Romanoff

Instead of a narrative that opposes the union in pursuit of nationalistic sentiments, there is a need for a narrative that strives to improve the current union, one focused on maintaining the stability and peace that is so easy to take for granted, Shishkin and Romanoff argue.

Europe has been scarred by two World Wars and countless conflicts in between; it has seen generations sacrificed in pursuit of mutual annihilation, rotten by national ambitions. And while the older generations still recall the vices of their history, youths, on the other hand — who enjoy but a distant and almost hypothetical exposure to such a history in a classroom setting — tend to forget, or rather dismiss, what once was an age of a frightening tomorrow. In other words, there manifests an age-based division in Europe that has far reaching impacts in a variety of spheres — not only social, but also cultural and political.

Perhaps the most obvious reason why postwar generations grow politically inactive is precisely the lack of exposure to the history of a transition from a Europe sick with warfare to a Europe healed by the European Union. It seems although the youth lacks the background to appreciate EU’s dividends and, susceptible as it is to the echoes of an older, frustrated generation, slips into the narrative of disillusionment and skepticism. In the words of Dr. Birchfield, the Director of the Georgia Institute of Technology European Union Center, in an exclusive interview with European Horizons: “[Their narratives] perpetuate some of the misunderstanding about what the European Union is — but the European Union is not greater than the sum of its parts.” In the interview, she claims that when Europeans criticize the Union for its failure to address the refugee crisis, to tackle terrorism, and to end unemployment, they fail to acknowledge that these are essentially problems of the member states and oftentimes even their respective citizens, as the EU leaders cannot do more than as specified in their treaties. Rather it is the responsibility of the citizens to understand what the European project is — more than just a shared market, more than just an elite technocratic bureaucracy, it is a project that has allowed Europeans to achieve and appreciate the benefits of globalization, as if in a microcosm.

The EU establishes institutions that serve its citizens, while striving to guard against some of the negative side effects of an increasingly competitive society. The European Parliament, for example, has ironically become a platform for some of the most negative naysayers of the projects; without the European Parliament, would Nigel Farage and the UKIP party exercise so swaying an influence on the Brexit referendum? Likewise, would Marine La Pen, who failed to secure a parliamentary seat in France and instead used her seat in the European Parliament to publicize her movement against the EU, achieve such popularity? We are doubtful.

Evidently, we are not singular in our proposition. What frightens scholars like Dr. Birchfield most is the idea of regional thinking uninformed by global issues — in other words, narrow-mindedness policy. Such has been the case with Brexit, wherein a vocal minority led a largely politically disengaged nation to vote for what evidently looked like an impulsive, self-centered solution to a broad collection of far-reaching and impactful problems — an own-foot-shooting self-assertion, if you will. Under such conditions, not only do citizens fail to take full advantage of their microcosm, but they also take leaps towards its impairment.

Often all it takes is considering the ways in which tomorrow could shape today’s decisions. This anticipation both helps avoid foreseeable problems, and strategically positions citizens in navigating those unforeseen.

When the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, it was regarded with ridicule and misunderstanding from those who saw the EU as a neoliberal machine, doomed to destroy European cultural and national fabrics. But the award was given neither to the bureaucratic machines in Brussels nor for the inability to effectively deal with the refugee crisis three years later — it was given rather to an ideal, a new form of a political identity that has guarded Europe against major conflicts for over seventy years and continues to do so until today.

And instead of a narrative that opposes the union in pursuit of nationalistic sentiments, there is a need for a narrative that strives to improve the current union, one focused on maintaining the stability and peace that is so easy to take for granted. We all bear a responsibility to think critically, not to be blind cheerleaders of the European Union, but to confront its imperfections, respect its complexity, and understand that the European Project is only as good as the citizens who invest, believe, and engage in it. Because, it is but a common truth that we are individually stronger when we are collectively united.

Likewise, across the Atlantic, there is no expectation that young Americans find meaning in institutions through a post-war narrative that is too far passed to resonate. Indeed, many youths today grow up exposed to the disillusionment of an elder generation that stems from the national experiences of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the post-war economic boom’s subsequent deindustrialization.  Couple that upbringing with an atmosphere of toxic hyper-partisanship that has effectively paralyzed the federal government, and the prospects for optimism and faith in government quickly dim.

Crucially, young Americans’ low turnout in elections does not amount to a disinterest in politics. Visit any college campus in the United States, and the political activism will rapidly make itself evident. It is the nature of that activism that threatens American liberal democracy — specifically, the tendency towards mobilization by antagonism, expression by political condemnation, and the absence of dialogue across parties.

For instance, much has been said of the extent to which the repulsion for the Trump presidency has energized young people to become involved in politics. Even if one believes that President Trump’s “America First” policies and his populist rhetoric pose a grave threat to democracy, for this, and this alone, to define half of a generation’s interest in politics is problematic in its own right, for the other half of the country’s youths likely grew up in an environment in which “Trumpism” deeply resonates. One need not morally equate xenophobia with partisan condemnations to recognize that both have the potential to rally citizens through divisiveness.

Competition is inherent to democracy, and competition is intrinsically divisive. Nonetheless, democracy can only serve to function for the benefit of the masses when it is broadly perceived by citizens to have legitimacy. While populism’s appeal in Europe and the United States has potentially grave consequences for democratic norms, the condemnation of populism as a complete political strategy only serves to further alienate those who already feel alienated.

Therein lies the role for young people in securing a better future for liberal democracy. On both continents, there is a widespread perception that an older generation of political elites are out of touch with people’s needs and wishes. Young people should certainly vote and engage in political activism; yet, they must further recognize that a day will come when their generation will be in power, and to replicate the tactics and attitudes of today’s leaders will only lead to further division and institutional paralysis. The objective is not to abandon commitment to progressive policies, but rather to engage with those on the other side of the aisle and find a new narrative, a common understanding as to the core reasons underlying commitment to democratic government

This is a daunting task, but not an impossible one. Perhaps the Internet can play a role. While online connectivity can create partisan thought bubbles, our increasing connectedness also provides ready opportunities for exposure to and genuine engagement with the ideas of others. In fact, with so many parallels between the challenges facing liberalism in Europe and the United States, transatlantic dialogue as to the trajectory moving forwards could prove invaluable, as growing divisiveness is a problem plaguing both sides of the Atlantic and in the words of Dr. Birchfield, “the European story is also a North Atlantic one.”

Kyle Shishkin and Nicholas Romanoff are the current and former Heads of Public Relations on the Executive Board of European Horizons, the only transatlantic student-run think tank devoted to the discussion of European integration.

Kyle is originally from Ukraine, where he witnessed and partook in the Orange and the Euromaidan Revolutions that largely shaped his firm belief in a united and democratic Europe. After completing his B.A. in Economics and Political Science at the University of Chicago, he hopes to pursue an M.A. in International Relations, aiming at a career in international business. Previous to his position with European Horizons, Kyle has run a youth technology group and served on the executive slate of the Model United Nations organization. In his spare time, Kyle indulges in political arguments and studies of history, soon hoping to publish another edition of his book.

Nicholas hails from New York City and currently studies Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. In addition to the European Horizons Executive Board, he has also previously has served in leadership positions at the University’s Institute of Politics, Model United Nations organizations, and as President of EUChicago, the largest chapter of European Horizons. Through these experiences, Nicholas has developed an interest in contemporary shared-sovereignty arrangements and hopes to obtain a J.D. with a concentration in international law.