European Youth: Letting go of a Vision

Theophilos Papadopoulos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When I was a child I remember traveling through Europe by car – often, we visited my relatives in Bulgaria. My parents had placed toys and colouring books next to me while we were slowly moving towards our destination in order to distract me from the seemingly endless journey. I can’t even recall how many hours it took us to reach my grandmother’s house, we usually slept for a night in Szeged, Hungary, and arrived late in the evening after we had departed the morning the day before. It impressed me that the queues at the border never seemed to decrease – a constant flow of cars, busses and trucks was blocking all gates of the passport control. The police men would open every single car, investigating for undeclared or illegal goods. Sometimes, even if they hadn’t found anything suspicious, you’d have to bribe them – an informal code of conduct which had rules everyone silently understood. Cigarettes were very popular for this purpose, German chocolates or French wine, too. Otherwise money – 20 Deutsche Mark in the late 90-ies had a high value in post-war Serbia or Romania.

In my childhood memories, people felt the distance – both physically and mentally. Flights were much more expensive than today, it took much longer to control every passenger, calls from abroad were terribly pricey, finding a job abroad required high effort, and you knew you’d get ripped off in most change bureaus. However, I liked collecting stamps in my passport and reminding myself of the trips I had taken. Travelling Europe was a little adventure – I was stunned by the variety and density of languages and different customs I had encountered, but little did I know about how things would change a few years later. When I started studying, the majority of my peers had been abroad several times in Europe. Since most of them were German and travelled through the core Schengen countries, they didn’t share the same memories like me, coming from a former Warsaw Pact member.

Travelling and cultural exchanges have become a normal part of our lives – a romantic week in Paris with your spouse, vacation on the Croatian shore, a party weekend in Madrid or Berlin? It’s a matter of a little money, a booking website and a valid ID card. While I was studying abroad, I met many people who couldn’t care less about their nationality. Of course, they identified themselves with the cultural heritage of their home countries, but beyond that it hardly mattered – no German-French feud our grandparents experienced, no patriotic fights after the second glass of wine. I thought that these little details embodied the European vision: people got together, the mental distance melted – and it was great fun!

A series of mistakes triggered frustration

However, I overestimated the value of these changes: the young Europeans, the one who are in charge to hold the damaged union together, take many (diplomatic) achievements for granted. If you never experienced a lack of the freedoms we have in the EU – like the freedom of mobility – you can hardly appreciate the effort it took to come to the status quo. Does it matter that struggles of the past have been overcome? And if it does – to whom? After almost a decade of crises, the ideal vision of the European Union has faded: the mistakes which were made when the economic concepts have been designed take their toll. Solidarity had always been rather a sexy label for the supposed goals of the union than a realisitc value, therefore hardly any country had shown solidarity in the recent years. The predominant question in European politics and economics has been: “What next?”

It is terrifying that we have reached the point where a dissolution of the political order appears to be an acceptable option to many member countries – and I come to realize that it is obvious that it is. Many young people not only can’t remember about the past obstacles prior to the European integration, but actually never experienced cultural exchange the way I had – for numerous reasons, not everyone can afford stays abroad. Moreover, it is no surprise that the Eastern European countries have become more sceptic towards the principle of subsidiarity. They had been promised prosperity and wealth like in the Western countries by the IMF and the EU – if they only introduced strict economic policies in order to liberalize their markets and become more attractive to investors. Partially, these measures functioned, on the flipside a significant share of the citizens almost succumbed under the new price pressure and the low wages. Additionally, cultural changes might have come too quickly – conservative attitudes and nationalist conflicts have been existing in many countries in spite of the proclaimed community sense within the union.

Why would the children of the exhausting transition period even develop a pro-Europe attitude? How could they identify with this abstract construct which its functionality is still completely unfamiliar to many citizens or even fight for its existence? The great strength of the EU – the integration and conciliation of different cultures, traditions and languages becomes its most persistent challenge: we are lacking common symbols and norms to feel connected. And yes, especially due to the “emotional” dimension, the question if the EU will survive is exactly based on the feeling and perceptions of the citizens. It is our will and belief which will make a difference, instead of sheer economic calculations.

Running out of reasons – do we really need the EU?

Pragmatically, the EU still fulfils a purpose: economic security. Not a single country, not even Germany, can sustain in the long run on the global economic stage without the European market. However, after years of austerity, this dimension appears to be flawed – it seems that only very few core countries managed to cope with the crisis properly. High youth unemployment in the southern countries, cuts in public spending and the lacking perspective for improvement have shaken trust and the commitment to the European idea severely, leaving millions without a perspective and at high risk of poverty. The refugee debate additionally fuels the subliminal hostility among the members.

A symbolic justification for the existence of the union is desperately needed in order to focus on the solution of problems instead of reviving nationalism – and often, the solution has to be a common one. Otherwise, the young generation – the future leaders – will give up the European project sooner or later and let it degenerate. Ironically, Angela Merkel – Europe’s most powerful woman – advocates the most for a common solution, but she won’t be heard or accepted as a European visionary after she opted to introduce tight economic policies in the crisis countries. After nearly a decade of lacking support, nobody will buy her vision of a European solution to the refugee debate. Even in her own country, the formerly popular politician seems to lose touch to the citizens, allowing righ-wing parties to rise in the same threatening way as Front National did in France.

Europe has been governed in a too technocratic manner with seemingly rational claims, but politics isn’t only about functionality solely, but as well about identity. The ideological vacuum the recent past has left cannot be filled and I fear that especially the young generation might be too impulsive to decide to let go of the EU project, without actually designing a realistic alternative. Facing a possible Brexit, struggling economies and renationalization, the youth has no leader, no visionary and hardly an own voice. The decisive question of the near future therefore will be: who or what will ensure the survival of the European idea?