Can Europe Make It?

Euro elections 2014 bloggers introduce themselves: Part Two

What is Europe for you? What does it mean to be young and European in 2014? An exchange of views between bloggers across the continent. Can Europe make it? has the pleasure of introducing you to our guest columnists for the run-up to the European elections 2014.

Alex Sakalis
17 January 2014
  • What has happened to the idea of a united Europe?
  • My interest in Europe is personal as well as academic
  • The EU is the best thing that has happened to Bulgaria
  • Ask me whether I feel European or not
  • I would like to see a campaign informing EU citizens what they can do already
  • As Aristotle said, people are naturally political animals
  • What has happened to the idea of a united Europe?

    By Christoph Heuermann

    Being a 23 year old German by birth, I consider myself more a cosmopolitan. Europe has an astonishing diversity of people, culture and landscapes, but studying in Konstanz near the Swiss border, I sometimes like to have a break from the European Union. After school I went volunteering in New Zealand. Living at the other end of the world was quite amazing and brought a deep change to my life. So reading has given way to traveling. I love Europe, but not what happens in it politically. I think Switzerland as a country, with its decentralism, direct democracy and economic freedom, holds some valuable insights for the EU.

    I’ve lived in Vienna and am now studying in Madrid. I’m still astonished how close we Europeans are to each other despite some cultural differences. Meeting so many exciting people makes me forget that there are borders which define nationalities. Borders are an important European issue for me. Being a classical liberal, I deeply believe in the case for free migration and free trade, both of which seem to be in trouble at the moment. On the one hand, people die almost daily while trying to reach the stronghold of Europe from Africa, drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, the free trade agreement with the US is in some difficulty as a result of revelations about the NSA. Speaking as a cosmopolitan, Europe should be a free and open society, not closed to anyone.

    But we still have a long way. Nationalism unfortunately is on the rise. My French flatmates shocked me recently, when it turned out that they vote for the Front National. Then I noticed this was not the only example, in other conversations with other people. What has happened to the idea of an united Europe? Why do actually really friendly and tolerant people vote for far right-wing nationalism combined with economic protectionism? This question bothers me.

    You already see, I am quite political and idealistic, although not bound to any political party. I do not really like party politics (although I interned with a German MP last summer), thinking that changes in society are better achieved by individual efforts like (social) entrepreneurship and collective action. I can fully understand the more pragmatic approaches to European issues in times of crisis. However, Europe needs more than technocrats. It needs a vision. Indeed being political, I am not sure yet if I am going to vote in the European elections. I neither want the previous path to continue nor to vote for haters of Europe. And in Germany at least, there is not much choice in between.

    Having friends all around Europe I am sad about what the crisis has brought to them. Currently living in the centre of Madrid, there are few signs of this. The city buzzes. However, many young Spaniards are trying to emigrate. A friend of mine is off soon to Germany – the country I was glad to leave. Although Germany lies in the heart of Europe, my heart does not lie there. This is not so much to do with Germany’s history, as it is about current politics and the German mentality - though I really love the vast variety of German landscapes, its beautiful medieval cities and the great thinkers born there. For that reason, I also see the German influence on European issues as quite critical. Europe should not become another Germany, it should stay as colourful as it is. For this Europe I fight, and for this Europe I hope to write and explain my ideas.

    My interest in Europe is personal as well as academic

    By Marcus How

    My name is Marcus How and I live in Essex, just outside of London. I studied Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. At first, I didn’t think that this was the most practical of degrees, a suspicion compounded when I graduated in July 2010, and emerged into a job market that was at the nadir of its depression. However, this assumption was incorrect. The analytical import of the discipline – together with giving you a weird ability to pick up new concepts quickly – put me in good stead when I began working as an intern in the political risk sector.

    After three months I was hired full-time, acting as the firm’s social media analyst, which involved developing methodologies by which to systematically mine risk-relevant information from social media platforms. This was particularly interesting, as it was at the time of the Arab uprisings and the Occupy protests in the US and Europe. I also worked as a research analyst for the North America desk.

    After eighteen months in the job, I felt I’d hit a ceiling in terms of responsibility and decided to do a Masters. I chose International Political Economy – i.e. economics for people who can’t add up – which I studied at King’s College London. In the meantime, I continued working part-time as a research analyst for the Western Europe desk; a role that neatly complemented my academic area of focus. 

    My interest in Europe is personal as well as academic. My mother’s side of the family are from Vienna, and I am bilingual in German. I am fascinated in Austrian history, especially the interwar years and the Habsburg Empire. The Viennese-Habsburg connection has also bred in me a strong interest in Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve travelled extensively across the region. Although I’ve been to many other countries, nowhere gets me going like Austria and the ‘new Europe’.

    The three issues I feel should be discussed in any current debates about Europe are the following. First, the consolidation of the European banking sector. The focus of my Masters dissertation was on Austrian finance in CEE. This was a fascinating project because by analysing financial indicators, one is able to assess the depth and sustainability of economic development. The extent of economic convergence between countries becomes plainer to see. It becomes particularly important when one considers that in the Eurozone at the moment, structural asymmetries continue to exist between members. Without a robust, comprehensive and unequivocally supranational banking union, these asymmetries will likely prove to be very destructive in the coming years.

    Second, populist politics is a fascinating area, one that is growing in importance. It is a symptom of the disconnect between the EU’s institutions and its citizens. Many citizens feel as though globalisation is not working for them, and rather than acting as a shield, the EU is merely perpetuating the ill effects of liberalisation. Populist parties are also particularly interesting for me because they tend to be movements rather than parties, and thereby transcend the left-right divide, highlighting how arbitrary a distinction it is. I feel that the populist politics of the interwar years were basically the same phenomenon, appealing to the same anxieties. Besides this, I think the rise of populist parties in recent years asks the question: does the EU have to be democratic in order to be effective? Can technocratic governance ever be enough? Do people only appeal to the democratic deficit when times are bad?

    Finally, a neglected area of discussion is the nature of integration. On the left, it is often said that the EU should effectively be dismantled, and reconstructed along democratic lines. But is this vision realistic? Is it possible to create a United States of Europe overnight? Would states ever willingly cede sovereignty to the extent that real democratic decision-making could be taken at the supranational level? How could this happen? Could EU institutions accommodate for such a move? What other cases of integration can we learn from? As to the last question, I think the US is a massively neglected and potentially fascinating area of study in this regard. Taking a look at US integration from the War of Independence onwards, and comparing it to Europe, would be an unusual but relevant area of discussion. After all, in pursuing economic convergence and political integration, the US ended up having to fight a civil war! 

    The EU is the best thing that has happened to Bulgaria

    By Vasil Silyanovski

    My name is Vasil Silyanovski. In my opinion and the opinion of other young people whom I know, the EU is the best thing that has happened to Bulgaria. I personally graduated in Economics in Vienna and so have seen the advantages of being an EU citizen. I returned back to Bulgaria and I am currently studying Law with the intention of helping in the development of my country, to continue its European development and to acquire European values. Those are my goals and my dream is that one day Bulgaria will be a model country, both for Europe and for the rest of the world.

    The latest university occupation was a natural progression from the ongoing protests in Bulgaria. It all started with the appointment of a media mogul to head up the National Department of State Security. This struck us all as yet another impudent and corrupt political move on the part of the government currently in power in what is described as the “transition period”. This was insanity. Our immoral, non-visible, non-democratic government had finally gone beyond any tolerable limits.

    However, maybe I ought to explain things by taking a step back. From the fall of communism to nowadays, the former communist party and their successors are the main powers in the land. The main difference between them and civil society is that they consider success is achievable only if you play an active role in power politics. For us, success is achieved on merit by demonstrating knowledge and hard work. Principally, this is the difference.

    In the last 24 years, communists have repeatedly seized power. But this time, their moral degradation has sunk to new depths. Aiming to be in power at all costs, they have entered into a coalition with the far right nationalist party and the ethnic Turkish party. A few words on these parties’ typical voters. The former communist party’s electorate is full of people of lower social status who dream of turning the clock back to Communist times. The ethnic Turkish party’s vote is kept artificially high by instilling fear amongst the ethnic Turkish people and manipulating them accordingly. The nationalist party is a purely demagogic organization, and one absolutely discredited following a series of scandals which began with their silent participation in this insane coalition government, and included photos of their members visiting their leader in some of the most expensive hotels in the world. 

    The university occupation was a mild and peaceful way to express our disagreement with the absurdity taking place in the Parliament. But the students are now starting to enlighten themselves. This is where our name comes from - The Early Rising Students, (because we have acted before it is too late). We have found ourselves in this situatation due to the outrageous acts occurring at every level of the political system.

    Now, we are taking things into our own hands, because we realise it is up to us to fight for the change we want to see in our country and community. We want to be the change. We want to be an example for everyone. Up until now, Bulgarians have waited for someone to come and make things better, to save us. For a spiritual leader to take us to the promised land; for a Messiah. We, the Early Rising students, are very much aware of the fact that there is no Messiah. If we want a democratic, pure country of integrity where people have the opportunity to develop and prosper on fair terms, we will have to earn it. We hope everyone else will come to know this as well. We will not give up, because we want a better future for Bulgaria.

    Ask me whether I feel European or not

    By Maria Antica

    Five years ago, when I began to study political sciences in Bucharest, I was asked ‘why?’ by a professor. I had pretty much no idea, although I mumbled something about getting to know “the system” better so that I can start to change it. It must have sounded like so much bombast. What system? What change? What for? I was glad nobody asked: back then, I didn’t have any magic answers in my pocket.

    But the question has dogged me ever since. Joining a political party wasn’t an option at the time and still isn’t. And ‘the system’ anyway always seems to be somewhere else. I started to volunteer in civil society projects with a focus on education and Roma issues. My interest started to grow in domestic affairs, citizenship, rule of law, democracy as an overall concept and grass roots activities. I did a bit of everything but not enough of any, as my day job was unrelated and time and resources limited.

    Meanwhile I discovered my passion for foreign and international affairs so took some classes in my master programme. Working with a Romanian think tank, with Foreign Policy Romania magazine and recently, an internship at the Center for European Policy Analysis followed on as a natural progression. This was when my interest in the EU, more specifically, in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries came to the fore. How have the new EU members been accepted amongst a group of ‘well established’ democracies while having to put themselves back on track at home? What does being ‘European’, with this new set of values, really mean and how is it to be achieved?

    Looking back I realize it was all these little steps and projects that have helped me to understand that for none of these countries is democracy immediately, once and for ever, established at the point of EU accession. Romania was no exception. People’s lack of trust in any democratic tools due to a long communist legacy, their apathy and frustration caused by so many of the actions and decisions taken by their elected representatives, must be contrasted with the huge expectations and enthusiasm that followed shortly after the 1989 Revolution or after joining the EU in 2004. I was one of many who didn’t really think that protesting or involving myself in any cause would be of any use when ‘nobody was going to listen anyway’.

    A year ago, I had this talk with a good friend, both of us being dissatisfied with the current state of affairs: that democracy is not ‘sexy’ enough for our politicians nowadays, that citizens don’t really know what parties think on important topics, especially on those of concern for the public interest; that there is no accountability for any decision taken in the Parliament, and simply that people’s voices can’t really be heard.

    That’s how the Public Romania initiative was born. In a nutshell, it was designed as a platform or a civic forum where, with some ‘common sense’ and clear rules, politicians, experts and regular citizens gather, debate and vote on controversial issues as a democratic exercise in an attempt to make both ‘sides’ see that things are not only black and white, that citizens need to keep an open and critical eye when it comes to politicians’ decisions and that politicians have to explain their decisions better and take responsibility for them.

    This is only one attempt among many others by those who are trying to awaken and strengthen Romanian civil society. I would love to see more engaged citizens in their communities, people who do trust that their actions can bring change, people who won’t tolerate corrupt politicians and who understand that change starts firstly with themselves, from their closer circles to their whole communities. Not paying a small bribe for a doctor to take care of you, or a police man for not giving you a traffic fine. It starts there, and these are just small steps, but their effect can cascade. Reacting when unlawful decisions are taken in the Parliament or when the justice system or rule of law is at risk should be more than a moral duty to stand tall and say no to these acts. And the latest protests in Bucharest and the whole country show that people have started to care for more than wages and their social and economical wellbeing (although these are important as well).

    Ask me whether I feel European or not and I can only answer: it depends on the people I meet. I feel European when I find open-minded people, willing to give some of their time for causes they think are important for the societies they live in, who get engaged in their communities - people who are being critical, constructive and creative.

    But all the rest gives me the opposite feeling. And this, in the end, is ‘the system’ that I’d love to help change from within. A sense of solidarity and cohesion is what brings me closer to a European feeling, without at all annihilating my sense of being Romanian. On the contrary, this is what healthy, strong societies should want and encourage. Democracy is a continuously changing system and, along with citizenship, it is also fragile. It can be ‘updated’ at any time, either through active engagement or, worse case scenario, by not participating at all in the Agora.

    I would like to see a campaign informing EU citizens what they can do already

    By Marzena Sadowska

    I feel both Polish and European. Pressed to choose, I’d say more Polish since I grew up in Polish culture, Polish is my first and favourite language and my whole family is Polish. European, because I have friends in Germany, Austria, UK, Macedonia, Turkey and Spain and I obviously have common language with them too. Our culture is common, to some extent, and the differences I found are fascinating to me.

    There is always a question ‘what is Europe’? Is it only European Union? Definitely not, but then, where are its borders? What are borders of culture, anyway? I think cultural ones are more important than geographical, especially when we talk about Europe (taking into consideration that in school I learned about eastern border of Europe being somewhere in the middle of Russia). Is Turkey European? Is Georgia or Armenia? I like to think of Europe as a concept.

    To me, Europe is only what we make it and has very wide borders, with Armenia and Georgia included. I don’t really see why not. And with Turkey too, because I don’t believe in Europe as a group of only Christian countries. There are Muslim countries in the Balkans and we should look at the history, at the Caliphate of Cordoba and stop pretending that Islam is completely foreign to us.

    When there was a referendum on whether or not should Poland join the European Union, I was too young to vote. It was, obviously, a pretty big deal and everyone was talking about it, me and my friends included. I remember my way of thinking then. I wanted Poland to join the EU because I didn’t see any better alignment for Poland. Only later I came to appreciate European Union and the possibilities it brought us.

    I travel because I can. I go to places because there is something there I want to see, or someone I want to meet with. In the last one and half years, I have lived in three different countries and travelled to eight in total. Two of my longest stays abroad were thanks to the European Union: I was an Erasmus student in Istanbul for nine months, and then an intern of the Leonardo da Vinci programme in Berlin. I’ve met so many amazing people in all these places, people of different social backgrounds, different beliefs, different first languages, different values.

    Somehow, thanks to that, the world becomes a little bit easier to understand and at the same time I feel more and more responsibility to be better informed. Suddenly so many issues stopped being just issues for me and acquired the faces of real people. 

    The issues I would like to see more action on?

    Well, firstly I would like to see a campaign informing EU citizens what they can do already. In Poland this is definitely not common knowledge and with better informed people there is greater possibility of change.

    I’d like to see more transparency when it comes to certain issues, like international agreements that will closely affect our lives. This could be for citizens to decide, I think, not only for politicians.

    And while we are at it, I believe that citizens should have the deciding vote when it comes to the decisions regarding our privacy on the Web.

    As Aristotle said, people are naturally political animals

    By Ioanna Karamitrousi

    Walking on the street we often confront people whose faces are full of sadness and dissatisfaction. They walk in an imperious way and it looks like something troubles them. But it is normal because of the things that take place in the country and the era we live in. Let me introduce myself. I am Ioanna Karamitrousi, I am from Greece and I am studying political sciences at the Democritus University of Thrace. I also participate in many simulation activities all over the world as a member of the model European Parliament. Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to deal with politics. Why political sciences? Everything around us is related to politics. As Aristotle said, people are naturally political animals.

    Let’s go back to our topic now. Also, let’s go back a few years. It was a cold morning in 2008. Waking up and casually changing channels on TV, I realized that reporters and political analysts were talking about unspeakable things; at least that was what I thought at the moment. I was just 15 years old. I was scared. “What does crisis mean? Is our country bankrupt?” I was wondering.

    Eventually, I realized that the crisis is not only economic but also institutional, as well as a crisis of values. The crisis is global.  It has no boundaries. It’s all a cycle according to international economics. All that I have described above is the main reason why people distrust institutions and no longer wish to get involved in politics. They do not feel the need to vote in elections or participate actively in the governance and decision-making procedures. Instead, people become passive in their social and political life.

    The hard truth is that the weight of the austerity measures is falling unequally upon the people who bear the least responsibility for the creation of the debt debacle and who stand to suffer the most from the policies chosen to get Greece out of its hole. They are Greek citizens as well as thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. They feel that a large share of responsibility for the crisis in the Greek economy today, belongs to Europeans.

    The European Union imposes temporary taxes and under such conditions the Greeks fail to meet even the immediate and basic needs such as electricity, water and even food. Clearly, they feel excluded from Europe and more locked into a specifically Greek destiny. Citizens must understand that this is not just a Greek problem. It is also a European one. Europe must prevent the situation in Greece from becoming an out-and-out humanitarian catastrophe and make sure that the same “remedy”- ineffective and unjust-is not applied to other weak economies such as Portugal and Spain.

    Personally I support the European Union and my identity is European and Greek at the same time. I also support more integration. The European support to Greece is important and the financial assistance provided for the creation of infrastructure of its co-financing helps the development of Greece. Alongside, the programs of the European Union to reduce unemployment and the students exchange programs allowing Greek students to study a semester at a university abroad is extremely important.

    Greece has made mistakes but the on-going austerity-only policies are not a solution to the crisis. On the contrary, they impede economic growth and have a devastating impact on people. Greece has to restructure its economy and get its finances right. However, sustainable economic recovery is not just about balance sheets and fiscal targets.

    After all, European integration is about peace, cooperation, solidarity, and a shared destiny, not just about economic austerity. I hope in a hopeful future that will bring prosperity not only to the Greeks but throughout Europe. This will be achieved through mutual efforts and respect for every European nation.

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