LISBON, PORTUGAL; AND PARIS—When the European community was under construction in the 1950s, young people played a crucial, unifying role. They protested along the Franco-German border to demand the frontier’s demise, and in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to push for faster integration among member countries.
“Youth as a symbol or as a reference were essential for the idea of a united Europe,” says Christina Norwig, the German author of “The First European Generation.”
But today, as the EU faces its greatest test of legitimacy since its founding, young people have been largely absent from the fight.
Polls show young people as among the most convinced Europeans. But suffering under high unemployment, angered by bureaucracy and business interests in Brussels, and complacent about the linear progression of the project, they have not risen up in defense of it. Yet many see them as key in this high-stakes era, and hope the political shocks of 2016 may have awakened a new sense of urgency.
It won’t compare to that of the 1950s, when young people had directly experienced war, says Ms. Norwig, whose book traces the US-backed European Youth Campaign of the ’50s.
“But if all pro-Europeans in all the countries would stand up against those fellow citizens who adhere to nationalism, that would have the potential to revive the European idea,” she says. “It will not happen naturally. We need some kind of initiative. We need some kind of campaign again.”