Can Europe Make It?

Empathy with apathy - why we should understand ignorance of European politics

Christoph Heuermann
31 March 2014

Today's young generation lacks an interest in European issues. Their apathy - their indifference towards politics - is an actual problem for the future of the European Union. Its future generation simply does not seem to care about Europe. However, one should not have wonder why this is!

Apathy in young people has several causes, not all of which I can describe here. So I will concentrate on four major issues for this generation of younger Europeans. Essentially, all boil down to the younger generation feeling that their ideas are not taken seriously. Centralization, paternalism, lack of democracy and a missing identification with Europe are the main causes for this.

Missing identification, a topic I discussed in my last blog, is the first thing to understand. This young generation of Europeans simply has not experienced all the effort and pain of creating a unified Europe. They are far removed from having experienced the terror of the Second World War. However, even more recent conflicts in Europe, such as those in the Balkans, are something most young people are not aware of. Whether the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine will encourage at least a little more identification is doubtful.

Of course, politicians like Jean-Claude Juncker already want a European army (a topic I already discussed) - and like we know from history, just 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War - war is something used to mobilize the youth, however unreasonably. Young people today however have not experienced any war apart from computer games. They grew up in peace, and they won't strongly identify with a Europe fighting its 'enemies'.

Furthermore, the young generation has not created anything in Europe to be proud of. They use all the advantages of free migration and Erasmus programmes, but they have not contributed to this. Psychologically, to identify with something, one has to contribute to it. If Europe remains just a commodity to be consumed, the apathy of young Europeans must continue to grow.

Consuming Europe however is a totally fair option for young Europeans today, because their participation seems not to be desired. There may be thousands of programmes spending unbelievable amounts of money to get young Europeans to care - but they are worthless if the central attitude is not changed. This attitude is one of paternalism.

Politicans do not trust in their fellow humans. They pretend to know better. They know what we should eat, where to have fun, why we should be protected from all the dangers of life. They even know about the optimal curvature of cucumbers. Obviously, the ordinary European is not taken seriously. No wonder that this causes apathy.

Their ideas may be heard, but this paternalist reception of ideas on the one hand ensures that politicians discount them, while on the other hand many bright people won't bother. One even more banal thing about the politics of paternalism - regulation - is that it steals a lot of money and time. Time people lose for thinking about Europe instead of getting anxious about it.

The centralization of Europe in one or two cities reinforces this attitude. Most people (hopefully) care about themselves and their families. Luckily, a great number even care for their local community. Apart from this however, caring for other people diminishes by increasing size. To have the same nationality might be an important factor for some, but certainly not for all people. Caring about what happens in other countries is simply something the modern human is not programmed for.

Once this 'selfishness' might have served an evolutionary purpose: now it is doubly reinforced by all the distractions of modern life. If the action is concentrated on Brussels, Strasbourg and Den Haag - and it mainly is - it should not be any surprise that people do not care. They might travel there once in a lifetime - but they certainly do not identify with those places. To be heard - to have just a little glimmer of influence - means to be just at the right place at the right time - like lobbyists are. The young generation however has no lobbyists. But they do have to finance the old ones, as this looks likely to continue.

Inherently, this is the problem with democracy - or the lack of it. The older generations dictate what happens to the younger - demographics will increase this trend in almost all European countries. Even more important is the lack of democracy in European institutions - a topic better left for another article. Needless to say, without participation, without the incentive to produce something, to create something for Europe, there is apathy.

And we should perfectly understand this and be empathetic with the young apathetic Europeans.

In terms of democracy, at least the coming European elections have inspired some positive changes in some countries. In Germany, for the first time in its history, there is now democracy at work in these elections. The prohibitive threshold of 5%, which dominated German elections, has been declared illegitimate by the German Constitutional Court. At the last national elections more than 10% of the votes were not included in the composition of the parliament, because two parties had just below 5% of the votes.

For the European elections, this won't happen any more. Every vote will count. This might create new problems, allowing heaps of minor parties to gain seats in the European Parliament. But it sends an important signal. If people care about Europe and go to the elections, the decision of everyone must now be heard. Other countries which still have prohibitive thresholds should follow this example.

One might predict that participation in the elections will increase. That is good news for Europe, but electoral participation is only a minor aspect of the much deeper issue of apathy. Europe has to address all the other concerns and Europe has to change its attitude - without this, we will see even more apathy. We should be empathetic towards the apathetic - not with the bureaucrats who are running around wondering why!

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