Can I stay involved in politics in another EU country? How? These are questions I didn’t feel equipped to answer when I arrived in Austria, which EMY have helped to answer and explain.
A little background about me first. I’m a law student from Britain, and studying in Vienna for a year as part of the Erasmus+ programme. This is the third year of my law degree, and hopefully I’ll go on to qualify and be admitted as a fully fledged barrister in a few years’ time. I’d love to think that studying EU law would give me enough knowledge about my rights as a citizen living in another EU country (yes, as a Brit I am claiming my EU citizenship for as long as I can). However, while I thought about living in Vienna, moving away from home and how I’d stay engaged with British politics, I have to admit I gave woefully little thought about how I could be a politically engaged citizen in my host country.
I knew I wanted to go abroad to study for a year. The career path to the Bar in England is linear and doesn’t give much room for living abroad, and since I didn’t take a gap year it seemed an opportune moment for me to explore some more of the world while progressing with my studies. Vienna is close enough to go home for Christmas but not too close that I could pop home for a sunday roast, so it seemed the perfect fit for me in my bid to gain a little more independence. I can’t extol enough the virtues of the Erasmus programme enough in influencing my decision to study here. There’s no way this would have been possible without the grant from the EU and I’m forever grateful to the Community for enabling this opportunity.
I arrived in Vienna the weekend that the elections took place for the National Council, and if I’m honest I hadn’t the first idea what was going on. A GCSE in German doesn’t really equip you with the language to engage in Austrian political discourse, and I found it really difficult to find a place to engage in current Austrian politics without feeling like I was only getting headline news. I wanted to get the depth of knowledge which I had back in the UK but couldn’t find a space for this. I also struggled, as someone living here temporarily, with feeling like my political opinion wasn’t warranted or valid. I think this is a huge cognitive barrier to students and young people asserting their rights, as if you’re only planning to be here short-term it might feel like wasted time and energy to invest yourself in host country political dialogue.
Never fear, EMY were here! I contacted the group when they promised accessibility to political information, and I was astounded with the resources and research they had done for people in my situation. It seems strange at first that although I am only here for a year, I should have the right to exercise my voting and democratic rights. However, the more I think this through, the more I realise that the lack of knowledge and education is there only to stifle the views of young people and students in a host country. Students are a huge part of the voting demographic, and it’s essential that our views are championed. This is what EMY does so well. We are entitled to engage in the broader dialogue of the Union, beyond our home country.
While I previously saw my EU rights as confined to freedom of movement and participation in the Erasmus+ scheme, they extends far wider. If any lessons have come out of the Brexit debacle for me, it’s that not having the right to contribute to a decision which so heavily affects your own rights is infuriating. With this in mind, I believe it’s really important for students living in their host country to seize the political rights they are given. This is because I was too young to vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum. My political voice was stifled and overridden by populist, nationalist rhetoric and I was only able to sit by and watch while misinformation was pedalled by both sides of the debate. While I’m conscious that not every student will have this turbulence in their home nation, it’s served to galvanise me and should be a reminder to everyone that participation in a democratic union is a tangible right, free to be grasped with both hands.
So, what now? Through EMY, my EU citizenship has come to life and EMY has boosted me to stand up for more active engagement and advocate for a closer Europe. In practical terms, a better grasp of the language is definitely first on the list. Furthermore, a robust education in Austrian politics has been crucial in understanding the results of the National Council elections. Research from EMY post-election has also been very interesting, as it’s shown that I am by no means alone in the way I was feeling. This means there’s a swathe of students, maybe some reading this, who deserve more information about their rights. This is the goal of EMY.
I’m unsure how to conclude this, as it really only feels like the beginning of my exploration of my engagement. I’ll be attending a focus group at the end of the month with other EMY members and Austrian politicians. It would be wonderful to see other students there. The simplest way to have your opinions heard is to use your voice, and speak up for what you are truly passionate about. That’s what I’m going to continue to do for as long as I’m an EU citizen, and it would be amazing to see other students join me on my journey.