Young eastern Europeans reflect on 20 years of EU membership

By Thomson Reuters Apr 30, 2024 | 9:49 AM

(Reuters) – Born some 20 years ago as their countries joined the European Union, a cohort of young adults has grown up with rights and freedoms as citizens of the bloc that their parents never knew.

As a swathe of central and eastern European countries mark the anniversary of their joining on May 1, 2004, young Czechs, Poles and Estonians reflect on the EU’s impact on their lives and their vision for its future.

For the first time, this generation can vote in European elections, to be held between June 6 and 9. While they face a political landscape vastly changed from the communist days of their parents, opportunities are mixed with frustrations.

The far right is expected to make big gains in all corners of the continent and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has brought war to their doorstep.

Damian Krajza, 19, is a farmer and local politician in the northeastern Polish town of Luka. “We have only seen one way of life… we have access to everything, it is easier for us to develop, easier to act – thanks to the European Union among other things,” he said.

But Krajza feels that eastern Europe is treated differently by Brussels, without as strong a say. EU environment policies will harm Poland’s economy, he believes – one of his motivations for entering local politics.

As states like Poland reduce coal mining he believes developing countries will boost production to meet an energy-hungry global market. “We will destroy the economy, our economy, our industry, our heavy industry and agriculture in favour of pseudo-ecology.”

Meanwhile, in the capital Warsaw, 19-year-old student and local council member Julia Klimkiewicz embraces the opportunities she says the EU has offered her, including the ability to travel freely and participate in exchange programmes.

But she also cautions against blind enthusiasm for the EU, calling instead for critical engagement with its policies. She sees the need for a strengthened European army, particularly in light of the Ukraine war.

In Prague, 20-year-old student Rozalie Vorlova said she feared if the Czech Republic ever left the EU it could be vulnerable to Russian influence.

In Estonia, a country once part of the Soviet Union and today recognised for its vibrant business startup scene, the 20-year-old co-founder of storage startup BoxBox, Kevin Kaldalu, welcomed the grants available from the EU. He also highlighted the benefits of free trade within the bloc.

“We don’t really see like, borders… We do see the EU as a whole, a whole one place,” he said.

Krajza urged other young EU citizens to vote.

“Young people can have an enormous influence on forming the EU’s policy but they must be willing to, they must go to the voting booths in the upcoming elections and vote for the right candidates or even be candidates themselves.”

(Reporting by Kacper Pempel and Kuba Stezycki in Poland, Kriszta Fenyo in Hungary, Janis Laizans in Estonia and Eva Korinkova in Czech Republic; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Ros Russell)