For years, European politicos and others committed to the idea of a united Europe have pined for a popular, all-Europe project that stands for the best intentions of, and the imperative for, the European project. In order to counter the EU’s distant, bureaucratic image—and the blunt the attacks of right-wing Euroskeptics—EU officials have turned to issues that touch almost all Europeans, from digital rights to consumer protection to telecommunications.
But none of these worthy endeavors, among others, have fired the passions of the average European, much less young Europeans. The one participatory cross-border event that seems to excite a flesh-and-blood crowd is the Eurovision Song Contest—which has nothing to do with the EU itself.
But now, on the eve of the landmark May 23–26 European Parliament election, such a cause—complete with hundreds of thousands of energized participants—is banging at the EU’s door. Although the striking high schoolers of Fridays for Future (FFF) is not just a European movement but a global one, the students of Europe have found common cause with one another in a campaign demanding tangible political action from the EU to address climate change.
Perhaps unwittingly, the kids have revealed a new raison d’être for the EU beyond the postwar remits of peace and prosperity. As the young people insist, the supranational EU can and must devote itself to leading the global battle to arrest rising temperatures and seas if we expect to slow global warming.
In an open letter to the EU earlier this month, an international group of FFF activists wrote that the EU “holds enormous responsibility, not just for our future, but also for the life of billions of people across the world. Accept this responsibility. Make climate the priority.”
For the EU, the scourge of climate change could be just the ticket to rejuvenate it. On the one hand, it is our age’s most urgent issue. On the other, it is one that the surging far-right parties don’t even pretend to have answers to. When Europe’s radical nationalists deny climate change, as most do, they side with less than 5 percent of Europeans in the EU’s most populous countries. (In Germany, the hard-right Alternative for Germany calls man-made climate change “heresy” and wants to halt the clean-energy transition, and the Brexit Party’s front man, Nigel Farage, ridicules the link between rising temperatures and greenhouse gases.) The national populists have committed a huge blunder—and Europe’s democratic parties should pounce on it by making the kids’ campaign their own.
The young climate activists want nothing more than that. They recognize the EU’s indispensable role in the fight to brake rising temperatures in Europe and beyond. After all, the “climate crisis,” as the students rightly call it, is itself quintessentially transnational. No wonder Europe’s far-right parties pour scorn on the consensus of the worldwide scientific community without proffering any evidence—otherwise, they’d have to acknowledge the EU’s essential, multilateral role in climate protection.
Moreover, another boon for the EU, the kids’ intensity flies in the face of adult voter disinterest in the EP elections, which has fallen every five-year election since 1979; in 2014, voter turnout sunk to the record-low of 43 percent. The young activists, on the other hand, are furious that they’re not involved directly in Europe’s democratic process and demand that the voting age be lowered to 16. Indeed, most of them are too young to vote, which is why they’re demonstrating on Friday, May 24, and calling for the attention of the EU’s voters, Brussels-based institutions, and the national governments.
Underscoring their conviction, the Friday activists have scheduled a Global Climate Strike 2, with demonstrations in hundreds of cities and towns across the continent, and thousands more around the world, on the second day of voting, also on May 24. It could be the largest cross-Europe assembly ever, perhaps even bigger than the March 15 FFF rallies, which amassed hundreds of thousands of students in Europe and nearly 2 million worldwide. Here, finally, are the numbers and passion that the EU has so desperately sought from the European demos.
The FFF movement, which started in Sweden with 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s Friday school strike, is everything that the nativist Euroskeptic parties aren’t: transnational, evidence-based, grassroots democratic, nonviolent, internationalist, and forward-looking. And the kids’ petitions, in contrast to the nationalists, aren’t in the least nebulous: They insist that Europe play a leading role in curbing global warming by adhering to the pledges made at the Paris climate summit in 2015. That means doing better than the EU’s current pledge, which is to lower carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The activists, with the backing of thousands of climate scientists, stress that this won’t keep rising temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In their appeal to the EU, the FFF kids have astutely recognized the correct address for their cause, even if they’re fiercely critical of the EU’s uneven record so far—and its giant carbon footprint. In Europe today, the EU is the driving force on climate protection, not the national states, and its authority is recognized on the international level. This is why Greta Thunberg traveled to Brussels in April, where she gave a rousing speech in the Parliament calling upon EU leaders to act urgently on climate change. And that’s why 17,000 activists descended on an EU summit in Sibiu, Romania, earlier this month to insist that the EU set binding targets for Europe to be carbon neutral well before 2050.
The activists may be admonishing the EU to act faster toward higher targets, but the fact is that the continent’s renewable-energy boom—clean energy produced in the EU increased by two-thirds from 2007 to 2017—is due to EU legislation stretching back 20 years. And recently EU leaders have pushed harder on many fronts, such as the transportation sector, where their directives on lowering car emissions set the bar in Europe (much to the dismay of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German automobile manufacturers, who tried to block it).
Last year the EU agreed that renewables should make up 32 percent of energy consumed in Europe by 2030. And the EU as a whole has already hit its 2020 goal of lowering greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent. The EU has pledged that from 2021 to 2027, every fourth euro of the EU budget—1 trillion euros, or $1.15 trillion—will go toward climate protection.
Some of the EU’s leading nations have signaled that they’ve heard the young activists and are responding. Eight countries, led by France and the Netherlands, are challenging the EU to step up the fight against climate change and back a European Commission plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions “by 2050 at the latest.”
Moreover, opinion polls in Europe show that the threat of climate change has soared in the priorities of European voters, from near the bottom of concerns to nearly the top. In Germany and France, climate change, not immigration, is voters’ number-one concern, according to the latest surveys. Everywhere environmentally thinking parties are riding higher than usual—though not yet as high as the nationalists.
“There’s clearly more pressure than ever on governments,” explains Jörg Mühlenhoff of the Brussels-based Climate Action Network Europe; Mühlenhoff credits the FFF movement as one factor behind it.
The contrast can hardly be greater: the climate-denying, rabble-rousing shouts of the Euroskeptic hard right and the science-backed, policy-oriented, implicitly pro-European proposals of the young climate activists.
Heading into the final days of the campaign, Europe’s nationalist populists are expecting large gains. But nothing they have planned will compare to the powerful spectacle of city streets from Sofia to Stockholm packed with concerned high-school students demanding that their futures be taken seriously.
The May 24 Global Vote for the Future, as the FFF activists call the EP election, could well prove a turning point in Europe.