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Will the 22ers become a new political generation?


The writer is author of ‘Homelands: A Personal History of Europe’

“Do you think there will be a generation of 22ers?” a student recently asked me in the German university town of Göttingen. That is, a cohort of Europeans for whom the large-scale war in Ukraine, which began with the Russian invasion in February 2022, will shape the way they think and act politically for the rest of their lives. It’s an important question.

Today’s Europe has been shaped by four major political generations: the 14ers (with their life-changing childhood experience of World War I), the 39ers (World War II), the 68ers (1968, in all its various guises), and the 89ers (the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War).

In both cases, the formative moment comes early in adult life, so there is a significant delay before the affected cohort comes to power. The 68ers like the German Joschka Fischer, the British Jack Straw and the French Lionel Jospin played a leading role in European politics well into the 2000s. The 89ers like Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and German Economy Minister Robert Habeck are now at the helm.

A few years ago, our Europe’s Stories project at Oxford University investigated formative moments for today’s young Europeans. Back then, no moment seemed comparable to 1989, 1968, or the two world wars. Instead, we found a shared experience, that of freedom of movement across Europe, and a dominant concern: climate change. However, there were some specific moments for geographic subgroups: the wars in the former Yugoslavia for Southeastern Europeans; the Eurozone crisis for young Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese; Brexit for British and Irish.

But Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine should undoubtedly trigger a new pan-European political generation. If the biggest war in Europe since 1945 doesn’t work, then what?

People often respond enthusiastically to this idea. I, too, would like to see a new political generation with a sense of common purpose to advance the European project. But neither opinion polls nor my conversations with young Europeans offer any strong evidence that it still exists.

In Ukraine I have met many young people for whom the war will clearly be the defining moment of their political life: a cross between 1939 and 1989. In Poland and Estonia I have seen a similar effect, albeit less strongly. In Western Europe, however, it is much less visible. There is great sympathy for Ukraine here, reinforced by face-to-face meetings with Ukrainian refugees, but the war has become one of many news items.

Even between the Central and Eastern European countries closer to the war zone, there are big differences in attitude. In recent bearing done for the Globsec think tank, about a third of Bulgarian and Slovak respondents say the west is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine. A shocking 50 percent of Slovaks agree with the statement that “the US is a security threat to my country”.

The generational breakdown is even less clear. In-depth analysis of bearing conducted for our research project and the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that only 46 percent of 18-29 year olds describe Russia as an adversary, compared to more than 60 percent of those over 60.

In some of the 10 European countries we surveyed, young people seemed pro-Western, in others they were more critical of the West. Just in support of Ukraine’s future EU membership, young Europeans are generally more positive than older people. Globsec analysts tell me they find an equally checkered pattern.

Moreover, these polls do not establish the relative importance of the issue. My conversations with young Europeans show that topics such as climate change, socio-economic inequality and what they perceive as their devastated life chances are at least as important to them as this war.

Does this mean the 22ers are just a vape dream of old 89ers? Or, at best, another of those geographic subgroups? Maybe, but not necessarily. For obvious reasons, 1989 was lived more intensely in Eastern than in Western Europe, yet it formed a whole cohort of future leaders. The exciting march forward of freedom that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall gave them a lifelong commitment to advancing the goal of a “whole and free Europe”.

Political generations are not born but made. So the question should actually be put back to that student from Göttingen and her peers. Will you create a political class of 22ers, combining the defense of freedom and the restoration of peace in Europe with the concerns of your own generation, such as intersectional equality and a green energy transition? Old 89ers and 68ers certainly hope so; but it’s up to you.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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