David Cameron has said he is “battling for Britain” at the EU summit, currently ongoing in Brussels. But ahead of his negotiations for an EU referendum, has the Prime Minister heard the concerns of his young electorate?
It’s no secret: young people want to remain in the EU. At least, that was the conclusion from a debate on the EU referendum held in Leeds last week, where 298 students out of an audience of 300 voted to stay in the union.
The debate, hosted by The I paper, demonstrated that young people feel a firm affiliation with their European peers, at a time when the Brexit camp has started to win supporters.
Should we be surprised? Young people today have found themselves part of a jet-set generation. This is a group of people who have never experienced the worries of visas to live, work and travel across a common European zone and it has shaped how they see their place in the world. Free movement is an inherent part of their ethos.
The EU debate leaves young people with many questions about their own futures, which few have answered thus far.
Megan Dunn, President of the NUS and a member of the board for the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, has previously said young adults today interpret the EU referendum, and the threat of Brexit, as politicians taking a step back into the past: “Students in Britain do not fear today’s modern, diverse world. We fear isolation, not internationalism.
“Whilst we recognise the world is a complex place, the answer is to campaign for change together, not quit and walk away. We want to break down barriers, not seek them out or rebuild false and pernicious divides.”
However, Jordan Ryan from the Leave.EU campaign cautioned young voters that it is the established politicians, a group which young people have lost faith in, who are the ones backing the pro-EU campaign.
He told HuffPost UK: “The establishment is firmly for staying in the EU. When most politicians along with the major banks all come out in favour of staying in, you have to wonder why?
“These are the same people that were pushing the same scare stories of doom and gloom if we didn't join the Euro. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”
But what does this mean for young people? Regardless of other factors, leaving the EU would mean threatening young people’s abilities to study, live or work in the EU zone – no wonder they have become so vociferous in wanting to stay in.
Living abroad can have a huge impact on young people’s lives as they transition into adulthood, shaping their world views. Many students come to discover this through participation in the Erasmus scheme, founded in 1987, which has had enormous success in sending UK students to mainland Europe and vice versa.
Last year, more than 15,000 students from the UK studied abroad, and more than 27,000 from other participating countries came to spend time learning here in the UK. Although, as Ryan from the Leave.EU campaign points out, Erasmus has been widening its participation to include countries outside the EU. However renegotiating participation in the scheme might be complicated, and associated bursaries and grants for UK universities may no longer be guaranteed.
Consider how in February 2014 Swiss voters accepted a referendum limiting the freedom of movement of foreign citizens to Switzerland. Switzerland has never been a fully integrated member of the EU community; however, this decision heavily impacted upon EU-Swiss relations. Bilateral agreements fell and in turn, the EU excluded the Swiss from negotiations concerning important participation in the EU scientific agenda, and invoked a temporary exclusion of Swiss students from the Erasmus programme and European Research Council grants.
It is exactly this scenario that young students might be keen to avoid, especially considering rising education costs in the UK.
University fees have turned increasing numbers of British undergraduates to look elsewhere in Europe for cheaper tuition. Recent Erasmus statistics show nearly 15,600 UK students spent up to a year in another European country during the 2013-14 academic year, up 115% since 2007.
With the prospect of spending more than £50,000 in three years in the UK, enrolling in other European institutions offers a cheaper alternative.
The majority of courses at universities in Austria, Finland and Sweden are free. To study in Belgium, you might pay €840 annually; in Portugal, the figure is 1250 euro each year; in the Netherlands, expect to pay €1,950. TransferWise recently published a survey crowning Berlin the number one place to be a UK student when studying in Europe, thanks to a combination of low fees and cheaper accommodation.
Easy access to this cheaper accommodation and living costs is something young generations wouldn't want to lose from an EU walkaway. Young people would be forgiven for thinking that the government is doing little to assist tackling a nationwide housing crisis, with recent reports suggesting that a first time mortgage now needs a £41,000 salary outside of London, and predicts that the average age of a mortgage borrower is now 37. This leaves a generational gap, where young people are trying to negotiate saving enough money to rent, and not staying in their childhood bedrooms for the best part of a decade after leaving university.
With the exception of some Nordic neighbours and the Swiss, the UK is the most expensive part of the EU in which to live according to a cost of living index by Numbeo.
Their statistics highlighted in particular the high rent prices in London, which were ranked the most expensive across the whole of the EU. These extortionate prices recently stressed in a tube map which showed average rent prices around the capital.
For young people, with little disposable income or savings, the financial burden of becoming independent in the UK can be excessive when compared with other parts of the EU community. Berlin, amongst the first European cities to impose a cap on rent last year, is approximately 47% cheaper to live in than London. Barcelona offers a similar difference in price; Budapest would cost 67% less.
Staying in the EU means choosing another city in which to live would remain a simple process. If Britain were to leave, not only would this potenitally restrict ease of movement, but limit young people’s job opportunities. There is no denying young adults have grown up during a turbulent period for global economics, and are now facing high costs of living in their own country. Throughout the recession, youth unemployment was one of the hardest hit areas, with school leavers and university graduates alike struggling to find employment in their fields of interest or experience.
Whilst there have been improvements on unemployment here in the UK recently, several EU countries have posted unemployment figures far below those in the UK throughout the recession, including Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Unemployment ratios in the likes of Belgium, Hungary and the Netherlands are also considerably better than those for the UK.
Reflecting on these figures, Dunn suggested EU unity presents greater opportunities for collaboration and employment.
“Current and future generations have greater opportunities when we are connected to countries we share experiences and resources with," she said in a previous statement.
However, others have warned that these unemployment rates vary significantly between countries throughout the EU. Ryan described the Euro-market economy as shrinking, and moving away from a global stage.
“The EU is a failed project,” he told HuffPost UK. “It hasn't delivered the growth or prosperity that it promised. The EU's economy is shrinking. Their own website states that in the next decade, 90% of world demand will be outside of the EU. Whether we like it or not, we have to prepare for this inevitable shift.
“The EU doesn't seem to want to compete on the global stage, its failed policies have led to austerity and millions of job losses across the continent.”
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