I’m an Italian expat living in the UK. And call me crazy, but I’m kind of happy about Brexit.
Up until a week ago, I felt very differently. I’d spent months worrying about how a vote to leave the European Union would affect the future of Europe, as well as me personally. But then I attended a conference in London that made me see things differently.
During a panel on the regulation of health care devices, a representative from the Royal Society of Medicine—a gentleman in his senior years—responded to a question from the public. “What will happen in case of a Leave vote?” an audience member asked. “Will we need to create our own regulation? Will we be able to?”
It looked like the older man had been waiting for just such a question. He settled back and said something like, “Well, the EU has a lot of expertise to offer. But the UK has demonstrated several times to have a great expertise as well. I’m pretty sure that we will manage without any serious problems.”
The arrogance of this answer is typical of the ignorant and prejudiced attitudes that propelled the UK to vote in the first place. This xenophobic UK faction is nostalgic for an imagined past and convinced it’s possible to slow the forces of globalization. And it’s giving young Europeans just the shock they needed to take action.
When I got to work the morning after Brexit passed, the insanity of the vote was all my British colleagues could talk about. They felt stunned and betrayed by voters—many of them older—who had made such a disastrous choice. Meanwhile, 75% of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted to remain in the EU, as did 56% of people between the ages 25 of 49.
“I am angry, because older people in this country seem to hate the prospect of immigrants contributing to their country more than giving their grandchildren a future where moving and studying abroad is affordable and achievable,” 19-year-old Flora Scott wrote to The Guardian. “I’ve never been so angry that my future has been changed because of the small-mindedness of people who won’t live to see the effect of their decisions.”
Brexit has proven to the young that we cannot take the benefits that older generations have enjoyed for granted. We can’t count on being able to afford university degrees that will secure us a decent salary and a better life. Many of us won’t be able to buy a house. We’re putting off marriage and kids indefinitely. Social benefits and the quality of working contracts are on the downslide. Now, it’s the promise of freedom of movement across Europe that is fading away. Tomorrow, it might be democracy itself.
In the aftermath of the UK vote, young people throughout Europe can see that everything is precarious. It’s up to us to become politically engaged. The future of our countries, cities, and neighborhoods may depend on it.
We can start by exposing ignorance disguised as populism, continuing to debunk inaccurate information, and immersing ourselves in public debate. We also need to explore political instruments such as extending the right to vote to 17-year-olds across Europe and weighing the votes of elderly people. Such measures could make young people effective forces within our countries even when we belong to a numerical minority. After all, the elderly are not the ones who will have to live with the long-term consequences of their actions.
Finally, for those of us who are still a part of the European project, we need to realize that Brussels is the only place that is capable of rising above internal conflicts and tackling the generational divide highlighted by Brexit. Our national governments are too busy seeking electoral consensus to provide useful solutions.
The night of the referendum, a new baby was born in my host family. His parents waited till the very last moment to choose his name. “I should call him Remain,” his young dad told me as he raced to the hospital.
I am happy because I trust Remain and his parents. I trust my young peers across the whole of Europe. We’ll fight back. Together, we’ll help our British contemporaries make their way back into the EU.