A Crossing of Two Hands? The European Youth and The EU Bubble

Liz Morán

By Paulina Ríos Maya and Liz Morán


The European Union (EU) represents one of the most ambitious political and economic projects of modern history, uniting a diverse array of nations under a common framework aimed at ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity.

The “EU Bubble,” a term often used to describe the concentrated hub of policymakers, institutions, and lobbyists based primarily in Brussels, succeeds at attracting a flock of youth every year to the heart of Europe. The expertise concentrated in the Bubble enables it to address complex transnational challenges, promote economic integration, and ensure the smooth functioning of the single market. This centralised approach is crucial for coordinating efforts across member states, maintaining the stability and coherence of the Union, and advancing the overarching goals of the EU.

This special issue explores the dynamic and sometimes fraught relationship between the European youth and the EU Bubble, examining how this relationship shapes the future of the European project.

The EU Bubble: An Overview

The EU Bubble refers to the densely populated area in Brussels where the EU’s key institutions, including the European Commission, European Parliament, and Council of the European Union are located. It is characterised by a high concentration of policymakers, diplomats, lobbyists, NGOs, and EU-oriented media outlets. The term also reflects the insular nature of this community, where professionals are often deeply immersed in the intricacies of EU affairs.

In addition to the official institutions, the EU Bubble is also home to numerous additional organisations that influence and support the policy-making process. These include think tanks, consultancies, law firms, and various interest groups. The presence of these entities creates a dynamic ecosystem where information exchange, negotiation, and advocacy are constant. This enclave, however, is not only a geographical entity but also a metaphorical space where European politics, policymaking, and administration converge, and where decisions affecting over 500 million people are debated and made. Overall, it is fair to say that the so-called “EU-Bubble” is a microcosm of European governance, reflecting both the complexity and the collaborative spirit of the EU.

TNGO Asks: Is there such a thing as the “EU Bubble”? What characterises it?

Anonymous communications offer: Absolutely yes. The EU Bubble is extremely obvious, even though from the member states we do not realise the magnitude. It is not only in Brussels but also in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. Makes sense, though, as it is where the EU institutions are.

In addition to the geographical concentration, there is also the multiculturality: we are in the capital of Belgium, and I hear more English and Italian in the streets than French or Dutch. People are living and working in the EU Bubble and don’t even speak French, which makes it difficult to adapt and interact with the Brussels locals (who are an endangered species).

If you work for the EU institutions (a bubble within the bubble), especially the European Parliament (the bubble within the bubble within the bubble, the inception bubble) and you manage your time well, you can jump from policy event to policy event and not have to buy breakfast, lunch or dinner for weeks.

Eduvigis Sardà: There is inevitably a European bubble, given how all relations are in the working environment. Intensive days, workshops, and other events leave everyone involved in the EU without much time to explore and get to know anything out of it. It is characterised by a kind of social isolation that usually creates difficulties for EU Bubble natives to connect to the dilemmas and problems experienced daily by EU citizens. There is a disconnect between the topics popular in the Bubble and the ones that actually cause concern among citizens.

Perceptions of the EU Bubble

The perception of the EU Bubble is double-edged. On one hand, it is seen as an efficient hub for managing the complex affairs of a diverse Union of 27 Member States. On the other hand, it can be attached to negative connotations due to its perceived detachment from ordinary citizens.

Negative PerceptionsPositive Perceptions
Elitism and Insularity
The EU Bubble is often seen as a domain of elites, disconnected from the everyday realities of EU citizens. This perception is fuelled by the concentration of power within a small geographic area, leading to accusations that EU decision-makers are out of touch with the diverse needs and aspirations of people across the continent. This can foster a sense of exclusion and alienation among ordinary citizens, particularly those from peripheral or less affluent regions.
Efficiency and Expertise
Centralising EU institutions in Brussels allows for a concentration of expertise and resources, facilitating efficient decision-making and coordination. This proximity enables quick and coordinated responses to complex, transnational challenges such as Covid-19  leveraging the knowledge and skills of a diverse range of policymakers, experts, and stakeholders. 
Opacity and Bureaucracy
The complex bureaucratic processes and the intricate institutional structure of the EU can make it seem opaque and inaccessible. The specialised jargon and the technical nature of many EU deliberations contribute to a perception that the EU is overly bureaucratic and impenetrable to the average citizen. This can undermine trust and lead to scepticism about the transparency and accountability of EU institutions. 
Facilitating Integration and Cohesion
The EU Bubble serves as a crucial nexus for fostering European integration and cohesion. By bringing together representatives from all member states, it provides a forum for dialogue, negotiation, and collaboration. This helps to reconcile diverse interests and build consensus on common policies, strengthening the unity and solidarity of the EU. 
Media Representation
Media coverage often emphasises crises, conflicts, and bureaucratic inefficiencies within the EU Bubble, reinforcing negative perceptions. The focus on disagreements and scandals can overshadow the everyday work and successes of the EU, creating a skewed public perception that highlights failures over achievements. 
Accessibility to Stakeholders
For NGOs, businesses, and interest groups, the concentration of EU institutions in Brussels provides a single, accessible location for advocacy and engagement. This facilitates direct communication and lobbying efforts, allowing stakeholders to influence policy and contribute to the decision-making process. The presence of numerous civil society organisations and advocacy groups within the EU Bubble also ensures that a wide range of voices and perspectives are represented. 

TNGO asks: Is there such a thing as the “EU Bubble”? What characterises it?

Alessandra Cardaci: Yes, the so-called “EU Bubble” exists and it refers to the complex network of mostly Brussels-based policymakers, lobbyists from the NGO and private sectors, journalists, and experts/researchers who are deeply engaged in EU affairs. The perception around this bubble is that is quite self-referential and detached from the broader public, which is often testified by the jargon and acronym-heavy discussions, and the high level of expertise and fine networking skills required to be part of it. Personally, I don’t like to refer to it as “EU Bubble” as this term perpetuates a negative connotation around EU affairs and policymaking projecting an image of the EU that goes against its own popular motto “united in diversity” and the many great achievements we have collected as a Union.

Anna Hackett: I think it is fair to say that an EU Bubble does exist. In the simplest of terms, it is characterised by those who have a pulse on what is going on within the EU institutions and are either working directly for one of the institutions or are employed in a position for which the work of the institutions is relevant.

This ranges from what one could call top-level EU officials, to lobbyists, assistants, contract agents, workers of EU-adjacent NGOs and think tanks, and trainees. Just like in other ‘industries’, one characteristic of the bubble is an understanding of EU terminology beyond the names and terms that most of the general public would know. Geographically, the European Quarter in Brussels is the base of the bubble but also very much included are those based in the smaller ‘EU air bubbles’ found in Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and the various Parliament Liaison, Commission Representation, and European Movement offices across and outside of the EU.

Official visit of Alexander Van Der Bellen – President of Austria to the European Parliament © European Union 2017

Whose Bubble?

Although pursuing a career in Brussels seems a popular option among the European youth, breaking through the EU Bubble job market remains quite challenging for young professionals. Indeed, often, interns are underpaid and are caught in a cycle of successive internships without substantial career advancement.

From our expert interviews, we gathered information highlighting the challenges young professionals face in breaking through the EU Bubble, often perceived as an isolationist and elitist enclave, a perception particularly daunting for newcomers who aspire to make their mark within this highly specialised and insular community.

TNGO asks: Have you found any difficulties in accessing the job market in Brussels?

As Nathan Canas, energy and environment reporter trainee at Euractiv, explained in conversation with TNGO, “after two internships in France, I was able to find an internship in Brussels, which was a huge breakthrough to enter the Brussels job market because even though I had two internships under my belt, I did not have experience in EU affairs aside from my master’s degree in European policy. I arrived in Brussels at the end of August and was only able to find an internship by October after around 50 applications, it was a really long and stressful process. People now have more than one master and the job market is increasingly competitive. If you do not have your parent’s networks, is almost impossible.” 

An anonymous communications offer interviewed for this article, moved to Brussels to pursue a romantic relationship. As she explains, soon she realised that [out] of love, I can’t eat.” She recalled experiencing “some difficulties finding a job in sexy topics but when I gave up on that, I found interesting internships in not-so-sexy topics. Then you can switch topics once you have experience. As far as I know, it is easier to enter consultancies, because they have much more turnover.”

For Eduvigis Sardà, former trainee at Culture Action Europe, the job market in Brussels is a very competitive market in which more than half of job opportunities are internships, so you do not really get to work in the system until you are a certain age. It is very difficult to meet these opportunities without the relevant economic basis.”

© Leon Neal/Getty Images

Despite numerous initiatives aimed at involving the youth in EU affairs, the reality for many young professionals who aim to break through their careers in the Bubble sometimes is rather bleak. Internships, frequently seen as the primary entry point into EU institutions and related organisations, are often low-paid. This financial strain can be a significant barrier, particularly for those who do not have additional means of support.

Often, however, the difficulty lies not only in breaking through but also in securing job stability. In this sense, another critical issue the youth faces is the revolving door of internships, with many young professionals moving from one short-term position to another with little opportunity for stable, long-term employment. This constant churn can be demoralising and exhausting, as it often involves continuous job searching, application processes, and the uncertainty of securing the next role. Indeed, the competitive nature of these internships means that only a few manage to secure positions that lead to permanent roles. As selection processes are often rigorous due to the extensive pool of young and often overqualified graduates, it is not uncommon that candidates with prior experience or connections within the Bubble are favoured, further perpetuating the cycle of exclusivity and making it difficult for new entrants to break through.

In this sense, a study conducted in Brussels by Anna Simola found the job market in this city was a highly competitive one where young workers faced considerable challenges. Simola interviewed 27 university-educated young Europeans (ages 21 to 34) from Italy, Spain, Finland, and Denmark who had moved to Brussels to work but had subsequently experienced unemployment at some point during their stay. In her study, Simola found that “[f]or the vast majority of them, a wish to pursue an international or EU career was an important motivating factor to move to Brussels along with other factors such as a lack of job opportunities corresponding to their qualifications and poor working conditions in their countries of origin. While living in Brussels, they had all been engaged in different kinds of precarious work arrangements, such as a series of short-term contracts and internships, false self-employment, temporary agency work, casual work, and informal work. […] None of the participants were ‘non-active’ in the sense that, even when not employed, they were all engaged in paid or unpaid internships and other forms of unremunerated work and training, while actively, often feverishly, searching for paid employment.” In one instance, she uses the example of “Carlos”, who had left his job in Spain and moved to Brussels because his dream was to work in European affairs. However, as he urgently needed access to healthcare, he accepted work as a school assistant to obtain a registration certificate.

The precarity, however, might also haunt those who manage to enter the ranks of the EU’s institutions. As Gregorio Sorgi, Federica Di Sario, and Lucia Mackenzie write for Politico, “[t]he first step into EU employment consists of a time-bound contract —known as an intérimaire in EU jargon— that the employer can easily bring to an end.” A eurocrat interviewed for the piece, described the path as “soul-crushing,” explaining officials are employed in a precarious position where their contract is extended monthly, or even weekly. Sorgi, Di Sario, and Mazkenzie continue: “[e]ven the ones who do stick around tend to be awarded unstable jobs. Joining the ranks of the ever-expanding contract agent staff, a transitory role that counts 8,000 officials […] is considered the first step to becoming a Eurocrat. But even that expires after six years, meaning officials would then either have to leave the Commission or start from scratch in another agency if they don’t pass the “concours” by that time. And it often means the exit door for many young people who’ve lost hope of winning a more permanent post.”

Needless to say, young professionals entering the EU Bubble also encounter a steep learning curve as the environment is saturated with complex EU policies and legislation. The specialised knowledge and jargon prevalent in this community can be intimidating, making it difficult for those new to the field to engage confidently and meaningfully. 

Worth mentioning, is that social dynamics within the EU Bubble further exacerbate these challenges. The concentration of international employees and expatriates fosters a community where professional and social interactions are closely intertwined. “All relations revolve around the working environment. Intensive days, workshops and other events leave everyone involved in the EU without much time to explore and get to know out of it,” explains Sardà, shedding light on an idea that once appeared in a Politico article: “[a]s the home of the EU institutions and a lot of lobbyists, Brussels’ social life revolves around one main activity: networking. This applies to both professional life and personal life —which can, at times, overlap (it’s a small world).”

For young professionals, gaining access to these networks can be particularly challenging, as many key connections and opportunities are facilitated through established relationships and exclusive social circles. This can create a sense of elitism, where young newcomers struggle to find their footing and make the necessary connections to advance their careers.

Where Is the Youth?

For now, it is clear that the youth is attracted to the EU Bubble, but is the sentiment unidirectional? “Brussels is no city for young officials. The European Quarter is filled with gray-haired Brussels lifers who know the corridors of powers like the backs of their (wrinkled) hands,” wrote Sorgi, Di Sario, and Mazkenzie. For the past 12 years, the proportion of people under 40 working in the European Commission’s administrator employee class has shrunk drastically while the share of people over 50 has increased, they explained. The Bubble’s increasing age was already highlighted in a piece by the same media outlet in 2021. After analysing a unique dataset on the educational background of more than 600 EU bubblers and MEPs, Politico had already revealed then that the average senior EU official is a 57-year-old man with at least two degrees, one of them in law. Moreover, the media outlet concluded that to make it in the EU institutions, you need at least one degree —“preferably two or three, with none of the senior officials skipping university. In fact, the analysis showed that EU officials with a bachelor’s degree only are the minority, as most hold at least a master’s —and the share with PhDs is higher in the European Commission than in the other large institutions.

MEPs discussing their expectations for the special EU summit on migration and asylum policy © European Union 2023

Overall, as aspiring Eurocrats put it, “Eurocrats are the lifeblood of the EU institutions, drafting key reforms on issues such as climate change and digital regulation that overwhelmingly affect younger generations across member countries. It is not right for these choices to fall down only to aging staffers with no skin in the game.” While the youth seem to be nowhere to be found in the EU institutions’ corridors, can we at least say that the voices of young people are heard and considered in the EU’s institutional processes that create the policies affecting their future? 

I think in recent years we have seen a greater effort made by the EU institutions to try and ensure that young people’s voices are being heard and considered. This is primarily done through providing young people with platforms to have their opinions heard,” argues Anna Hackett, former Schuman Trainee at the Parliament’s liaison office in Dublin, while pointing at examples such as the Parliament’s biannual European Youth Event (EYE) and the EU Youth Dialogue. Moreover, Hackett, pointed to proposed and adopted legislation such as European climate law,  measures adopted to reduce packaging waste, air pollution and methane emissions, the EU directive combating violence against women and domestic violence, and MEPs adopting measures to improve the working conditions of platform workers and allowing people with disabilities equal access to preferential conditions which are all in sync with the youth’s concerns. In this sense, “you could argue that the issues most pertinent to young people are being considered and debated at institutional level,” Hackett continues, while recognising that young people could certainly be given more of a meaningful voice in the institutional process.

Alessandra Cardaci, head of Head of Programming and Operations at Debating Europe, offers a similar view to that of Hackett as she emphasises the EU initiatives and projects that aim to increase young people’s representation in the EU’s institutional processes: From recruiting young staff and retaining talent via programmes within the EU institutions themselves (e.g. the Junior Professionals Programme of the European Commission) to including quotas for young people in pan-European deliberative processes (e.g. the Conference on the Future of Europe), and lowering the voting age to 16 years old for the EU elections in some countries for the first time in 2024. However, Cardaci acknowledges that “despite these are all valuable initiatives, the problem is often the lack of awareness around them as well as their perceived limited impact.” She recounts that according to a recent Debating Europe’s study, “2024 Voices – Citizens Speak Up!”, young people do not see the value of going to vote as they do not feel represented by politicians. “Indeed, especially in some countries, it is still quite rare to see young political leaders the youth can identify with. This is why some of the citizens participating in the project suggested for example to include youth quotas in Parliaments, like we sometimes do for gender,” says Cardaci.

Eduvigis Sardà articulates a more critical view, while she recognised that the EU gives priority to the youth in its projects and funds, she expressed that “there is still a need to create spaces for young workers (not grant holders) to be able to participate actively and representatively in European policies.”

TNGO asks: Do you find the job market or the “EU Bubble” inclusive? If not, how do you think this could be improved?

Alessandra Cardaci: No, unfortunately, I do not find the EU job market particularly inclusive and that is quite evident when you walk around the EU quarter in Brussels. However, there are some positive trends with initiatives to promote gender balance, geographic diversity, and representation of different age groups. 

By broadening recruitment practices, enhancing accessibility, fostering an inclusive workplace culture, implementing policy changes, and strengthening outreach efforts, the “EU Bubble” could become a more inclusive environment —and that would certainly positively impact EU policymaking.

Anna Hackett: I think some efforts have been made to make the job market in the EU bubble more inclusive. For example, the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman, and the Council of the EU all offer Positive Action schemes for trainees with disabilities, with the Parliament also offering similar programmes for contract agents. The Commission’s Blue Book traineeship also states that it is open to all EU citizens, regardless of factors such as age, gender, race, social origin, religion, or disability. Furthermore, the European Personnel Selection Office claims that it strives to offer equal opportunities and access to all candidates regardless of factors like age, race, religion, language, political beliefs, etc. In some applications, you must also declare whether you have a relative employed in one of the institutions, in a measure to help combat nepotism. These are all very promising things to consider when hoping to get your foot in the door of one of the institutions. It has been very refreshing even in my own experience at the Parliament in meeting fellow trainees and assistants of all different backgrounds.  

Of course, I can only speak of my own experiences, and I would imagine that for others the reality can sadly be very different. I imagine that the EPSO competitions can create barriers for some candidates, such as those who, for example, cannot afford to take time off work or childminding to study.  

Anonymous communications offer: I think that if there are some keywords in your CV, you might have an easier time than others to get a first job in the Bubble. Nowadays those are: 

  • Being a European Citizen with a European ID or Passport.
  • English native speaker.
  • College of Europe/SciencesPo 

It is a very elitist recruitment environment. Maybe you can try a consultancy and have your first burnout experience or in a not-super-sexy association where they have more problems recruiting. But if you want a sexy job in a sexy place, unless you have the keywords, know someone and/or do the EU institutions traineeships, you can find yourself in a difficult position.

Sidenote about the EU institutions traineeships: did you know that only if you have a university degree, you can apply to the selection process? And. if you apply, bear in mind that people are applying with 2 masters! This year was the European Year of Skills, promoting professional training to upskill the workforce and to train future generations of workers. Well, prepare for a hypocritical slap from the EU institutions: People with professional training titles are not allowed to apply for their traineeships. 

Of course, when we talk about inclusion in the gender sense, we are more or less covered. The LGTBQ+ collective is not discriminated against. But let’s not talk about skin colour! Inclusive jobs are in “cool topics”, and there are not so many cool topics in the Brussels Bubble.

Eduvigis Sardà: I believe that although a great deal of effort has been made to make the institutions more inclusive, they have many difficulties in boosting the target groups of the proposed measures. It would be important to impose down-up policies that focus more on the establishment and education of a series of values that must live and last in the EU and its workers.

Nathan Canas: It is harder for people coming from rural areas and with no connections to EU Affairs to work in this sector. When I talk with colleagues, very few come from a similar background as mine. For people coming from rural areas or with less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, you have to make double or triple the effort to break through your career in Brussels. Now, while I would not say meritocracy really exists in the EU Bubble, two days ago, a friend of mine, who grew up in a rural area with very scarce resources, called me because he had got a Blue Book Traineeship, so I guess sometimes you can see success stories like this one.

Personally, I think that positive discrimination can have good aspects, but also it might allow employers to hide behind an “inclusive” label without actually making efforts to promote inclusivity. I think perhaps more blind selection processes focused on competencies and skills might be a good option, but even this is a flawed approach.

Outside of the Bubble, How Do the Youth Experience the EU?

© Dave Walsh/Our Fish 2018

No doubt, active citizenship in the EU and trust in its institutions are paramount for the continuation and the strengthening of the EU project. A Pew Research Center report found that younger people’s support for the EU is significantly stronger than the generations that came before them, with younger people (ages 18 to 34) having more favourable views than older counterparts (ages 60 and older) when it comes to the EU in 13 countries. This support is sometimes reflected in participation in pro-European organisations like JEF (Young European Federalists), as Javier Carbonell highlights in a piece for CIDOB, or sometimes through electoral participation: Even though younger voters are usually less likely to vote than older generations, data has shown that in the 2019 European elections the younger generation (under 25) increased their electoral participation by 14% to 42%, while the participation of 25–39-year-olds increased by 12% to 47%. 

Despite a much greater increase in their turnout compared to other generations and somewhat positive views towards the EU, at present, voters under 30 account for just a sixth of the overall European electorate. Still, as Pawel Zerka writes for the European Council on Foreign Affairs the youth is a “strategically important electorate that should not be neglected, or prematurely written off, by pro-European parties.” This is something that political parties are aware of. According to Carbonell, “European parties are striving to reach young voters through social media campaigns or supporting their youth organisations.” However, “as far as representation of candidates is concerned, the results are less impressive: […] currently only 6% of MEPs are under 35.”

For Carbonell, while young people were not a priority for the EU until the last legislative term, the consensus in favour of youth policies by political parties is reflected on an institutional level in campaigns by both the Commission and the Parliament. In this sense, following the 2019 elections, major institutional efforts have been made to reach out to young adults. The year 2022 was declared the European Year of Youth —as part of the Year, the Commission identified more than 130 policy initiatives for young people, many of which were developed in close cooperation with the youth—, the EU Youth Strategy was created, the Youth Guarantee programme was reinforced and on April the European Youth Week 2024 was celebrated with the aim to promote youth engagement, participation, and active citizenship through a series of activities all over Europe. Moreover, the European Commission announced the creation of a Youth Check that looks to include the participation of young people in the design EU policies. 

However, there seems to be quite the split in how the youth experience the EU. A flash Eurobarometer conducted by the European Parliament Youth Survey in 2021 found that 55% of respondents say they do not understand much or anything about the EU, while 42% say they understand a great deal or a fair amount. More worryingly, most respondents felt they did not have much or any say over important decisions, laws, and policies affecting them. This feeling increased the more distant the sphere of governance under consideration was: 53% feel they do not have much or any say over decisions, laws, and policies affecting their local area, rising to 70% for matters affecting the EU as a whole. This report also highlighted that while around three in five (62%) respondents are generally in favour of the EU, 34% of respondents are dissatisfied with the way the EU is working at present while only 28% are satisfied.

TNGO asks: To what extent do you agree that the EU institutions in Brussels are accessible to ordinary citizens?

Alessandra Cardaci: I believe there is a genuine willingness from the EU institutions to become more appealing towards the citizens they represent and reduce its democratic deficit. The Conference on the Future of Europe is a great example of this direction, as the 3 top EU institutions, namely the Commission, Parliament, and Council, have managed to jointly initiate the biggest ever pan-European deliberative process involving citizens from all walks of life in multilingual physical and online gatherings to produce recommendations on the future of Europe. However, as the latest EU election results show in terms of voting preference and low turnout, the reality is that most citizens still perceive the EU as far away and detached from their reality. 

This is also why Debating Europe exists: to meet citizens where they are and offer them accessible, politically neutral and safe opportunities to engage and exchange with peers and make their voice heard. It is then our duty to channel citizens’ perspectives in the EU bubble via the work of the think tank we’re part of, Friends of Europe.

Anna Hackett:  I believe that while the EU institutions are to an extent trying to increase their accessibility to ordinary citizens, many people still feel like the EU bubble is a distant world. No doubt, conscious efforts have been made to ‘open up’ the institutions to the public. For instance, anyone can book free visits to [several institutions]. [Moreover], anyone with internet access can also see for themselves what goes on within. One can watch live web streams of sessions such as the European Parliament committee meetings and plenary debates or the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly debates. Transparency regarding the work of the institutions also manifests in the press releases and statements published by the various press services as well as on numerous official social media channels. One could go on listing all the different ways the institutions try, and be open, from the Eur-Lex platform which allows anyone to read the law-making procedures, legal acts and treaties etc. of the European Union, to the What Europe Does for Me website which details how EU funding has improved European regions and lives. 

Yet despite all this, the EU does feel very far away and confusing to many people. Unless you are actively looking for information and stumble upon some of the aforementioned platforms and websites, it is unlikely you will come across this information by chance. Even with the hard work of Liaison and Representation offices and Europe Direct Centres, many members of the public still do not know or understand the structure, competencies or exact role of the EU and its institutions. In my own experience, whenever it came up that I worked at the European Parliament, oftentimes I was asked what it was like having Ursula von der Leyen as a boss. 

More can definitely be done to increase this general awareness about the institutions. Not even just by said institutions themselves, but perhaps through more cooperation with national and local media and educational institutes.  

Anonymous communications offer: In general, I think yes. What I think though is that citizens and the bubble live in completely different realities and that some decisions are not taken to improve the EU but to follow models that do not take into account the reality of the situations outside of the bubble. There is a lack of awareness of what the EU is doing for the citizens and a lack of participation from the public in European politics. 

Nathan Canas: The processes inside the EU are quite complex, with so many institutions working together to produce a Directive or Regulation. I understand the challenges in coordinating 27 Member States, but the complexity of the EU entails that not many understand it and how it works. Right now, as we are campaigning for EU elections, I can realise this. Moreover, the language surrounding the EU is specific jargon, policy-packed, and you will see the same words repeated all over. There is a gap between citizens and the European Union.

© 2024 Young European Greens

Our respondents 

Having surveyed young Europeans residing in Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands, most of whose age ranged from 18 to 24 and whose occupations ranged from students and interns to employed, on issues extending from the EU’s transparency to whether the institutions tackle the problems affecting the youth, TNGO highlights the following key findings.

50% of respondents agree that the EU offers opportunities for the youth, with freedom of movement and educational opportunities among the benefits most valued by the surveyed.

Only 25% of respondents agreed that the EU effectively addresses the concerns and needs of young people, while 16.7% disagreed.

41.7% of respondents stated they felt somewhat connected to the decision-making process in Brussels, while 33.3% stated they felt somewhat disconnected.

28.3% of those surveyed agreed that the EU institutions in Brussels are transparent in their decision-making, while 16.7% disagreed.

A low figure of 16.7% agreed that the EU institutions in Brussels are accessible to ordinary citizens, while 25% disagreed.

Most respondents (41.7%) disagreed with the statement “the voices of young people are heard and considered in the EU’s institutional processes”, with 33.3% agreeing.

Despite considering that their voices are not considered in the EU’s institutional processes, 41.7% of those surveyed ranked their trust in the EU as high while only 16.7% ranked it as low.

TNGO asks: Do you believe the EU institutions in Brussels are transparent in their decision-making?

Alessandra Cardaci: I believe that EU institutions are among the most transparent ones in the world; so relatively speaking, as an EU citizen, I am proud of the quality of our EU public administration. However, scandals such as the so-called “Qatargate” that impacted some Members of the European Parliament in late 2022 can certainly undermine this reputation. Moreover, the EU is not the strongest in public engagement and communication, partially due to its own inherent complex structure and decision-making procedures, as well as its multicultural and multilingual nature. 

It’s indeed relevant to remind that the EU institutions in Brussels with the biggest powers are: The European Commission which can only propose —and execute— EU laws; the European Parliament with elected Members from all over the EU and multiple political affiliations; and lastly, but surely not least, the Council of the EU which ultimately has the biggest influence in EU decision-making, and it’s composed of EU national governments. So, if we refer to the transparency of EU decision-making, we should then also question the transparency of all 27 EU Member States’ national governments.

At Friends of Europe, the Brussels-based think tank for a more inclusive, forward-looking, and sustainable Europe, we have embarked in a long-term mission to contribute to redesign Europe’s social contract by 2030 and this includes reforming EU institutions to improve their coherence and efficacy, as presented in our “10 Policy Choices for a Renewed Social Contract” report released in late February 2024.

Anonymous communications offer: Overall, it depends. Lately, their transparency has been decreasing. The decision-making in the Council is a black box: They close the door and when they open it, you know what’s been decided. On the other side of the Schuman roundabout, at the Commission, there are negotiations and discussions with the relevant stakeholders. Ultimately to get a law approved, the paper needs to go to the Council and the Parliament, and you can follow the parliament’s votes via livestream, but the last word is always on the black box Council.

Popping the Bubble

How the young vote and whether they vote at all, should be another major ingredient in the post-electoral interpretation of European sentiment”, wrote Pavel Zerka just a few months before the 2024 European Elections.

In the 2019 European Parliament election, young voters turned to the polls in record numbers showing their enthusiasm for the common European project and casting their ballots for green parties. Unlike 2019, however, we are observing “the first signs of a populist insurrection of the young,” Albena Azmanova notes in The Guardian. In both European and national elections, albeit with different degrees among countries, support for far-right parties has overall increased across voters under 30 in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Belgium. This, she argues, would be the result of the neglect of the youth’s anxieties and the emergence of a novel concern among this group: economic uncertainty. 

In the words of Christian Edwards, “[p]erhaps the “left behind” is not only a geographical phenomenon, but generational.” For a generation that has been baptised in crises first the financial, then eurozone and post-pandemic, and now the one derived from the war in Ukraine, precarious work and high youth unemployment rates leave 26% of the youth at risk of poverty and social exclusion, while the age that young adults move out of the family home has increased throughout Europe as a result of the housing crisis, making this generation vulnerable to the lure of populism. This dire social situation leads to huge mistrust of politics and institutions, explains Carbonell, with apathy turning into antipathy. 

© Reuters

To explain the increase in popularity of far-right parties among the German youth, researchers tend to cite general unhappiness with the post-pandemic economic and political conditions, with a study finding that inflation, the economy, old-age poverty, professional opportunities, the health sector, and social recognition were among the issues prompting a sense of insecurity as described by participants. Sarah-Lee Heinrichs, a politician for the German Green Party, said economic concerns have become far more prevalent among young people. In the wake of the pandemic, war in Ukraine, and soaring inflation, environmentalism is no longer young people’s priority, Heinrichs told CNN. In the case of the Netherlands, youth support in national elections for the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) is also related to economic grievances. Bestaanszekerheid or “livelihood security”, that is, having a decent and regular income, a comfortable home, access to education and health care, and a buffer against unexpected problems is key to explaining the Dutch youth vote. “Young peoples’ leading concerns in the Netherlands are housing, overcrowded classes, and struggling hospitals which Wilders addressed in his campaign,” said Catherine de Vries, a political scientist at Italy’s Bocconi University, to The Guardian. It seems, thus, that job precarity and economic insecurity are not issues that affect the EU Bubble exclusively but are rather weights that are felt by the European youth’s shoulders at large. 

While some argue that the youth’s allegiances could switch again, others warn that voters at the past EU elections were often new voters, who started their electoral adventure by choosing the far-right and therefore may continue doing so in the future. For Carbonell something is clear, “[t]he challenge for the EU […] is to address the demands of young people so that their grievances are not politicised by Eurosceptic forces.” Indeed, already in 2018, Brian Ager, European Round Table of Industrialists’ (ERT) Secretary General, told Politico “[w]e need to understand the hopes and expectations of young people, to further advance and improve the European project.” 

The New Global Order extends its gratitude to all interviewees and surveyed for participating in this project.

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