The UK has left the EU, but the Eastern Partnership is one way to stay connected to our fellow Europeans
May 27, 2024

The UK has left the EU, but the Eastern Partnership is one way to stay connected to our fellow Europeans

If you ask your average 20-something-year-old British person what they were doing on the morning of 24 June 2016, they would probably be able to tell you. I was having breakfast at the boarding school where I was studying. It was approximately a week after I had finished my GCSEs (national exams in England), and I was carrying out work experience while waiting for the summer holidays to begin! 

But this was an unusual morning, as the results of a referendum held the previous day were being announced. It was official. The UK had voted to leave the EU, with a majority of 52% in favour of leaving. 

I couldn’t believe it. No-one fully understood what the consequences of this decision would be, and there’s a certain naivety in thinking that offering such choices without clarity of the implications was ever considered as a realistic option – as if nobody had asked “what if?”. The campaigns leading up to the vote were full of ambiguity and wishful thinking.

‘But what can you say?’

Back to 16-year-old Charlie’s breakfast though. All around me were the voices of hopeful adults telling us how this would bring the country success and prosperity, which we would fully appreciate once we were out of the EU. I remained silent, knowing that, just as I could not participate in the referendum, my argument would not change the evolving reality. 

On the opposite side of the coin, I can imagine the excitement of young Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Georgians, who know that their countries are closer than ever to joining the EU. Although this still seems far off, I am positive that citizens will continue to shape their future, despite the various challenges.

Now in 2024, do I think that the UK was right to leave the EU? Absolutely not. In this respect, 16-year-old Charlie agrees with my current self. Nevertheless, do I feel more positive about how my country now views Europe? Yes, I do. Here’s why…

Immigration and refugees: political debate vs reality 

Many of the reasons that the electorate voted to leave the EU in 2016 were related to immigration, and the portrayal of a worsening situation often described as a ‘crisis’ – not just in the UK, but across Europe. The difference is that this happened during the UK’s EU membership referendum campaign. 

In the years that passed, Brexit’s difficulties were wrestled with in our national politics, but in 2020, we finally left the EU. 

As such, I was concerned when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, that while many EU countries were welcoming refugees from Ukraine, this would not be the case in the UK given the politicisation of the asylum issue, which continues to this day. Nevertheless, while those fleeing Ukraine and wishing to come to the UK are required to obtain a visa (not the case for those arriving in the EU), most of the 253,800 refugees who have come to the UK have been welcomed with open arms. In my opinion, this demonstrates that people in the UK recognise the threat that Ukrainians continue to face, and that more connects us than divides us. This is something of which I am extremely proud. 

In my small town alone, on the English south coast, there is now a café selling Ukrainian bakery items. I also noticed more people speaking in Ukrainian and Russian here following the full-scale invasion. Although recently I have not heard these languages as often. This is either because they have since learned English and feel more confident to use it, or because an increasing number are returning due to homesickness and/or a wish to support their country from within. Unfortunately, for those who do stay, they continue to face various challenges, including those caused by a lack of awareness about Ukraine.

Lessons to learn: what can the Eastern Partnership countries learn from the UK? How can we create better connections as young people?

Thinking about the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, there is a lot that the UK and certain EaP countries can learn from one another. To give some examples that could apply to many EaP countries: they can look to Wales to witness the increase in the use of the Welsh language and adapt such models for their regional/native languages. Perhaps they could look to Northern Ireland as an example of a place where those from different religious and national identities now live more peacefully and in shared prosperity, after decades of violence. 

Those of us in the UK also ought to follow the news of the EaP countries, to offer our support, and to spread awareness of current events. 

The eyes of the world will be on Azerbaijan later this year at COP29, to witness how the agreements made in Glasgow and subsequent summits will shape the global fight against climate change. It is yet another chance to build on the agreements made for a better future, which young people around the world should support. In Belarus, as of the time of writing, 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, with many incommunicado for more than a year, all because of their wish for democracy. British young people should not forget about the situation in Belarus, just as they do not forget about the fight for freedom in Ukraine. Small steps all add up, such as discussing the situation there with family and friends to make them aware, or writing a letter to a political prisoner in your spare time. 

Lastly, it is also important to make connections, and find our own ways to build bridges, even when there are geographical distances or cultural barriers between us. The UK is famous for its diversity and it is something to be proud of.

So, perhaps join a relevant student society at your university, attend lectures about a new country you want to know more about, or spread the work of the YEAs with your friends, so that more and more young British people keep the EaP on their radar. Hopefully you feel inspired to learn more – after all, these are the little things we can do to feel just that bit closer to our fellow Europeans, especially when connections now are more important than ever. 

Interested in the latest news and opportunities?

This website is managed by the EU-funded Regional Communication Programme for the Eastern Neighbourhood ('EU NEIGHBOURS east’), which complements and supports the communication of the Delegations of the European Union in the Eastern partner countries, and works under the guidance of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, and the European External Action Service. EU NEIGHBOURS east is implemented by a GOPA PACE-led consortium. It is part of the larger Neighbourhood Communication Programme (2020-2024) for the EU's Eastern and Southern Neighbourhood, which also includes 'EU NEIGHBOURS south’ project that runs the EU Neighbours portal.

The information on this site is subject to a Disclaimer and Protection of personal data. © European Union,