Our future lies within Europe, not outside of it

A young fan in the stands during the Guinness Six Nations match at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh

A young fan in the stands during the Guinness Six Nations match at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh holds up a European flag. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA. - Credit: PA

Former Liberal Democrat MEP LUISA PORRITT writes that young people's determination for a shared European future makes Brexit unsustainable.

Luisa Porritt in the European Parliament chamber. Picture: Harry Taylor/Archant.

Luisa Porritt in the European Parliament chamber. Picture: Harry Taylor/Archant. - Credit: Archant

For those living in one of the European Union's 27 member states, today is a celebration. It marks 70 years since the Schuman Declaration, which laid the foundations for the world's most successful peace project – the European Union. Having spent yesterday reflecting on the sacrifices of a generation who delivered us that peace, today pro-European Brits will ponder the consequences of turning our backs on our neighbours during another international crisis.

This bitter pill is hardest to swallow for Britain's young people. Demographic breakdowns of the 2019 general election result show young Brits have an unwavering commitment to a shared European future. YouGov estimates around three-quarters of those aged between 18 and 39 voted for parties that wanted a second referendum on our EU membership in December, three and a half years after the first.

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Young people with EU flags painted on their faces were visible at every single 'People's Vote' march. I should know, I was one of them. This appetite to reverse Brexit was noticed by Guy Verhofstadt, former chair of the European Parliament's Brexit Steering Committee. When we were colleagues together in the European Parliament, he often fondly described Britain as having the strongest pro-European movement in the EU - years after our country had voted to leave it.

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My election as an MEP in May last year, alongside 15 other Liberal Democrats on a clear 'Stop Brexit' message, marked the peak moment of optimism that Britain could change course. Young people, along with millions of other pro-European Brits, saw their votes ruthlessly divided and discounted by an antiquated first-past-the-post system in the general election that ultimately determined Brexit seven months later. We did not lose because people no longer cared; we lost because our parliamentary democracy is broken and unrepresentative.

That loss brought with it lost opportunities for young Brits. Thanks to our EU membership, they could live, love, work, travel and study freely in 27 other European countries. During my twenties, I was able to study for a Master's degree in Paris, an experience which gave me a new career path, another language, and friends for life. Now because of borders being closed in response to Covid-19 and the need to stay at home, it is doubtful young Brits will be able to enjoy our remaining seven months of free movement.

It was and still is easy to fall into the trap of describing the cost of leaving the EU in esoteric terms of trade. But the real tragedy is the way Brexit will strip young people of a better future. Being able to travel freely across Europe and engage with our neighbours has brought us greater understanding and helped preserve the peace that was won 75 years ago. Having EU institutions to defend liberal values brings us the hope they will act when national governments such as Hungary, Poland and Slovenia seek to oppress their own people and spread hateful ideologies beyond their own borders. They are a check on nationalism and populism, something we in Britain could benefit from.

Greater economic cooperation between European countries has not only upheld peace and liberty but also delivered prosperity, something France's then foreign minister Robert Schuman understood in 1950. Having joined the European Economic Community known as 'the sick man of Europe' in 1973, Britain went on to enjoy relative prosperity, surpassing other major European economies in gross domestic product per person. Now with the Bank of England forecasting the economic devastation caused by Covid-19 will trigger the worst recession in more than three centuries, it is a betrayal of future generations to deprive them of a project that would give us a wider range of tools to tackle both the health and economic consequences of this crisis, and others yet to come.

The good news is Brexit is unsustainable because young people never wanted it. When I spoke in the European Parliament for the last time in January to explain my reasons for voting against the Withdrawal Agreement, I highlighted the hopes and desires of young Brits who see themselves as Europeans. While this year Europe Day may be tinged with sadness for British pro-Europeans, the determination of young people will see us one day re-join the EU.

Luisa Porritt is the former deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament and was the party's youngest ever MEP.

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