Why the EU elections should matter to us – A call to arms

By the 24th May, the caffeine-fuelled late nights in the library will be behind us. Our final exams will be completed and the weeks of sitting in front of a computer screen desperately trying to reach a word count will be no more. But the 24th May isn’t just an ordinary day in which we can, now guilt-free, catch up on our beloved Netflix shows and excitedly plan for the summer ahead. Friday 24th May marks the first time, for many young people, that we can have our voices heard in the European Parliamentary elections.

To the vast majority of young people, mechanisms like the EU feel bureaucratic and overwhelmingly complicated, as well as unconcerned with our problems and viewpoints. It is sometimes hard to understand how a distant body of MEPs sitting in Brussels can directly impact our lives. For this reason, youth engagement with European elections in Ireland has traditionally been desperately low. But why? We have already shown ourselves to be extremely passionate and inspired to enact political change. This was clearly evidenced by our activism surrounding the referendums on the 8th amendment and marriage equality, and more recently, the climate strikes. However, as Europeans in 2019 we face many more challenges. As a UCD student of politics and development studies, as well as a member of Amnesty International, I want to show just how relevant these EU elections are to the issues many of us, as students, so deeply care about.

The European Parliament is the only EU institution which we can directly elect. The elections represent an opportunity to guide the EU in a way which reflects our own visions and beliefs for the world we want to live in. Last year, we were awarded the University of Sanctuary status, in recognition of a range of initiatives welcoming people who are refugees and asylum seekers into the university community. However, the EU’s current response to the refugee crisis has been completely mismanaged, following a path of externalisation and containment, rather than one of compassion and collective responsibility sharing. The EU-Turkey deal, brokered in 2016, has seen people seeking asylum in Greece returned to Turkey, which is not deemed safe or equipped to deal with asylum seekers. Temporary camps on Greek islands have been transformed into overcrowded conditions without access to proper sanitation facilities, medical care, or nutritious food. The European Union’s recent decision to end Operation Sophia, in which the Irish Naval Service contributed to, has seen a complete stoppage of all search and rescue operations in the sea region. In its place, EU and Italian cooperation with Libyan authorities to restrict passage into the Central Mediterranean has led to unimaginable horrors. With the use of EU funds, the Libyan coast guard have been trained and equipped to intercept those attempting to reach Europe by boat. Once returned to Libya, those who were seeking safety, are held in detention centres indefinitely with massive evidence of widespread torture. As an activist of policy advancement for refugee rights, this is deeply worrying to me. I want to be a part of a Europe that offers a safe passage and a fair, human rights focused asylum process.

The Parliament can further approve, reject or propose amendments to legislation on a wide range of issues and has a mandate to hold our national governments to account when they fail to respect and protect our rights. The elections on the 24th May will be held one day short of a full year since our historic referendum on reproductive rights! Hard-work and dedication overturned the 8th amendment last year and I know many inspiring UCD students who also worked on this campaign. Our students voted for the university to have a pro-choice stance and we knocked on doors, marched on the streets and even called up our grannies to have an awkward talk about repeal! However, the protection of gender-based rights has not yet been fulfilled. We must look to other places in the EU such as Cyprus, Malta, Poland and Northern Ireland where full reproductive rights are still restricted.

Sadly, only 7 out of 28 EU countries currently have laws stating that any sex without consent is rape. Even then, victims of sexual violence in these countries often decide not to pursue legal recourse, as they are intimidated by the lengthy legal process, unwilling to put themselves through years of uncertainty and potential re-traumatisation. My vision of a future for Europe is one that upholds the rights of all of its citizens.

UN experts say we have just over a decade to make serious changes to avoid a climate catastrophe. In February, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, visited our campus and urged students to make climate change a personal issue in their lives. We have embraced the reusable coffee cups, skipped the plastic cutlery around campus and discovered the art of cycling; but despite our personal commitments, Ireland remains one of the only European Union countries with rising greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not introduce major new policies and measures, we will miss our 2020 environmental targets, resulting in EU fines estimated at up to €455m. The stakes have never been higher and EU institutions, dedicated to positive, transformative action, are best placed to lead a global response to climate change. We need politicians supporting more ambitious policies, like shifting to renewable energy or moving to a zero-carbon economy, and willing to assist those in developing countries who have been most affected by our region’s negative environmental conduct. The European Union is far from perfect – few things are. We are living in a time where certain groups, backed up by powerful tools of disinformation, strive to breathe life into sentiments that undermine the values that define us as Europeans. Communities are being divided by fear, hatred is being incited against minorities and the destruction of our planet is being threatened. In the run-up to 24th May, I want us all to call on Europe’s leaders and election candidates, asking them to commit to moving away from politics of fear, towards hope. I have touched on some of the issues which I deeply care about and want to see change at a European and national level; however, I’m sure you may have many, many more causes of your own. Candidates in elections are concerned about what we think. By raising our voices in the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections, we can urge Irish politicians to commit to policies that protect everyone’s rights and stick to these promises if elected. Talking to friends and family members, raising our voices on social media, and writing to our representatives are all actions that can really make a difference.

Let’s demolish the stereotype that young people, due to our busy schedules of working, studying and socialising, are apathetic. We are not, we have been a huge catalyst for change in our society and our voices are powerful. Now is the time to turn up the volume.