By Vicky Elliott
A group of 13 of us London Young Greens convened in Strasbourg last weekend to attend the European Youth Event, including one who joined us from their Erasmus in Düsseldorf and another already in situ working for the European Court of Human Rights. This biannual forum sees thousands of young people from across Europe come together in discussion and debate, with ideas exchanged, decision-makers questioned and a surprisingly wide array of vegan food enjoyed.
And the question of the Brexit was certainly a prominent topic throughout the weekend. At a debate entitled “You say goodbye… I say hello,” we heard two opinions from each side and – more interestingly – dozens more from the young Europeans in the audience. The speakers themselves followed what is a fairly well-trodden path at this point, from the socialist arguing to leave because of the undemocratic nature of the institutions, to the pragmatist arguing to stay because of the economy. The panel’s four white men (to one woman of colour) certainly reflects the extremely man-dominated state of this debate in the British media too.
However, when the points from the floor started, there was true passion from a variety of young voices – many of them not British, but Finnish, Polish and French, all equally invested in the question. The conversation was deeper and more respectful than any to be heard in the media at home, without the unerring focus on migration, and no false, scaremongering statistics on either side – although bizarrely one Belgian eurosceptic who was enamoured with David Cameron’s Big Society!
I hadn’t realised that many young Europeans are concerned about what a Brexit would mean for the power of the far-right forces in their communities – since undoubtedly it will strengthen xenophobia and euroscepticism across Europe, just as in Britain the vote to leave legitimises the far-right of the Tories and UKIP.
For a Green, much of this debate has been alienating, given the overarching themes of nationalism and economic growth on both sides. It’s either: stay in so we can influence Europe and mould it to suit us, or leave so we can reject the rules of those foreign bureaucrats and close our borders. To have the conversation with Europeans, both in seminars and socially around the event, was refreshing and illuminating.
It wasn’t all about the Brexit, but we could only go to a small handful of events out of so many amazing options. The documentary Cowspiracy was screened and a number of events were held on animal rights and what Europe has done for them. As Caroline Lucas wrote in the Guardian, the EU has been at the forefront of fighting cosmetics cruelty and improving conditions for farmed animals.
A discussion about mental health stigma was well-attended. This is an area where there is a clear generational divide in understanding, as young people across the continent are at the forefront of fighting for change. We heard from Julie Ward, a Labour MEP. She talked convincingly about the intersections of mental health with austerity and sexism, reminding us that mental health is a deeply political issue and its stigma and taboo are systemic in a patriarchal society and an enforced climate of austerity.
Conflicting views were exchanged during the closing event in the plenary chamber, where the Front National Jeunesse were out in force. Debate raged on for over an hour, varying from questions about reparations for European colonial atrocities to Europe’s duty to welcome refugees. A vote on the question “Does the EU have a duty to welcome migrants?” saw 619 yes votes and 184 no votes, to claps and boos more reminiscent of PMQs than the altogether more sophisticated European Parliament.
In the end, my highlight was a magnificent talk in the packed plenary chamber from Samantha Cristoforetti, the Italian ESA astronaut who spent 200 days on the International Space Station last year and who was the first person to brew an espresso in space! Samantha told us all about everyday life on the ISS, including their celebrations of each birthday and various national holidays with Canadians, Americans, Russians and Europeans working together. She also mentioned that she is learning Chinese through the ESA now that she is back on Earth, so that there might be better cooperation and collaboration with the Chinese Space Agency.
It is always striking – despite what the stabbing of American flags into the moon suggests – how profoundly supranational astronauts become when they’ve seen our planet in panorama, its borders invisible.
It was an incredibly positive, exciting and enriching weekend, that both reinforced my Green-ness and challenged me intellectually. I came home glad that I got involved with the Party and deeply satisfied to be part of the international Green movement. Despite being a member for longer, it’s only been nine months since I went to my first London Young Greens meeting and the opportunity to attend events like this and make so many new friends – both the like-minded and not so like-minded! – has been fantastic.
So a huge thank you to Jean Lambert for funding our attendance, and to our co-chair Joseph for organising it all.
Hopefully we’ll see you next time, Strasbourg!