Brussels is busy, surprisingly dirty and overwhelmingly big as I make my way towards the European Parliament in the morning of Tuesday the 16th of October. As I have never been to the Parliament before, I feel a tickling sense of excitement as my feet carry me towards the massive, grey complex that is, in many instances, described as the heart of European democracy. I am about to participate in the European Youth Media Days, a three-day event that brings together young journalists from every city, town and remote corner of the European continent. My bag is full of required documents I have carefully printed and brought with me, including a letter of instruction from the media I represent, JEF Finland’s Tähdistö- publication.
The registration office gives everyone a yellow badge, which precisely states the participants’ names and media, as well as has a picture of the participant. The security measures are tight, as our belongings are X-rayed every time we enter the buildings. Heavily armed soldiers circulate the square. Even though I have never been here before, I feel like something has changed. It feels like the soldiers and the X-ray machines are safeguarding our democracy itself.
The event starts in one of the big chambers, where a microphone accompanies each table and class boxes with country titles surround the space. I am not entirely sure, but I suppose that the boxes are for the interpreters. People are cheerfully chatting and getting to know each other as they find their seats and settle down before the opening of the event starts. All the young journalists I chat with appear to be very passionate about the European Union, journalism and the relationship between the two. Everybody seems to be connected with a similar worry over where the free media, journalism and democracy are headed.In my country of origin, Finland, the turnout was the second lowest in the EU at 10%. Klikkaa ja Twiittaa
The opening session starts with an introduction by the European Parliament and the EYMD coordinators and is then continued by different speeches, panel discussions, interactive videos and questions from the audience. All the themes discussed stem from one, simple problem – the fact that the youth turnout in the previous European Parliamentary Election was devastatingly low, despite the youth’s generally positive view towards the EU in comparison to the older generations. The previous average turnout was 43%, whereas the EU wide youth turnout (18-24 years) was a staggering 28%. In my country of origin, Finland, the turnout was the second lowest in the EU at 10%. One of the aims of the EYMD seminar is to give young journalists tools to communicate the European Parliamentary Election, and especially the importance of exercising one’s democratic right to vote.
I feel almost glued to my seat as I listen to the speeches depicting the upcoming election as the most important parliamentary election in the history of the European Union. So much has happened since 2014 – Brexit, the rise of right-wing anti-establishment politics throughout the EU, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the increased promotion of Europhobia, nationalism and populism, just to name a few.
The effects of the 2008 financial crisis are still there, although the current economic trend is rather positive. Five years is a long time for the political framework to alter itself, but at the same time, a notable number of young European nationals have reached the legal voting age and hence, are now eligible to vote. The European Parliament’s 2019 election campaign targeting the young voters is called ‘’This Time I’m Voting’’.
And that is one of the core reasons I found myself sitting at the Parliament, surrounded by young, aspiring journalists, listening to highly qualified professionals giving us updates on what exactly was going on in the EU.
The second day of the seminar was dedicated to the group work and the products each group was assigned to prepare. I participated in the multimedia group, which consisted of brilliant, young writers and content-makers from Denmark to Malta. Our task was to discuss the European Parliamentary Elections in a manner that would engage with the younger audience, and our group decided to approach the project via matters concerning immigration. We chose our approach according to immigration being one of the core subjects in debates surrounding nationalism, security, citizenship and especially the European Union’s role in the matter. We spent the day doing interviews, writing and recording content, digging for further information and finding images to illustrate our work. Finally, all the content was put together to create a multimedia publication titled ‘’This time I’m voting because in security we are stronger together’’.
The discussion in the closing ceremony further circumnavigated the issues the ‘European Idea’ is currently facing. One of the interesting points mentioned was that big, international and urban European cities and capitals often seem to be more closely connected than the rural countryside areas, despite the national borders separating the cities from one another. The same is strikingly true when it comes to the people who live in these areas; it often seems that urban, young Europeans feel more connected to the ‘European Idea’ and identify themselves as ‘European’ more easily than the older, rural population. I expressed my worry over the evident fractionation of societies using Finland as an example. What could we possibly do to stop the different parts of the society from drifting further apart from each other? Is there a way to cooperation and understanding?
Klaus Welle, the Secretary-General of the European Parliament, then reminded us that even though the European Parliament is often seen as distant, artificial and anti-democratic, ultimately the mandate of the MEPs comes from their voters and the people who have decided to participate in the democratic process. The EU really is its member states, and the institutions are built to reflect the opinions of the citizens who vote for the politicians who work for them – and voting is the ultimate tool to nurture the democratic process and to make sure that the institutions doing the decision making actually stay true to their democratic mandate.The EU is, really, like your central heating in November. When it works as planned, you do not even remember that it exists, but if it stops working, you blame the system for your cold showers, frozen feet and upcoming influenza. Klikkaa ja Twiittaa
As I walked out of the Parliament and headed towards the metro station I could not help but feel a strange mixture of pride, hope, fear and worry. For all the Eurocrats, businesswomen and –men, interns and tourists enjoying the extraordinarily warm October afternoon on the terraces of Brussels the existence of the EU was probably something very clear, almost self-evident. But were we all just being wrapped into an EU-blue, democratic bubble, which kept us from seeing the developments happening outside of our comfort zone? And most importantly, what would be the outcome if we did not wake up early enough to do something about it?
I came to the conclusion that the EU is, really, like your central heating in November. When it works as planned, you do not even remember that it exists, but if it stops working, you blame the system for your cold showers, frozen feet and upcoming influenza. And then the only viable solution is to fix the system, not to dismantle it. And that process starts with casting a vote.
Ella Kivisaari, Brussels
The author is a student of economics and international relations at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Her special interests include EU citizenship, identity politics, migration, the rise of populism and the future of the EU in the changing tides of the new decade.