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Opinion

Opinion: As the Brexit vote shows, democracy is more than a hashtag

With hashtags, such as #notmyvote, young Brits are protesting online against the Brexit. But that's no use to anyone, since many of them did not vote in the first place, writes Maximiliane Koschyk.

So far, the Brexit has not changed my life. But without the EU it would not have been that easy for me to study in the United Kingdom only a few years ago. Understandably, I see British friends ranting in social networks about the outcome of the recent referendum. But are they uploading the same solidarity profile picture by the hundreds? No. Their solidarity doesn't seem to go this far.

Scrolling through my friend list I only detected a European flag twice: In the specific picture one of the twelve stars was swapped for a tear. But besides that, nobody seems to cry even symbolically for the EU. Even though there are online protests mobilizing against the Brexit: hashtags, initiatives, even a petition demanding a second referendum.

Generations divided in the United Kingdom

Especially young people feel disappointed and betrayed – by the generation of their parents and grandparents. They were the first ones to benefit from the European peace project, the freedom of movement and the free education. "You're withholding these privileges from us," young Brits accuse their elders because most of the latter voted for leaving the EU. "It's your own fault," the elders retort, "if only one third of you youngsters shows up at the polling stations."

Maximiliane Koschyk

Maximiliane Koschyk

Though three-fourths of the young Brits did vote to remain in the EU, the majority of those younger than 24 years old did not vote at all. That comes as a shock, even if low turnout amongst young Europeans isn't really news. It is sad because young people can be very innovative when it comes to engaging in politics.

Only a year ago, when Greece was almost facing withdrawal from the EU due to its sovereign debt crisis, a young Brit organized a crowd funding-campaign. By the end he had only raised a thousandth of the money needed, but even that amounted to 1.9 million euros.

Why can't we be this engaged on Election Day? Imagine how differently the referendum would have turned out if this young Brit would have raised 1.9 million more votes for his own country's EU membership. Is a voting booth not digital enough for the generation of digital natives? Should we seriously consider making democratic decisions online? Please, no.

It's the real-life vote that counts

Showing up at a polling station, or sending your vote by mail, is less convenient than a simple click, but it is also a decision you make more consciously. Let's be honest: No matter how old, we tend to have a loose grip on our like-thumb. The traction of social networks is no secret to anyone anymore, least of all to populists who feed their campaigns with fear and fright. Even hate speech has become such a big issue online that German politicians felt obliged to meet with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

It's not only an issue of real vs. digital life – politics itself is a problem. The EU has been struggling with its image as an inhumane bureaucratic mega institution – and been the punch line for jokes about the curving degree for cucumbers for ages. Even unapologetic defenders of the EU, like the president of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, have recognized a need for change. If the leaders of the member states agreed on one thing at the EU Council summit this week, it was that they need to listen more to their citizens.

This includes us, the young people, and to make ourselves heard, we need to continue mobilizing each other online via hashtags and online initiatives. But our voice can be the loudest when we quietly cast our ballots in the polling booth. Those young Brits who did not do that – they changed not only their lives, but ours as well. That's why we Europeans should not forget that at the end of the day, what counts is the little cross you make and not the likes for a profile picture.

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