The European Parliament elections in May brought worldwide attention to trends that had been taking root across the continent since the financial collapse: the rise of Euroscepticism, extremism on both the right and left, and an ongoing frustration with how the crisis has been managed. For Europe’s youth, however, the institutions of the European Union offer jobs, freedom of movement, and possibilities, even in the face of difficulties and bureaucracy.

But while many say the EU is relevant to them, many agree that too often, the benefits need to be more transparent.

Fabrizio Varriale, a 31-year-old Italian architect now pursuing a PhD, says “The EU institutions are relevant to young professionals, although not much is known about them. The EU actually offers many chances to develop one’s curriculum through programmes such as Erasmus but also professional courses. My job is actually EU funded. The funding from the EU many times offer really good opportunities for young professionals to get jobs.”

“The fact that Wales benefits massively from the EU is not part of the general understanding about the role of the EU,” says Owain Rhys Lewis, a 23-year-old Welsh who works at a government-outsourced polling call center. “There’s broadband in Ceredigion because of money that wouldn’t be there without the EU. My auntie and uncle got broadband before I did because that was deemed to be one of the more impoverished areas of Wales. That’s in real terms, how it’s actually affecting people.”

Eurosceptical parties—those that advocate for a partial or complete withdrawal from the European Union and/or the euro—represent 14 countries in Parliament, and 10 saw a gain in the number of seats those parties hold. In France, the United Kingdom, and Denmark, anti-European Union parties finished first. In only one country, Belgium, did a Eurosceptic party lose a seat.

Denise Puca, an Italian graduate student living in Wales, was not surprised by the results. “The rise of the far-right scared me more than surprised me, as the outcome was expected. I think that in many other countries people have voted according to their own political situations, sometimes forgetting that they were voting for the European Parliament, not for their national parliaments. And that happens because the EU has no real connection with people.”

The 28 member countries of the European Union have always had varying levels of connection and integration within the bloc. For example, Croatia, which joined in 2013, is not in the Schengen area or on the euro. Latvia, a member since 2004, just joined the euro in 2014. Ireland is on the euro, but is not part of the Schengen. Other countries have various agreements regarding trade, freedom of movement, and shared policies on the environment, agriculture, energy, etc. Consequently, finding common ground can be challenging.

In no area is the struggle more profound than in the response to the economic crisis. The ongoing economic struggles in countries like Greece and Spain helped fuel the rise of the extremist parties in those countries. The expansion of the far right in France has been stoked by anti-immigration sentiment, and the perception that immigrants have stolen jobs. Euro-critical parties such as the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany and Finland’s The Finns have also seen gains. In Croatia’s first EU election, the Democratic Union (HDZ) beat the ruling Social Democratic Party-People’s Party to send 12 new representatives to Parliament.

“People are pissed about the way the economic crisis has been handled, they’re pissed their sons and daughters have to emigrate because of massive levels of unemployment,” said David Lundy, a spokesperson for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left. The EU elections are really the voters’ chance to give the establishment a bloody nose.”

“The recent elections were extremely relevant, because they reflected the increasing wave of euro-scepticism throughout Europe, something which should be better addressed,” said Daniele Brunetto, an Italian interning with an NGO in Brussels. “The outcomes, however, do not precisely reflect the current feelings in Italy, which has seen a polarized electoral campaign, focused mainly on domestic issues, with little or no focus on the EU itself.”

“Nigel Farage (of the anti-EU group UKIPP) is a little Englander and he’s also reflecting the mood in the UK,” said Lewis. “He’s not reflecting anything really to do with the European Union and the discontent. It’s a scapegoat.”

“The recession-hit countries did not vote for something, they voted against. It’s human nature, these self-deceiving elections,” Nenad Porges, Croatia’s former Minister of Economy, Labour and Entrepreneurship, now a program management consultant, said in an interview in Zagreb. “They say, ‘Let’s get rid of foreigners, let’s band together.’ It’s not realistic. We need fresh ideas, especially in a small country like Croatia, which is a small market.”

Croatia’s Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has stated that the country will apply for inclusion in the shared border Schengen area as early as 2014, and that it expects its application to be approved quickly. The concept of freedom of movement within the bloc remains a core tenant of the European Union, despite its detractors.

“We would say (freedom of movement) has been a good pillar of the single market, but we must not reject outright concerns that people have both about the numbers and scale, and about the perception, whether it is true or not, that some people are coming as benefits tourists, rather than to work and make a contribution,” said James Holtum, Head of Unit for Communications, Research and Media at European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament. “This is something that does need to be tackled so that we can restore confidence in the principle of freedom of movement.”

Of the young professionals interviewed for this article, nearly all have benefited from freedom of movement, and see no point in excluding any European Union member from participating. “No restrictions should be applied to the free movement of people in the EU. If we agreed on a principle, a really good one, I don't see any particular reason to have exceptions,” said Brunetto. “As a young European who has grown up with this opportunity, I couldn't even think of a common European space with borders and visas. Being able to live and work in different countries helps understand each other and creates the basis for a common feeling of be part of a single Europe.”

Also of growing concern is the role of the EU in relation to the role of the national governments of the member states. “The national government worries about giving out the power to the European Parliament,” Liina Viies, a Consul with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia said during an interview in Tallinn. “But what will the national government do? It will just go along with the EU. It’s challenging times. There are 28 countries. The process is so long to find a common ground.”

That lengthy process could have a positive impact in the face of the more extremist parties. Because the various parties need to form coalition to have enough votes to pass legislation, Lundy said, in previous legislatures, it wasn’t uncommon for groups of varying philosophies to band together and break apart depending on the issue.

“Now, the center-left is threatened by the radical left, and the radical right threatens the moderate right,” Lundy said, “so the moderates on both sides will likely band together.”

Puca hopes that’s true. “My greatest concerns right now are the decisions that such a right-wing parliament is going to take. I cannot see the EU helping the development of its member countries in the next five years; I can only see selfish decisions that the big countries are going to take, without caring about the impacts on the smaller countries.”

“It concerns me, of course, because the rise of these almost-Nazi parties is a threat not only to the European society but also because it is the symptom that Europe is going towards the wrong direction,” Brunetto said. “Citizens feel that their voice is not heard, and they look for refugee in populist parties with simple but wrong solutions to real, big problems.”

“There is so much ignorance in regards to the actual political processes (of the EU),” said Lewis. “In that ignorance, then, people can politically hijack it and turn it into whatever narrative they want.”

“I do think there is a real issue here (with these extremist parties) and I hope that somehow this will be addressed, or people will keep losing trust in the EU,” said Varriale. “I think the EU is a very ambitious political project and so it is hard to control, especially under the pressure of global markets. However, it was somehow a positive outcome of World War II, when finally European nations agreed to build a base for peace and prosperity. I really hope that initial idea will not be lost.“

Molly McCluskey conducted reporting in Washington DC; Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; Zagreb, Croatia; Cardiff, Wales; London, England; and Athens, Greece. She has written about the European Union for National Geographic, Beacon Reader, and Al Jazeera English. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2014 print edition.

Molly McCluskey
Molly McCluskey is an independent investigative journalist and editor-at-large of Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.