Europe has once again sleepwalked into an existential crossroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine challenged the liberal democratic order that the European Union champions and sparked a crisis many deemed unthinkable after decades of peace. Amid rising tides of Euroskepticism and ultranationalism across the continent, the new war seemed to create a perfect storm for the disintegration of the European project.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the EU pulled together, swiftly and collectively committing materiel and financial support to Ukraine. While there is little that the EU could have done to forestall Russia’s invasion, the bloc’s disinterest in Ukraine in the years following Putin’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula—a clear sign of his aggressive ambitions—has proved woefully misguided. Only now, more than a year into the war, are serious conversations about rebuilding and integrating Ukraine into the EU beginning to take place.
This is a familiar cycle for the EU: of apathy leading to crisis, and crisis leading to greater integration. It is one that has defined the European project since its origins in the European Coal and Steel Community of the 1950s. The physical and psychological destruction of World War II, dual crises of stagflation and energy insecurity in the 1970s, and financial crisis of the 2010s all led to more Europe rather than less, just as the war in Ukraine seems poised to do.
After far-right parties catapulted to the fore of European politics in 2010, many conversations about the future of Europe focused on its imminent demise. As recently as January 2022, with many still wallowing in a post-Brexit malaise, there was little serious possibility of Ukraine acceding to the EU—or, for that matter, of Germany increasing its military spending and cutting its energy dependence on Russia.
Yet today, because of a crisis Europe neither wanted nor was prepared for, Ukraine seems poised to become an EU member upon the war’s resolution. Germany also reneged on its controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and Poland—previously an internal roadblock to European solidarity—has become an advocate for collective European defense. The newly war-torn continent looks poised to come out of this crisis more unified than before.
Now, as Europe begins to enter its latest integrative phase, there is an opportunity to break this reactive cycle in favor of a proactive and intentional expansion of European solidarity. The continent can do so by giving a greater voice to the first generation to have grown up entirely with the EU—whom we call the Maastricht Generation.
For the first time in history, there is a fully grown generation of Europeans who have only ever known a united Europe. In our recent edited volume, contributing author Floris Rijssenbeek dubbed members of this group the Maastricht Generation because they grew up after the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which formally created the EU as it exists in its current form. For members of the Maastricht Generation, a united Europe is not just a mechanism for peace and growth. The values that Europe embodies—such as democracy, the rule of law, and humanitarianism—are inherent to their identities in ways they were not for their forebears.
This matters because people fight for what they believe in, as well as for the identities they hold and value. Members of the Maastricht Generation will proactively work to make the European project better rather than waiting for a new crisis to fuel reactive integration.
Members of the Maastricht Generation tend to have a more pro-EU stance than do prior generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hungary. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has governed the country uninterrupted since 2010, Hungary has turned toward autocracy and become a vanguard of the global illiberal movement. Through it all, Orban has maintained remarkably broad public support, with approval ratings consistently at or above 50 percent.
But one group is notoriously absent from Orban’s base: 16- to 29-year-olds. In Hungary’s April 2022 parliamentary elections, fewer than 25 percent of first-time voters chose Orban and his party, reflecting a nearly decadelong trend of young voters turning away from far-right conservatism. As Orban consolidated power, Hungary’s Maastricht Generation expressed a growing preference for democracy and rejected the government’s authoritarian practices. They have also turned away from rising conservatism in Hungarian political culture, rejecting Orban’s Christian identity politics in favor of classical liberal concerns such as social welfare and economic growth.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hungary’s opposition is led by young people who deeply identify with Europe and its values. And despite government-led barriers to democratic engagement, such as voter intimidation and lack of media pluralism, this opposition is vibrant—just not in the places one might expect. Disillusioned with traditional politics, Hungary’s Maastricht Generation has turned away from the voting booth to alternative forms of democratic expression. They are engaging in political conversation on social media rather than through traditional (and now state-run) media outlets, participating in pro-democracy protest movements, and joining new parties in droves.
Hungary’s Maastricht Generation is not alone. Across Europe, young people consistently demonstrate high levels of support for liberal democracy and the universal values that the EU champions. Research by social scientist Jan Zilinsky shows that young Europeans express more faith in democracy than older generations. This is not simply a case of young people being more progressive on average than older citizens. As Pew Research Center data has shown, young Europeans express significantly more faith in the EU than any other age demographic, regardless of political affiliation. Rather than relying on disintegrative pressures—such as stagflation, recessions, or wars of aggression—to fuel the engine of European solidarity, the EU can leverage the creativity, ingenuity, and Euro-enthusiasm of youth to spring forward.
Doing so will require creative reforms to the EU’s institutional mechanisms. The EU’s policymaking processes and national electoral thresholds have not been built to incorporate the Maastricht Generation’s perspectives, and the bloc’s rigid policy agenda and consistent neutering of ambitious policy proposals do not adequately reflect young Europeans’ ideals. Nothing exemplifies this disconnect better than the failed promise of Volt Europa, a pan-European, pro-Europe party founded in 2017, largely by members of the Maastricht Generation. Volt promised a radically fresh approach to European politics and gained popularity among younger voters across the continent ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, also performing well in 2021 general elections in the Netherlands. But Volt has failed to deliver on its promise so far, in part because its message does not resonate with voters outside of the Maastricht Generation.
Members of the Maastricht Generation are eager to support and defend Europe’s democratic values, but rightly express a frustration with the way the system functions today. The slowness of the European Parliament’s and European Council’s legislative processes, physical and psychological distance between Brussels and its constituents, and the arguably undemocratic system of indirectly appointing members of the European Commission prompt many to turn their backs to traditional politics in favor of protest movements, like those in Hungary, or transnational climate activism, such as Fridays for Future.
It is critical that the EU take proactive steps to reincorporate the Maastricht Generation into ongoing policy debates and discussions. Of course, all governments should work to include younger voices—but as a supranational entity that has long struggled to form a distinct identity, the EU especially would benefit from doing so.
To start, politicians at the EU and domestic levels must begin taking protests movements seriously as means of democratic expression. Legislators need to spend more time engaging with young activists, whose visions for the future can help guide innovative policies in the realms of climate, defense, and migration. In countries within the EU suffering from democratic backsliding, engagement with and support for nontraditional democratic activists from EU institutions is arguably more likely to lead to substantive political change than sanctions or legal proceedings.
More active engagement of young voices can take a variety of forms, from lowering age minimums for holding elected office in both the European and national parliaments to instituting local, national, and European-wide youth councils that can develop policy recommendations for national and EU legislative bodies. The European Parliament, for its part, should create a special parliament that represents the Maastricht Generation in European political debates.
Perhaps most importantly, the EU needs to invest in the political and leadership potential of its younger generations. It already does so successfully in the education sphere with its Erasmus+ study abroad program, which helps to create a network of young Europeans connected by a common understanding of the world. The European Parliament also makes this type of investment with political activists from non-EU countries through its Young Political Leaders Programme, which connects democratic activists from Europe’s neighborhood to develop their potential as future leaders for lasting peace.
The EU should burnish the same attention and investment on its own emerging leaders and create a program that will allow them to design policy initiatives to deepen European unity. Young leaders would ideate concrete policy proposals for the EU, and selected proposals would then be presented to EU officials. Such a program would cost just a fraction of the European Commission’s annual budget and could be appropriated from the existing funds that support Erasmus+ as part of the next budgetary package, which begins in 2028.
None of this can happen without acknowledging that the EU’s Maastricht Generation brings a unique perspective to—and has a unique stake in—the bloc’s future. That future will be stronger, better, and less prone to crisis if this generation is allowed to push European integration forward. Recognizing the Maastricht Generation’s ingenuity and potential is an essential first step to a more resilient Europe.