Europe on the Move

Across all European countries, Europe’s economic as well as moral crisis – together with its causes and effects – has been one of the defining issues for media, civil society, and political debate. Should there be a return to national policies? Or do we need more European solidarity – meaning EU institutions would have to be invested with greater authority? Is the solution increased national action or more pressure on Brussels? Are there any new economic initiatives to stem the spiralling youth unemployment in Southern Europe? Among victims of the crisis, committed young Europeans, resourceful young entrepreneurs, EU politicians, and scientists working for think tanks there is little consensus on all of these issues.

The discussion panel on “European Solidarity & Europe’s Youth” that was part of the conference “Europe's Future – Europe’s Young Generation” at the Heinrich Böll Foundation the whole range of opinions and possible solution was on display. First, Italian researcher Ilaria Maselli of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies discussed the meaning of “youth unemployment.” According to Ilaria Maselli, youth unemployment in Europe is much lower than often claimed and it is only “one of many manifestations of unemployment.” Figures collected by Eurostat suggest that unemployment among Spanish youths aged 14 – 24 is not at 50%, as has been alleged, but only at 30%. For Ilaria, policies that aim to fight youth unemployment instead of unemployment in general are “misguided.”

Excluded from jobs and education

Maselli’s analysis provoked strong reactions from the audience and fellow-panellists. Greek participant Michaelis Goudis of CECODHAS Housing Europe, a non-profit federation campaigning for subsidised and co-operative housing, argued that in his country young people where not only excluded from the job market but also from education. Austerity measures forced upon Greece by the troika of EU Commission, ECB, and IMF have resulted in the dramatic underfunding of Greek universities. According to Goudis, this lack of educational opportunities will result in a lack of job opportunities and perspectives. In Greece (and the situation is similar in Spain) most young people are living with their parents as they lack the funds to rent their own flats, something that is contrary to the human right to housing.

Polish journalist and activist Marcelina Zawisza stressed that, because of the insecurities of the job market, Europe has de facto lost its social safety net. A minimum wage equivalent to two euros and the extremely insecure employment situation in Poland are a departure from traditions upheld since the days of the Solidarność movement. Zawisza rejects Brussels’ demand that Poland tackle its insecure job market by becoming more flexible and mobile. The young people in her country, she holds, should not be viewed as a resource but as people with families and social roots. For Marcelina Zawisza mobility and flexibility have to be based on people’s free choice and should never be prescribed as an emergency measure.

Promoting new technologies in order to create a novel European economic system

Reinhard Bütikofer, chairman of the European Green Party, rejected such criticism of Brussels’ policies and forcefully made the case for a European solution. Nevertheless, he argued, such an approach should not be limited to the 6-billion-euro youth guarantee scheme adopted by the heads of government in June 2013 – a programme that aims to boost employment exchange at the European level. According to Bütikofer, the weakness of such measures is that they are overly dependent on the effectiveness of respective national institutions. Measures with a realistic chance of fostering European solidarity in the fight against youth unemployment and for greater job security are needed, yet, for him, approaches such as a European financial transaction tax, an EU-wide basic income, or a common fiscal policy will not be able to achieve this. Instead, the head of the European Greens favours a new economic model for Europe and a greater promotion of new technology in the areas of transport and energy. Technology research, sustainable production, and the promotion of crafts and trades will create new jobs in Europe and help make it a resilient business location.

Through informal talks and so-called “country tables” the conference offered the opportunity to learn what the reality on the ground looks like across different EU countries and to learn about young people’s expectations in and disappointments with the European Union. At the country tables many of the 60 young Europeans that had been invited by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and its partner organisations European Alternatives, the Federation of Young European Greens (FEYEG), and the Young European Federalists (JEF) talked about the situation in their home countries. This corresponded well with the aim of the conference to show up shortcomings as well as expectations, to point out perspectives, and to stimulate Europe-wide exchanges about such issues.

Expectations towards Europe: housing, education, jobs

Michalis Goudis, for example, not only works for CECODHAS Housing, he is also an active participant of “Thessaloniki in a different way,” a group that organises conferences, festivals, and public interventions that aim to connect young artists with economic players. When asked what he expected from the EU, his reply was: housing, education, jobs. However, Goudis does not believe that European subsidies such as the youth guarantee scheme will be able to achieve economic stability and social security. “We have to come together again – as a society, and we will have to discover how to tap our potentials in a communal way,” says Goudis.

For three years now Goudis’ “urban activism group” has been organising numerous events, facilitating for example meetings between creative young people and members of Thessaloniki’s administration. Here, the aim is to discover how to make use of untapped potentials and find out what public spaces may be used for novel projects. The city’s harbour is underused with numerous abandoned buildings. Some of these structures have already been repurposed as exhibition and meeting spaces for people from all walks of life.

Young protest voters in France

At the country table for France, 23-year-old Claire Darmé of the Young European Federalists is explaining how her country’s politics is being ripped apart by scandals and political intrigue, and what the renewed popularity of the far-right Front National reveals about France’s attitude towards Europe. The young Frenchwoman, who has only recently returned from a one-year university exchange in Cambridge, is a committed European and says: “Because Europe’s not always in good working order, some demand less of it. We, on the other hand, want more Europe!”

Recent opinion polls point to the fact that young people in France are highly politicised. However, the predominant attitude is “tous pourris,” that is, “everybody’s corrupt.” According to Darmé, trust in national and European institutions is at an all-time low. The far-right Front National, in its recent stunning election success in the Département Var in southern France garnered 30% of its votes from the young – and a similar result is to be expected for the upcoming European elections. According to Darmé, support for the right-wing party does not mean that the young French are anti-European; rather it is to be understood as a protest vote against the elites in Paris and Brussels. One main goal that needs to be achieved in order to win back young people’s support for the European project is what Claire Darmé has written onto the flip chart at her table: “A caring Europe is possible.” Greater integration, institutional reform, and civic participation would put a Europe-wide minimum wage within reach. She adds, “However, for this to happen, we would need the support of citizens and politicians alike.”

The crisis has dampened the enthusiasm of young Macedonians for the EU

At the country table for Macedonia, Ivana Jordanovska views her country and its European perspective even more sceptically. The 22-year-old political scientist has recently completed her degree in Transatlantic Relations at Science Po in Paris, and, since May 2013, she has been trying to find employment. “In Macedonia it is almost impossible to get one of the much-coveted administrative jobs – unless you are well-connected,” says Jordanovska who is a member of the Young European Federalists but does not belong to any political party. Since 2005, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership. “Prior to the crisis many thought of the EU mainly in terms of jobs and money. Meanwhile, however, in view of what is happening in countries such as Greece and Spain, many have lost their enthusiasm for the EU, and the majority aspires to a secure position within Macedonia’s state apparatus.”

Three additional problem areas were highlighted at the Spanish table – democracy, the environment, and economics. Inés López-Dóriga is one of the founders of Spain’s new green party Red Equo Joven (RQJ). The 24-year-old says, “Again and again the government and the monarchy are shaken by scandal and corruption. Peaceful rallies against austerity measures, on the other hand, are being criminalised as violent riots. Our position is: To earn only 600 euros per month is an act of violence.”

Spain’s environmental dilemma

As far as environmental issues are concerned, Spain is not only burdened with a prime minister who denies the reality of climate change, as well as with the consequences of the boom in construction that has lead to the destruction of many costal areas, “Spain is also Europe’s sunniest country, yet 75% of its energy is being imported, with 85% from conventional energy sources.” Inés López-Dóriga also paints a dire picture of the situation on the job market and in education, claiming that 57% of young people are unemployed and an increasing number of skilled staff is leaving the country for other EU member states. One consequence of the austerity measures imposed by Brussels is that, within two years, the cost of one semester at university has risen by 60%. “Of those under 30, 80% depend on their parents. Young people get the impression that no-one is taking them seriously, neither their government, nor Brussels.”

“We have to overcome our passiveness and find individual solutions,” adds her compatriot Eduardo Ocaña. The 23-year-old economist is currently trying to find employment as a journalist. Three years ago he founded “Youth Without Future,” an initiative that is trying to stimulate political debate among the younger generation using social networks. In addition, the organisation calls for protests against the horrendous consequences of austerity policies, offers counselling in the area of labour law, and has built a network of around 8.000 young Spaniards currently looking for employment in other EU countries. The name of his organisation, says Eduardo and smiles, is nothing but a slogan. The actual message is, “You’re not on you own – let’s protest together!”

New momentum through green ideas

During the afternoon session on “A Green Economy as a Way to Solve the EU’s Crisis,” the Greek Kostas Terzopoulos expounds on how individual approaches may offer a way out. For two years, the former radio technician had been unsuccessful in his hunt for a job – until he tried a novel approach. Today, his GreenWays Social Cooperative Enterprise is promoting the extension of Greece’s network of cycle paths. He consults with local communities and the tourism industry on how to expand the bicycle sector, offers safety training for school kids, and is publishing maps and cycling guidebooks.

The 27-year-old Pieter Ploeg from Sweden exemplified how green ideas may be able to transform rural regions towards greater solidarity. With exhibitions, workshops, and a conference on “Living Soil,” his “Summer of Soil” initiative was able to foster consciousness about the importance of sustainable soil in the town of Järna, near Stockholm. Although he is co-operating with EU institutions he has decided to forgo funding in order to avoid the time-consuming and arduous application and administrative efforts. “I would like to remain flexible and independent of institutions,” posits the pensive Dutchman. Next year he will be trying to expand his project to Spain.

The European Parliament – nothing but a fig leaf to cover up Europe’s lack of democracy

The final panel on “A Democratic Europe and Youth on the Move” once again exemplified the gulf between the specific concerns of European citizens and the institutional realities of European bureaucracies. When Eduardo Ocaña stated that most people in Spain ignored European elections and that the parliament was “a joke,” Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht concurred, saying that he, as an MEP, often had the impression that the parliamentarians where nothing but a fig leaf to cover up Europe’s lack of democracy.

“Many citizens are pro-European but anti-EU”

Albrecht demanded, “The national parliaments will have to relay debates in the EP to their respective countries in order to create greater civic participation.” The European Citizens' Initiative that provides that with the endorsement of one million EU citizens the European Commission will be forced to address certain issues is, for Albrecht, a step in the right direction of greater civic participation. Through this mechanism it has been possible, until now, to prevent the privatisation of Greece’s water works, something the troika had imposed on Greece as part of the austerity measures.

Regarding the EU’s citizens’ loss of confidence in Brussels, Daniela Schwarzer of the German Institute of International and Security Affairs (SWP) stated that the situation was “bleak but not hopeless.” She added, “Many citizens are pro-European but anti-EU.” This reflected the pervasive mood at the conference, namely, that the ongoing crisis and the disappointment of many young people with the EU has done little to diminish the interest in Europe-wide exchanges and talks about alternatives and reforms towards greater democratic participation in EU institutions. After all, Europe’s future is their future, too.

Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.