Europe Day should be a day of celebration. Today it is an affirmation of resolve.
Today is Europe Day and 100 young people from Ireland and Ukraine will be marking the event at Eurofound, in peaceful south Dublin. Europe Day has traditionally been a celebration of peace and unity in Europe but, unfortunately, it must be marked differently this year.
Europe Day 2022 must rather reaffirm the values of Europe: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights. These values are being tested daily and must be rigorously defended for the future of Europe and our young people.
Before the war in Ukraine, and the crisis it has provoked, the European Union was just beginning to overcome its biggest ever test, the Covid-19 pandemic, and was moving to stabilise itself after this most deadly and far-reaching challenge. Eurofound’s new Living and Working in Europe yearbook highlights how the cycle of tightening and loosening restrictions which persisted for two years took its toll, with fatigue and anxiety infusing populations across Europe.
The yearbook focuses on the findings of Eurofound’s ‘Living, working and Covid-19’ online-survey series, which in April 2021 recorded a new low in mental wellbeing among Europeans, felt most acutely among young people and those who had lost their jobs. Hardship intensified during the pandemic among vulnerable groups, who found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
Lives on hold
It took unprecedented action by EU member states, backed by funding from the SURE programme to sustain employment, to limit the most damaging economic impacts of the pandemic and steer the union away from the brink. Businesses survived, mass unemployment was averted and disadvantaged households protected against deepening poverty and homelessness. Active EU involvement made a clear difference, compared with the previous crisis of 2008-12. While some lives were tragically ended, others were put on hold as Europe focused on weathering the storm.
Europe’s young people were held back, as they waited for normal life to resume so that they could make a better future. Covid-19 ended a six-year trend of falling youth unemployment, with young people more likely to find themselves unemployed and to report poor mental health than the rest of the population. Eurofound identified youth mental health as a crisis in its own regard: during the pandemic the demand for mental-health services for young people soared.
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This year therefore began with a tangible, if tentative, sigh of relief, as restrictions were eased across several member states and people began to return to the workplace and education and to reconnect with their communities. The risk of exacerbated inequality still however loomed, as populations were affected differently by the pandemic, and Eurofound continued to investigate its impacts on convergence across the EU.
This occurred concurrently with the Conference on the Future of Europe, which put European citizens in the driving seat on deciding where Europe’s priorities should be. The outcomes include important contributions on reducing inequalities, fighting social exclusion and tackling poverty, while increasing citizens’ participation and youth involvement in democracy at the European level. The conference made 49 proposals, on nine themes, and included more than 300 measures on how to achieve them.
Europe’s prioritisation of citizens’ rights, aspirations and perspectives could not be more in contrast to the callous disregard for human life and dignity that is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war is having a devastating effect on the Ukrainian people and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Economic sanctions have led to an additional surge in the prices of energy and food and the disruption of many established supply-chain links.
We can foresee further deterioration of the refugee crisis, which has already brought more than five million people to the EU from Ukraine and increased emigration from Russia. Deeper deficits in the markets for oil and gas, as well as cereals and other commodities, are also expected.
For many years, we believed that wars of invasion for domination of foreign territories were part of Europe’s past. Now we are witnessing the worst possible man-made disaster unfolding at the border of the EU. Can we be confident any longer that we shall transfer the baton of a peaceful and prosperous Europe to the next generation? This war demonstrates that peace, democracy, freedom and progress are not a given—we need constantly to grow and protect them.
The impact is inevitably reaching beyond Ukraine. Inflation is likely to increase further throughout the year, driven by energy and food prices as well as ruptures in supply chains. Such developments have the potential deeply to affect the living conditions of many European citizens. Food shortages might create additional humanitarian demands and migration pressures from Africa and other regions. The supply-chain problems related to Russia and Ukraine are likely to persist and forecasts for economic growth in the world have already been revised downwards.
These expected developments will most probably have a substantial effect on the world of work, quality of life and social cohesion in the EU in the years to come. Immediately, they are likely disproportionately to hit vulnerable groups already reeling from the pandemic. Changing geopolitical relations may catalyse Europe’s sustainable-energy transition, but in an abrupt and unplanned manner which could potentially exacerbate fuel poverty and create division around Europe’s green and digital objectives.
None of us wanted a transition from one crisis to another but this is not of our choosing, and it is certainly not of the choosing of the people of Ukraine—least of all its young people. The EU may be trying to recover economically and socially from the pandemic, one of the greatest threats in living memory, but it cannot ignore what is going on at its frontier nor shirk its responsibility to the millions who flood across its borders to flee the conflict.
Eurofound, for its part, is adapting. We shall expand our work programme to respond to issues emerging from the war and provide important and timely analysis to policy-makers. We shall also continue to prioritise young people in our work—not only as part of the European Year of Youth but also in line with our own research documenting how young people have been disproportionately affected by the consecutive crises of recent years.
Generations of European citizens were able to overcome narrow interests and divisions, to forsake conflicts and wars and build a democratic and free society. Now we all have the responsibility to stand firm and face current challenges.
The young people gathering at Eurofound today are united by common values and a desire for a better future. It is Europe’s duty to protect them and to act in their interests. Europe is all of us—it is built on the rights of European citizens. Each and every one of us has the responsibility to defend our values and to ensure a free, peaceful and prosperous Europe for the new generation.