Politics in Europe is often defined by personal ambition, partisan games, and the promotion of national interests. Yet, the recent election results made it clear that many Europeans are looking beyond their individual interests and thinking about our collective future. Coming from the UK, where Brexit monopolises the news, I found it refreshing to see citizens across Europe assume responsibility for the future of our continent and exercise their right to vote in the world’s largest multinational democratic event to shape the EU they want. More than half of the bloc’s eligible voters cast their ballots – the highest turnout since 1994.
Equally positive was the increased engagement of Europe’s youth. This undoubtedly helped to mitigate the expected rise of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties and see a breakthrough for the Green movement. They beat all previous records on the back of vociferous, energetic and dynamic campaigns orchestrated by young people across the continent. Through their weekly protests and direct action, Europe’s youth have shown the impact citizens can have on politics when they get involved.
These young people are fighting for a better and fairer world for everyone, where no one is left behind, whether at home or abroad. The fight against the climate crisis and extreme poverty are both urgent and mutually-reinforcing with many of the root causes of poverty now intensifying due to climate change. Rising and fluctuating temperatures and the increasing prevalence of floods, droughts, and extreme weather events impact the poorest countries in the world the most. Together they pile pressure on farmers, increase food insecurity, threaten livelihoods and displace populations. Temperature rises are also likely to increase the number of people at risk of malaria and other infectious diseases. This is a fight for people and the planet.
Without urgent action, the climate emergency could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030, according to the World Bank. That’s equivalent to almost 20% of the population of the European Union and more than the current populations of both Italy and Spain combined. Obviously, that will make our collective ambition to end extreme poverty and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, as the world agreed in 2015, much harder.
We Europeans need to rise to this challenge. Fortunately, many of the newly elected Members of the European Parliament are ready to do so. Thanks to the tireless campaigning of 250 young Europeans – ONE’s Youth Ambassadors – over 150 of the newly-elected MEPs from across the political spectrum and from 17 different countries have committed to using their mandate to press for action to end extreme poverty and to secure an ambitious and genuine partnership with Africa. They are backed by 90% of Europeans who feel it is important to help people in developing countries.
Decision-makers in the EU, particularly the new leaders, can’t ignore these facts. They should respond accordingly. Part of the solution lies in a smart and ambitious EU development policy, backed up with the necessary financial resources. Supporting the poorest countries to adapt to and mitigate climate change is achieved through the EU’s development cooperation. So while the objective to invest 0.7% of collective GNI in aid may sound outdated – it was first agreed in the 1970s – it’s actually more relevant than ever. Allocating 140 billion euros for EU aid in its budget for the next seven years would be a good first step
Of course, the money needs to be spent well and focus on poverty eradication and the health, education and economic empowerment of the people who need EU support the most, especially women and girls. The share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has dropped by 25% since 1990 but the number of poor people living in sub-Saharan Africa is actually increasing; from an estimated 278 million in 1990 to 413 million in 2015. Many of these people are in the least developed countries and fragile states, the countries often the most affected by the climate emergency or least able to respond to it, so it would make sense for the EU and its member states to allocate at least 50% of their support to these countries.
Development aid is essential but it isn’t enough. Africa is a vibrant continent, where half of the population will be younger than 25 by 2050. The EU should recognise the strategic importance of its closest neighbour and build an ambitious partnership with Africa that encompasses commercial, cultural, diplomatic and educational links. A focus on education, employment and empowerment will unlock the continent’s unique potential. We should grab this opportunity with both hands and build much stronger cooperation between the two continents – how about an Erasmus for Africa or a Europe-Africa youth leadership programme?
As we enter the decade of delivery to end extreme poverty by 2030, the European Union has a decision to make. Does it want to stand on the sidelines, ignore the demands of its citizens and shrug its shoulders? Or will it be a global standard bearer, take bold steps and put words and promises into action for the future of our planet and its most vulnerable people?