This analysis will focus on the different forms of social resilience and it stresses the need to translate the messages from the grass-root level and connect them to the EU public policies, favouring a more bottom-up approach, closer to the EU citizens, in order to ensure that the European project can move forward and respond to Euroscepticism and other EU challenges in a democratic and effective manner.

EU and the ‘Dangers of the Single Story’

Everyday we are confronted with multiple narratives on the EU, and some become part of our own narrative on the EU. But how do these narratives we tell ourselves shape the future of Europe? What happens when these multiple stories are reduced to only one single story? How are these stories relevant for contemporary youth? How is the lack of interest in history being used by populist, divisive movements by promoting their single and divisive story? Can youth engagement help overcome the ‘dangers of the single story’? The 2019 debate on the Future of Europe have raised many of these questions.

For more than 70 years, there was no war between countries inside what we call today the European Union. But any history museum can show us that peace was never something taken for granted. However, in the last decade, EU architecture is under sharp criticism: declining democratic participation, a stark refusal by many to take part in political participation mediated by old-fashioned political parties, profound societal transformations and growing individualism are on the rise. Add up to this scenario the complex challenges faced by the EU in recent years: rise of populism and far right movements, anti-EU discourses, xenophobia and calls for boycotting the elections. But one SINGLE story is impossible. Moreover, it is even dangerous, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie outlined in her famous Ted Talk discourse years ago, which inspires our reflections in this analysis.

In this context, young people have a crucial role in understanding and then shaping the future of European Union. We all should be empowered to tackle these challenges and for that we need shared stories about European unification.  Moreover, we believe that all these questions are of great concern particularly in the context of the European elections in May 2019, where usually youth participation is known to be very low. Contrary to how nations were built, around a single story, it might be that, in the case of Europe, unity might come from accepting multiple stories, different interpretations of the same event in a collaborative and non-combative manner.

Youth are nowadays more active in other forms of political participation, such as protests, civic movements or boycotts, and we need to understand the roots and help them develop capacity building programs and forms through which they can gain influence at both national and EU level, engage more youths and help reverse the trend of EU’s democratic deficit. And this can happen only by providing tools and methods specifically designed for them, more familiar and easier to interact with.

In recent years, youth political participation has three main shortcomings:

  1.  mistrust and a diminished level of interest and knowledge on EU as a whole, correlated with a stark refusal to take part in political participation (including elections) as they see no causal effect on their daily lives;
  2. daily exposure to populism, anti-EU discourse and dissemination of fake news and
  3. obsolete public policies and tools used for promoting political participation that failed to increase youth turnout and engagement.

In this complicated context, from my point of view, the danger of a single story on Europe becomes a reality when people are living in bubbles created by ‘singles story’ – limited versions based on stereotypes and nationalist imagery. I believe that actually, in Europe, several single stories are running in parallel, and each European citizen is choosing or not to follow a narrative. Disputes in the European Parliament between Nigel Farage and Guy Verhovstadt on Youtube stand as examples of that. We like it or not, the existence of a single story at national level will be present and it cannot be changed, even though we could have learned that a single story brings multiple dangers. I consider that, instead of creating new narratives, we should teach ourselves and others to think critically, to digest existing stories and put questions. Each ‘bubble’ in social media creates a single story, and these stories should interact with each other at the European level. In the EU context where unity is in diversity, it is very important to keep in mind that the only way to function and have peace is to accept that we have several stories and not just one. I consider that instruments are already in place to be actively involved, especially for youth organizations. What I consider is missing is the way these instruments are reaching the audience, youth from urban areas, as well as youth from rural areas. Instruments, such as youth councils, conferences, forums, organizations, camps and Erasmus+ projects are existing and running, but they are not reaching a higher number of youth citizens. I think, now that the possibility to be engaged has been created, the next step should be to work on reaching youth citizens in a larger number through social media, knowledge transfer between youth organizations and so on.

I think that we are witnessing today competing narratives that have the tendency to be intolerant one to another. On the one hand, we observe the extremist narratives that propose us to see the EU as a ‘demonic’, technocratic and multinational ‘state’ that erases the national identities and sovereignty and on the other hand we see the pro-European speech that highlights the EU as an universal problem solving device: the key to peace, prosperity and development of any member state. However, while I do have the tendency and rational reasons to be a supporter of the second perspective (the pro-EU one), I would like to underpin the dangers that this speech faces when it fails to provide strong arguments and a critical perspective towards the EU. What I would like to say is that, from my point of view, this pro-European way has for too long been taken for granted. In order for it to avoid the dangers that the extremists are building, this speech has to remain self-critical. It has to be able to highlight the failures and the successes of the EU and only by comparing these two, it should affirm that the EU is indeed a successful story. Moreover, this perspective has to be open to tolerate the intolerant or more critical views. As difficult as it may be, the pro-European narrative has to listen to those that contest its own existence: it has to look after the problems that have generated the extremist views and it has to find rational arguments against them and pragmatical solutions. Even if the pro-Europeans can easily acknowledge the successes that the EU has managed to create (and there are plenty of them), this should be an issue of which we should discuss more often. Otherwise, we are on one or another side of the story (pro or against the EU) and the dangers are real. Or, being self-critical and tolerating the intolerance seems to be the optimal solution to listen to those who criticise us in order to determine them, rationally, to abandon their story.

How to enforce youth citizens and youth organizations at the European level to be actively involved in mainstream political participation? 

I think that there are certain solutions that can have a real impact and change for good the society in which we live in and these solutions are at hand. Not only am I talking about our own direct effort to persuade our acquaintances by providing them rational arguments in order for them to acknowledge their importance, but I do think that social media and the internet are an instrument that for too long has been perceived as inadequate.

Therefore, online campaigns can truly bring a chance so as to enforce youth citizens and youth organizations at the European level to be actively involved in mainstream political participation. In most of the cases online campaigns only require a little bit of time. I would like to highlight that I am not necessarily talking about highly-funded campaigns, but about posting information that is both comprehensive and sensitive to the people’s lives. More precisely, I am keen to the idea that posting about EU is important, but it is equally important to have individuals who are appreciated by the others and who are able to provide a correct and objective message.

As I am not talking about propaganda in favour of the EU, I hope that my short input made it clear enough that the entire issue can be solved (1) by providing a clear and objective message towards youth citizens and youth organizations and (2) this message has to be delivered by people who are trustworthy. In many cases, these individuals can be exactly us and we can truly provide change at least in our acquaintances’ lives. This might appear as a small step, but it is of utmost importance.

How can they could be further engaged in understanding the implications of lack of civic engagement and the „costs of non EU”, while acknowledging the benefits of the European project?

From my perspective, the easiest manner in order for them to be further engaged in understanding the implications of lack of civic engagement and the „costs of non EU”, while acknowledging the benefits of the European project is by directly engaging them in the European project. This might appear as evident on its own, but I strongly hold that people do not fully understand that a large amount of the actions they perform are dependent to the EU project. Freedom of travel, of studying abroad, of feeling at home on the entire European continent are all dependent to the EU project and the “costs of non EU” would be tremendous.

However, as it is clear that we all have become way too used to the EU, it might sometimes appear that the EU is not doing enough for us. And, since I think that mental experiments (let’s imagine that we would have dissolved the EU) can sometimes shift to dangerous and ideological political decisions (such as the Brexit), I hold that the EU should find more practical solutions. Since I am talking about youth and youth organizations, I believe that the EU should find a easier way for youth to be able to take part into European projects: from training sessions to exchanging experience with people from abroad, all this should be done more accessible. Not that these projects are not already very accessible, but I believe that these are not sufficiently promoted. These are sometimes perceived as something that only the lucky can access even though these are open to everyone.

Therefore, promoting how easily it is to be part of European projects and making youth aware of the benefits that such projects can bring seem to me the first step that the EU should take to increase social resilience among its youth.

Conclusions – How to increase Social Resilience in the EU?

Across the EU, we have witnessed in recent years extensive protests or forms of active citizenship, ranging from pro rule of law protests in Romania and Bulgaria, recent anti-populism and pro EU in Germany or anti-austerity movements in Greece. In this context, how can we use most of these civic manifestations to debate the future of the EU and catalyze more constructive civic engagement? How will the new EU leadership and power – reshuffle in the major EU institutions take stock of the views of civil society and the more engaged youth?

The 2016 EU Global Strategy emphasised the growing complexity, inter-connectivity and contestation of the established international liberal order, positing the need to reform the post-WWII governing architecture by way of facilitating cooperative orders across the globe. Social resilience is also explicitly mentioned among them. In this sense, social resilience remains ‘a key strategic challenge’ for the EU and NATO country; being framed through the lens of resilience – the ability ‘to withstand and recover from internal and external crises’, and security. It is therefore timely and opportune to take stock of the recent civic movements and their practices in building social resilience, to examine their success/challenges in reforming the region for the benefit of its peoples.

Markus Keck and Patrick Sakdapolrak (2013) proposed to define social resilience as being comprised of three dimensions:

  1. Coping capacities –the ability of social actors to cope with and overcome all kinds of adversities;
  2. Adaptive capacities – their ability to learn from past experiences and adjust themselves to future challenges in their everyday lives;
  3. Transformative capacities– their ability to craft sets of institutions that foster individual welfare and sustainable societal robustness towards future crises.

These three aspects are crucial when discussing the issue of increasing social resilience in the EU.

In a political and social sense, as discussed, resilience refers to a country’s ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Poor and marginalized people are more severely affected by disinformation and the ‘dangers of the single story’ promoted by populism, so these three main steps for increasing resilience and empowerment at citizens level should be targeted towards them. When individuals feel rejected, isolated, distrusted, devalued, or simply disliked, they cannot work effectively as part of the unit, and they do not feel they belong to a democracy, so they are less likely to adapt creatively as a unit as required by the challenges they confront. These are some of the most dangerous elements that EU needs to tackle in its institutional narrative in order to include disengaged and disappointed youth and civil society organisations on its democratic path. We need to take seriously all youth demands and concerns, and we need to make them feel included in all major policy makers stages. Recent populist and anti-EU outbursts showed us that there is still much to be done in that respective.

This analysis was written in the projectA new narrative for Europe: Bringing more union into the European Union – the cost of non EU” (Acronym BRING), funded through the programme Europe for Citizens, coordinated by CRPE, where SNSPA is partener. The opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.


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