The Values of Europe (Mini-series): A UCL student perspective

UCL SSEES student Freya Proudman underlines the power of young people in upholding and revitalising European values with new life and enthusiasm and calls for youth activism and civic participation to be meaningfully supported.

When we hear “European values” many of us think of democracy, rule of law, and human rights, but we don’t always take time to reflect on the meaning of these words. This is important because it is only through the realisation and embodiment of our values, that they are sustained. There must be a genuine commitment to implementing, practising, and upholding our European values in our countries and communities. 

This need is intensified by knowledge that our values are being challenged globally. To avoid taking them for granted, we should continually reflect on how we practice our values and be self-critical about our own experiences of democratic backsliding including the reduction of civil space, increased media suppression, growth in extremist ideologies, erosion of human rights, and the worsening discrepancies between legal protections of human rights and the lived experiences of discrimination faced by marginalised communities. 

The practice of our values is challenged by persistent barriers. These include a lack of access to methods of democratic participation such as obstacles regarding physical accessibility of voting stations for the elderly, low income communities, and those with disabilities. There is also a lack of equity in access to opportunities such as higher education and civic engagement. A thriving democracy requires active participation, but those from marginalised and discriminated communities are most likely to have their rights to assembly, non-discrimination, and free speech undermined. 

The multitude of threats to our values, most prominently embodied by Russia’s war against Ukraine, make for troubling and uncertain times, but I find optimism in the power of young people to not just carry our values forward, but to revitalise them with new life and enthusiasm. 

“Young people are prepared to defend European values but also to reflect on and interrogate them”

Young people are united through knowledge that our future is shared and must be built together. We build global networks of connections and friendships between us  which we draw upon for support and to find  new and innovative forms of political participation.  Young people are prepared to defend European values but also to reflect on and interrogate them. For example, I remember a youth leader who once said, “when we talk about values, we need to ask ourselves, whose values are they?” This started a meaningful conversation about the inclusiveness of our values, democratic practices, and institutions. 

One of my personal inspirations, Former Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, famously said “women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” and I believe this idea extends to people of all backgrounds and communities especially those who are marginalised. European values are our values; they belong to all of us..

As a Young European Ambassador for EU Neighbours East, I predominantly work with young people from the Eastern Partnership countries. I see how these young people speak up for our values, how they host workshops and training sessions to educate and empower peers, and how they  attend international conferences to contribute to discussions on democracy. I believe that any young person fighting for and defending our values should be supported. 

Ukraine is at the forefront of the defence of European values. Her incredible bravery and resilience should remind us not to take our values for granted and that we should show our values the same dedication and commitment that others do. Young people across the EU are leading initiatives to support Ukraine. These include students at universities organising donation drives for supplies, volunteering to help refugees at the borders, engaging in displays of solidarity, lobbying their governments to provide more support, and helping Ukrainian students apply and find opportunities to continue their education in the EU.

“[Young people] need structural, organisation, and financial support to help turn our ideas into initiatives”

The future of European values, and the revitalisation of democracy, depends on young people. We are eager to act but we continue to face barriers. We need structural, organisation, and financial support to help turn our ideas into initiatives, alongside mentorship from those with greater connections, networks, experience and know-how. 

The European Union declared 2022 the European Year of Youth to highlight the importance of young people in working towards a better future. The Council of Europe’s Youth Department launched their Democracy Here | Democracy Now Campaign and organised their flagship event, the Youth Action Week, which gathered over 400 young people from across Europe in Strasbourg to design proposals for the revitalisation of democracy. Additionally, there are an increasing number of collaborations working to establish interdisciplinary and cross-cultural ways to empower young people such as the EU-CoE Youth Partnership.

Building on these initiatives and ensuring a more prominent role for young people in policymaking is integral to the protection and promotion of European values, as well as to ensuring they evolve and are revitalised by the next generation of European citizens. 

Freya Proudman is a UK Young European Ambassador for EU Neighbours East and a
Postgraduate Student studying for an MA Russian and Eurasian Politics at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies (SSEES).

This blog forms part of a mini-series on European values, including contributions on this subject from EU Ambassadors to the UK and UCL academics, and running from 28 June-8 July 2022. It follows a UCL-convened Ambassadorial roundtable on the values of Europe. A recording of the full event is available here.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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