The Brexit vote has shaken the Europe’s political foundations. Will the project begin to unravel, or is this a new start for the Continent?

They did everything right. Study abroad, learn languages, do internships, live the European dream. Yet with Britain voting to leave the European Union (EU) by 51.9% on June 23rd, it is the Erasmus generation, alluding to the popular pan-European student exchange program, which is feeling the effects the hardest.

“My biggest nightmare has become a reality,” said Felix, a 24-year-old Austrian working at a marketing company in London. “The EU is the most important thing Europe has today. It is everything that Europe stands for, and more.”

What the Union stands for, however, has become contested. A decade of interlocking crises, from the euro to immigration to terrorism, has rocked the continent and laid bare the EU’s institutional weaknesses and shortcomings. At the same time, momentous events like the influx of refugees last autumn, Russia’s assertiveness in Eastern Ukraine or, indeed, the Brexit vote, with its chaotic aftermath, have made Europeans long for more, or at least better, cooperation.

Unfortunately, they disagree fiercely on how to get there.

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“Paradoxically, the Czech public thinks the same as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: The EU should be big in the big things and small in the small things,”
Vít Dostál, Director of AMO Research Center // © AMO, Squaring the star-spangled circle

“Paradoxically, the Czech public thinks the same as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: The EU should be big in the big things and small in the small things,” said Vít Dostál, Director of the Prague-based AMO Research Center for International Affairs. “Overall, the Czech government is happy with the current treaties – we know they are the best option we could possibly have. If anything, the Czech Republic supports a strengthening of the European Council, in order to have a veto on unpopular measures like relocation quotas for refugees.”

Fritz Breuss, Jean Monnet Professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, strongly disagrees. “Now is the time for tabula rasa, for the United States of Europe.” The example of the United Kingdom, he says, shows that piling exceptions on opt-outs (of which the U.K. had the most), only makes the Union more fragile. To overcome the logic of national domination and paralysis, a big step is needed. “We’ve got two years now for the re-foundation of Europe,” said Breuss. “A European Convention could work out the details of a federal state, modeled for example after Switzerland’s. Then every country could decide with a referendum whether it wants to be part of this ambitious project or remain in a free-trade area [but] on the sidelines.”

Recent proposals by the foreign ministers of France and Germany, traditionally the motor of the European Union, go in a different direction altogether again. Their jointly presented paper, titled
“A strong Europe in a world of uncertainties,” is full of bold ideas for a flexible, layered Europe. Audacious visions like a “common fiscal capacity” – Eurospeak for a pan-European treasury, taxes and investment, and a new parliamentary body – are specifically designed for the Eurozone.

Other proposals, like a European Public Prosecutor, more cooperation in defense research and spending, and most ambitiously, a fully fledged multi-national common European border guard, are geared towards the broader Union. With this approach, the two ministers seek to satisfy “different levels of ambitions” in the member states.

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Illustration: Karin Dreher

Pick the cherries where they are

Apparently, at least some of these ideas are within reach, according to sources in the Austrian Foreign Ministry. A common border guard is particularly likely because even countries that have lately been notoriously critical of more integration, such as Hungary or Poland, strongly support a European solution. After all, the continent’s cherished freedom of movement is at stake.

The perceived lack of solidarity on the question of asylum seekers, however, could still breed bad blood. Some politicians in net contributor countries that have accepted more refugees have linked limits with the upcoming mid-term budget review and the next Multiannual Financial Framework. These negotiations determine transfers and payments of €150 billion annually, which are particularly important for the emerging economies of the East and the ailing ones of the South (see illustration).

In the meantime, the ground in the Eurozone seems to be shifting slowly, as the erstwhile hard-line Germany has forgiven the fines for budget offenders Spain and Portugal. Bolder steps to jolt the bloc’s economy, however, are still elusive, as the recent tussle over how to save Italy’s failing bank Monte Paschi di Siena once again highlighted. Even initiatives like the Juncker investment plan for Europe, aiming to mobilize investment of at least €315 billion in three years, falls prey to the piecemeal approach. The plan is slick, smart and woefully inadequate for an economic bloc that urgently needs a bold strategy to come to terms with its vast internal disparities – Germany just posted another record trade surplus of over 8% of GDP – and bring down unemployment (an average of 10.1% for the Eurozone conceals rates ranging from 23.3% and 19.9% for Greece and Spain to 4.1% for Germany and 4.2% for Czechia).

Dreaming of Europe

All this maneuvering seems distant from the everyday lives of Europeans.  In fact, it has a very tangible impact.

“I always saw my future in London, in the EU,” says Felix. “This dream has been shattered overnight.” The continent’s young are the first to realize that freedom, opportunities and peace are not a given – and that they have to get out and convince people of their vision of Europe. “Europe should be a global leader in liberal, democratic and secular values, marked by tolerance and respect towards the diversity of its citizens,” says Peter Berry, 25, a British expat and teacher living in Vienna.

Many dream of an open and united, but also more equal and just Europe. “The EU should again focus on a social market economy, with new innovative traits like an unconditional basic income, to fight rising inequality,” says Bob, 26, a student from Luxembourg, moving from Vienna to Lisbon. “There is not enough care for those coming and too little effort to prevent the causes of this emergency,” insists Fiorella, 26, an Italian studying in Göttingen and Berlin.

Most crucially, the young increasingly look beyond their own national borders and see Europe, for all its shortcomings, as the natural reference point for their hopes, criticism and activities. “I’ve traveled across Europe and have friends all over the continent. I consider myself to be a citizen of Europe and part of a shared community,” says Ceris, 25, from Scotland.

All this is borne out by Eurostat surveys, which consistently show that more than two thirds of young Europeans aged 16 to 30 hold positive views of the European project, with a mere 14% negative, and seven in ten strongly supporting their country’s membership in the EU.

“Europe means home and the historical and cultural center of the world,” affirms Vítek, a 30-year-old Czech
resident of Vienna. Ultimately, it is this feeling of belonging that may prove key to Europe’s future. James Baldwin, the great African-American expat writer and sharp observer of the intricacies of human identity, once wrote:

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” If so, it is up to the Continent’s young to turn their home into what they want it to be.

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Born 1991, studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as a free journalist in Vienna and finishing his Master's degree in Global History. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history.Photo: Visual Hub