Though Covid-19 cases are receding and shuttered businesses starting to reopen, the EU could be on the way to its deepest recession in history with the European Commission projecting a 7.4% slowdown in economic activity in 2020.
European youth are at risk of feeling the brunt of this economic turmoil, if the 2008 financial crisis is any guide. During that recession, youth unemployment soared to over 60% in some European regions. For millennials in their mid-30s, especially in southern Europe, bouts of economic misery could indeed be all that they have ever known.
To make matters worse, the EU appears to be on the verge of abandoning youth political priorities. Young people (15-24 year olds) turned out in record numbers in the 2019 EU parliamentary elections, a 50% increase from 2014. And the top three factors that motivated them to vote were the economy (46%), environment (45%), and human rights and democracy (44%).
Green Deal legislation, intended to make Europe climate neutral by 2050, is potentially now in jeopardy, however, with some governments calling it a boondoggle that needs to be scrapped.
The Hungarian and Polish governments, meanwhile, have reignited consternation about an illiberal shift in the EU through a flurry of questionable legislative maneuvers during the crisis.
This constellation of factors could ultimately give rise to another “lost generation” of disillusioned youth that Europe can ill afford. As noted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a climate of poverty and unemployment could fuel “declining confidence in political establishments and institutions” and provide a conducive environment for “extremist groups to exploit the anger and despair”.
The effects of economic distress are, notably, compounded for youth who, after years of joblessness, often encounter difficulties competing for employment opportunities with fresh graduates. In Europe, this could play into the hands of euro-sceptics and far-right figures like Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini as youth become either dissuaded from participating in the political process or enamored with populist solutions.
With young people on tenterhooks, the answer lies in developing a robust response that alleviates economic apprehension and addresses youth priorities.
Green Deal as ideal recovery framework
The environment and climate change ministers of seventeen EU countries have put the spotlight on the most optimal path forward - bringing back the stalled “Green Deal” proposal.
The Green Deal, according to European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, could turn the “pandemic into an opportunity to rebuild our economies differently and make them more resilient”.
An enhanced Just Transition Fund, exceeding the original €100 billion proposal, and the creation of a “climate bank” would facilitate the development of new value chains, sustainable projects, and jobs and ensure a fair and socially viable transition. A 55% emissions reduction by 2030 backed by a stronger emissions trading scheme could, moreover, avert some of the devastating social and economic consequences forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The historical success of green-aligned candidates in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections was made possible by youth coming of age during a time of Fridays for Future school strikes. A Green Deal, meanwhile, would heed this democratic will and put the European economy on course for a jobs recovery that placates unemployment concerns.
Democracy, human rights, and rule of law
Even before Covid-19, the EU had been grappling with treaty violation accusations in Hungary and Poland related to restrictions on freedom of speech and the independence of judiciaries.
The crisis in Hungary, however, has seen the passage of an emergency law that permits the government powers to rule by decree indefinitely, suspend elections, and apprehend individuals who spread “falsehoods” on Covid-19. The Hungarian government, despite the pandemic, has also enacted legislation that ends the legal recognition of trans people. In Poland, meanwhile, the government sought to plough ahead with a presidential election, without equitable access to voting, and more restrictive abortion legislation.
The European Parliament has responded by passing a resolution, on a 395-171 vote, condemning the moves of both countries. More needs to be done though. To ensure safeguards on democracy and human rights, the EU must abandon the one-country veto power on Article 7, the procedures used to suspend voting rights of EU members. A qualified majority vote, suggested by German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth, could be incorporated into the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework and would provide a more sensible standard hindering treaty violators from shielding one another.
While the European Commission has long sought to pursue a diplomatic solution, political leaders now need to ask themselves hard questions. Is the EU still a community based on the rule of law and shared values or solely a single market area focused on economic growth above all else? And are political leaders willing to risk citizen support, including youth, to protect a proud “illiberal”?
The right time is now
With an economic recession in the offing, a repeat of the debt crisis and austerity cycle must be avoided at all cost. Failure to act on the environment and democracy could also engender vast political fall-out and foster a permanent loss of faith in the EU project among youth.
This need not happen though. A broad regional swath of countries, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands, have signed onto the Green Deal, making it politically viable. And the European Parliament has effectively put democratic and human rights protections in the spotlight. Polling support for far-right parties, meanwhile, has been tepid during the pandemic.
Now is the time to progress by overcoming fraught issue debates and bringing young people on board as permanent allies in the EU project.