The following op-ed piece was written by Colombe Cahen-Salvador, co-founder of Volt, and published in The Guardian.
The vote to leave the EU made me take action. We now have Volt, a party offering a different kind of politics.
Before Brexit I never thought deeply about Europe. I benefited from the European Union, studied its shortcomings and achievements, yet it had always seemed to be a given. But 23 June 2016 changed everything. On the morning of Britain’s vote to leave the EU I was on the phone to my partner, Andrea Venzon, and felt devastated. I grew up in France and studied law in the UK. Andrea and I had always planned to move to London some day. It just made sense: I’m French, he’s Italian, and we’d first met there. We represent the generation who have been able to study across Europe as part of the Erasmus scheme. Suddenly we had to rethink everything. I was 22.
During that call, Andrea said something that struck me: “Let’s stop complaining and actually do something.” Since bad politics had brought us here, good politics might be the answer. He had the right idea: to start a progressive, pan-European movement. We called it Volt: a word that’s understood across borders and shows we want to bring new energies to Europe.
That September, I moved to Washington for work, and Andrea to New York for his studies. There he met Damian Boeselager, a German student. Through intense discussions, Volt began to take shape. We dreamed of a movement strong on internal democracy, where choices and platforms would be developed based on evidence, best practices, and following clear values.
Brexit was only the beginning of a trend in European politics that worried me: it seemed contagious. As we started planning Volt, the effects of populism in Europe became more and more visible: Marine Le Pen’s popularity was growing in France, her rise ultimately only countered by Emmanuel Macron, who also followed populist tactics. Although Macron’s values were no doubt closer to mine, his movement En Marche! was less based on ideas than on the personality of a leader. All of this coincided with Italy’s disastrous referendum which rejected constitutional changes, and other negative trends across the continent. It felt like there was an urgency to act. I was angry and saddened that this was the state of my country, and of Europe.
We launched Volt on Facebook the day Britain triggered article 50. We didn’t exactly have a well thought-out plan or a comprehensive strategy. We were a group of friends with a website. So it was a surprise to see how many people were drawn to our project. With no high-profile names, no initial money (we mostly crowdfund) and no experience whatsoever in politics, we set off.
Today we have more than 15,000 activists across all the EU member states plus Switzerland and Albania, and we’ve registered nine Volt political parties (in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria). Volt volunteers come from all walks of life: a 22-year-old consultant from Moldova, working in Bucharest, an Austrian lawyer in his 40s, who once served in parliament, a 70-year-old former reporter in Germany who runs a library in a small village. Among those of the Erasmus generation, most have tended to stay away from political parties in the past because they didn’t see much hope in them. These are people who now meet online and offline and are ready to take on responsibility. With “meet-ups” and video conferences, they work together across borders on a daily basis.
Our policies and programmes are first created at a pan-European level and then adapted to the national and local level, in keeping with our priorities. These are: building a smart state (states should adopt new tools to earn trust through accountability and transparency); initiating an economic renaissance, aimed at providing decent living standards for all; social equality, to guarantee equal rights and opportunities; striking a global balance, in which Europe takes on international responsibilities; empowering citizens to influence politics beyond elections; reforming Europe by offering a clear path towards a federal EU.
We’re well aware that Europe is a political and cultural patchwork, which is why our members come together to develop and vote on policies that are based on best practices and grounded, fact-based evidence and values, not least human rights. Our e-governance policy, for example, looks to the Estonian model as a best practice. We want to do politics in a different way: outside ideological and national boxes. We are now working on what we call our Amsterdam declaration, a platform for the May European parliament elections.
Volt is proof that a youthful, progressive pan-European movement can be created from scratch. Two years after that life-changing phone call, our ambition is to secure at least 25 MEP seats in seven EU countries to be able to form an independent group in the European parliament and truly bring about change.
We’re also preparing to run in municipal elections in several countries. And we’re setting up our headquarters in Brussels. Brexit, populism and outdated traditional politics have served as a wake-up call for thousands of Europeans who now want to preserve what they hold dear, and pave the way for the future of Europe. Human rights are my passion, a field I’ve worked in, and I never thought I’d do anything else but defend and promote them – now I’m also trying to do that through Volt.
Ultimately, we want to help shape Europe’s future, help give others hope, and help young people and communities mobilise across the continent. We want to demonstrate that there is another way of doing politics in Europe and that a new generation is ready to take on responsibilities, not just bask in what others have achieved or suffer the consequences of their failures. We’re fighting for a Europe we believe in. We’re not waiting for someone else to do it for us.