A dead-end two-way street
by Marko Boko
During a discussion with other young openDemocracy bloggers, we got onto the topic of apathy, especially among young people. Being active in youth organisations and the youth sector, both at a national and European level, this topic is very interesting to me, so I'm going to try to talk about the organised youth perspective without going too deeply into the theory.
Often when youth apathy is raised, we hear how irresponsible young people are, how they care only about their own wellbeing and that they are not interested in society and politics at all. What is even dangerous is when these claims are connected to topics dealing with youth unemployment, calling young people lazy and non-active citizens.
But how can we expect young people to have optimistic expectations towards Europe when they (well, we) have become the biggest victim of economic crisis that still shakes the continent? When education is far from being a right as it becomes available only to the privileged? Where young people are becoming poorer and poorer, especially compared to our parents' generation. We have been sentenced to insecure and badly payed precarious jobs, unpaid internships which often border on abuse, living with parents in our thirties which makes our socio-economic independence and ability to start a family harder and slower, etc.
Consequently, there comes the lack of involvement in the processes of (political) decision-making at all levels, as prolonged youth results in slower social integration and continued dependency with regard to society.
However, there is a different view: a perspective that considers young people as potential and as a huge source of inovation within society. But to be able to recognize their potentials, duties and rights within society, education (especially the non-formal kind) has to take a stronger and more proactive role in these processes.
Young people should get an opportunity to be introduced to the (youth-friendly) basics of democratic and political life in primary school, as that is one of very few tools that might guarantee responsible, active and solidary participation of empowered young people in decision-making processes and political life in general.
The introduction of an Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights would be the key, showing young people how to think, rather than what to think. To set up any kind of expectations towards young people when it comes to the level of our political participation and social responsibility - first think about what has been invested in the enviroment which could have made it possible.
Another powerful tool to empower young people to play an active role within the community and society is youth work. As Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights empowers young people to play an active role in society, youth work does the same and it impacts on society as a whole, with the support of youth organisations and other youth workers. Youth work has an impact both on the individual, from the skills that one gains from it (team work, organisational skills, communication, employability, etc.), but also on the community and wider society (increased democratic participation, active citizenship, social responsibility etc.).
Clearly, I want to stress the importance of adequate support that should be available to young people's needs, rights, interests and obligations in order to empower them for active participation. But we must begin by recognizing their potential and their specific experiences.
The whole discussion among openDemocracy young bloggers started due to the low voter turnout in European countries, which has gotten lower since the end of 70s (for the EP elections). It is low, not only due to lack of youth participation itself, but also due to a general lack of information about the elections and the reluctance to discuss youth affairs by the candidates. Unfortunately, that is a two way street, because if there is a lack of youth participation and interest in elections, candidates will focus on other social groups, which is usually the case.
To build healthy democracies, one has to invest in active participation and active citizenship. But, besides being well informed and educated about citizens rights and duties, social security plays a huge (and probably the main) role when it comes to the level of civic participation. It is hard to expect someone struggling for his/her own social security to play the role of active citizen. In that context we should focus on youth unemployment rates in Europe, which in some countries are above 50%, and many things will be more understandable. A few days ago, I talked to friend of mine about the situation in Ukraine and he said: ''Give me a job first and then I will be able to think more about such problems.'' I could not get any better reality check.
Searching for politics in Europe
What is politics? It essentially means the act and art of ‘living together’ in a polis, a city-state, which defines the boundaries and draws the lines of the political. Politics is the creation and perpetuation of a ‘we’; it comes about when a kind of ‘together’, a form of collectivity, is made possible.
How this collectivity is defined and legitimized is perhaps the most important question of political philosophy: from Plato’sRepublic, through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, to a more recent example - Jürgen Habermas’ Europe. The Faltering Project, the central theme has always been the prescription of a normatively ‘perfect polis’.
For Plato and Rousseau, the place of politics was a physical space of direct democracy and public debate. The polis had a materiality. For Habermas, following the Kantian tradition of ‘social contract’ theory, the question is far more complicated, as he attempts to find the normative justification for proposing the emergence of a world society, as a democratic constitutional order. The ‘place’ of politics, as such, is non-existent, as it extends beyond any traditional identification with The State. It is dissociated from a politics, which no longer has a clear boundary.
Where, then, ought we to ‘put’ this politics, if its place is no longer immediately identifiable? In Europe, says Habermas, politics can remain decentred, flow beyond the polis, through a reconstitution of public space and political community, where new binding forces, such as the media, must be recruited to help foster this change. In a word, politics, as we have known it for a very long time, must be deconstructed and repositioned in order to incorporate the creation of a new kind of collectivity (a new ‘we’).
Yet, in this transition, something is lost – all the old meanings. As the foundation of politics is shaken to its very foundations, everything begins to crumble: notions of ‘left/right’, ‘liberty/equality’, ‘individual/community’, ‘past/present’, ‘us/them’, are in a state of semantic and practical suspense, i.e. they are fuzzier than ever.
Is it really any wonder then that one of the most serious problems in Europe today is political apathy? That democracy is faltering and there is a significant surge across the continent of far-right and pseudo-far right movements and parties? We are in a state of flux, in which we no longer know where the ‘right’ place for politics is – is it about voting at home and at EU elections, is it about fostering debate, joining political parties, or just being a diligent citizen? Where are the possible ‘places’?
When I was small, I remember the TV announcing that Bulgaria would join the European Union on January 1, 2007. Everyone around me rejoiced. That instilled a deep sense of hope and security, even though I was far too young to understand what the EU meant. 2007 became like a personal benchmark for me – it was ‘the future’ and I was counting down the days. January 1, seven years ago, was the happiest day for Bulgarians in a very long time.
Yet today, there is a deep sense of disillusionment – pseudo far-right parties attack EU ‘homosexuality’ and praise ‘Mother Russia’. Polls predict a poor voter turnout in May and a significant percentage of the votes are expected to go to the far-right.
The protests from last summer calling for an end to political unaccountability and corruption, have forced no significant change and their numbers have dwindled. It seems it's business as usual in Bulgaria.
I think this scenario is true to a large extent across Europe. There is a sense of alienation and confusion. It’s a retreat of the political in the sense that despite the fact that we are all living in Europe, we are still not ‘living together’. There is no ‘we’ here, no ‘imagined community’, in the Benedict Anderson sense of the word.
Back in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to America, interested in understanding the cause of dysfunction in the French Republic, which eventually resulted in his monumental work – Democracy in America. In it, Tocqueville stresses the importance of ‘freedom of association’ in perfecting American democracy. According to him, their propensity for forming associations, fuelling public debate, and working together to improve their common life is the greatest expression and protection of politics.
So how can this be made to work on a European level? How do we surpass the notion of a ‘politics for politicians’, which over the years has moved from the national to the regional level? Where is the right place for politics, a place where apathy and desperation cannot tear down the democratic process to its bare minimum? How do we retrieve 'the political'?
Firstly, a new horizontal communicative foundation must be established among the younger generations. Debates in social medias are already bubbling up among my friends from university from different countries on the future of Europe, the role of Russia and the Ukraine crisis, austerity, immigration, etc. Public lectures, talks and conferences all consciously pursuing ‘common European values’ are flowing through the continent. Interdisciplinarity and cooperation among higher education institutions, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and media outlets are beginning to consolidate a clear public arena. The next step is developing the capacity for civic engagement.
One such experiment is our blogging project – we are a dozen young people living in Europe, learning how to communicate and discuss the most pressing issues of our contemporaneity. It is an important opportunity to apply our various experiences and knowledge to a political place that we all inhabit and that concerns us all as human beings.
Not to mention that this is a fruitful space through which to extend networks and share ideas, not only amongst ourselves, but also amongst our readers. It’s a process of active political and civic engagement, of ‘living together’ without the necessity of ‘being together’. In this way, we are bridging the gap left open by the displacement of traditional politics by the European project and actively participating in the restarting of the democratic process and, as such, avoiding the pitfalls of voter apathy and the far-right temptation.
Empathy with apathy - why we should understand ignorance of European politics
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!
Mistrust and lack of knowledge: two reasons for this state of apathy
by Maria Antica
If one looks at the European Parliamentary elections over the years, it is striking that the turnout gets lower and lower: from 62 percent in 1979 (when the EU had only nine members) to 43 percent in 2009. The European context and institutions have changed ever since and become more and more complex in their processes and institutional prerogatives. It has become harder and harder for the large, uninitiated public, not versed in "Brussels language" to understand the bureaucratic logic and for the European officials to explain them.
But, in search of some explanation on what exactly determines voters to come (or not) to the ballot boxes in European elections, it’s hard to detect one simple, overall hypothesis, as a lot factors determine voting behaviour: from the historical heritage and democratic experience each country has, to the electoral systems, civic engagement and education, the way media influences public opinion, or the way politicians put an emphasis on European matters. There are legitimate fears that, especially during times of crisis such as the one we face, citizens will care even less about what’s going on for the people they send to Brussels. They feel that they can’t really influence politics and decisions and produce the change they want or need.
On the other hand, there are growing fears that those who will vote will send in extreme right or left wing parties. These parties could have a blasting effect on the European structure as we know it and on its future directions. Claims are made that a state of apathy is on the rise, especially among young people, and that beyond the risk of changing the EU’s direction, the legitimacy of the European project as a whole could be at risk. It appears the state of so-called apathy that characterizes a large part of Europe’s citizens needs to be addressed, but so does a more active public willing to vote for those whom they feel can address their prime concerns (immigration, to name only one) and influence politics at the EU’s core. If we want to overcome the risks of lack of legitimacy and salvage the European project, then we must consider both these sets of people.
No doubt, after the 2009 elections one can’t ignore the joint efforts of all the EU’s institutions in trying to come closer to the citizens they represent, be it through social media channels, polls and research to find out trends and solutions. Actually, as we speak, there are a lot of initiatives, dialogue platforms (online and offline), conferences, events and projects that try to meet people’s need of a better understanding of how the EU works and how they can make a change. Every day people sign petitions, send emails to their MEPs, and call for action in the wake of a legislative project that is to be voted and so on.
Among the EU’s efforts to get closer to its citizens is building up a sense of European identity and networks, but this is done mostly among young people as it is assumed that they can be educated more easily to go in this direction and will after all be the voters of tomorrow. Programmes such as Erasmus + or Youth in Action are extremely active and visible and those involved do have a great things to say about them. Out of the almost a million and a half likes the European Parliament has on Facebook, most of them come from people aged 18-34 years old. However, the same research done by the EU after the 2009 elections showed that students and young people were among the biggest demographic categories of citizens that didn’t go to vote, while most of the votes came from people over 50 years old.
Two preliminary conclusions arise from these facts. Firstly, projects addressing youth should start to focus more on political aspects and put a greater emphasis on education for active citizenship engagement with the tools our democracies already have and continue to have. Youth issues should be better represented by those who want a seat in the EP - an active dialogue being essential in this process.
Secondly, a reconnection with the rest of the voters is needed through the already classic channels of dialogue (mostly mainstream media). For the latter, efforts are not that easy for two reasons: national media, especially when it comes to television channels, seem to have a lower level of interest in EU matters, unless they can get something sensational out of it. But they also address the issues this category of people are mostly interested in (jobs, unemployment, growth, agriculture, regulations etc) in a mostly alarmist way. Better informed people do make better choices and, hopefully, will be more responsible as an understanding of the past decisions will lead to more reasonable decisions and opinions.
Beyond the fact that EU needs to be better understood by its citizens, the apathy that people are accused of doesn’t come only from a lack of knowledge but rather by a state of mistrust caused by their own national politics and the way European topics are treated by their country's politicians. As long as EP elections are seen as "second order national elections", as Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt named them, with approaches that make the EU seem like an outsider with whom we need to comply or as the bad guy that does whatever it pleases for irrational reasons without really caring for EU citizens’ needs, then this is what will be reflected across entire societies.
But, as long as the EU can’t really influence this national arena, what it can do is to try and have a coherent set of rules and criteria that political parties need to have in mind in order to select and propose their own candidates for the EP, so that situations such as the ones in Romania can be avoided (the biggest political parties here have proposed on their lists candidates based on friendships, sympathies and how much they love their wives and kids).
The EP is not a Sacred Cow with safe jobs for any of them but a place where decisions that will influence Europe’s future will be taken. Clear and transparent selection, as well as comprehensive programmes, values and projects are more important, and having these available could reverse the state of mistrust people have in domestic politics, as well as in the European ones.
There's a very different idea of politics forming in my head
It's cold inside the BBVA office. On the fifth day of the occupation the bank decided to shut down the heating and leave us keeping each other warm with blankets. The office has been closed for business for two weeks. We are waiting for the managers to negotiate with us on retiring the endorsement of the mortgage debt of ten families. Hours and days go by. We sleep, eat, make jokes, tweet, get to know each other among the few who are still strangers. Every few hours I send news to my two flatmates Laura and Pilar with whom I studied journalism at the University.
After the degree, while my flatmates stayed in Barcelona, I left for Madrid. I was offered a job that turned out not to be exactly a job, but an internship in a news agency. I worked 40 hours a week for 300€ and gained no social security nor pension. Rent and bills paid, I was left with only 80€ for everything else. My mom used to try to lift my mood by telling me that at least I gained valuable experience.
Since I came back to Barcelona my mom has stopped saying that my internship in Madrid was the key to a future secure income. I've had a wide range of temporary jobs – as a waitress in two different restaurants and a hostel, as a tourist guide assistant, and as a wedding photographer. I also helped my brother who works on construction sites, supervising electrical installations. Each of these jobs lasted for only a couple of months, some of them only days. It's difficult to make ends meet, and my parents – with whom I'm obliged to live – can't help me economically because they are both pensioners and are paying off my brother's mortgage loan.
I can't ask for unemployment benefit because I don't have one full year of social security contributions. Most of my jobs have been without a contract – even the one in the news agency in Madrid. I still have to gain seven months of social security in order to be entitled to unemployment benefit. Now we've started thinking about starting a cooperative as freelance journalists with my flatmates Laura and Pilar, but were slightly taken back when an old friend told us that after doing the same his income, working full time or even double that, didn't reach 900€ a month.
Many of my friends have left Barcelona during recent years. Some of them went to Madrid, others to Berlin, Rome or London. Many of them came back after no more than a year, because they found out that it's hard to find employment as a migrant.
Since 2011 the neighbourhood assembly of Sants is my main space of work and social security. We gather every Monday for the general assembly and every Thursday we have a small meeting for preparing the activities of the weekend. We are about 50 persons, many of us in severe situations: pending mortgages, looming evictions, constant unemployment or shitty chain jobs. Many can't provide enough to feed to their children so we organize a little community kitchen every day at 9PM.
To stop the evictions just ditching people out on the street there is La PAH. Last month, after long preparations, we recuperated a housing block of the infamous bank fusion SAREB for the use of the evicted families. We call these blocks obras sociales. It means social housing, and that is what we are creating: our own social security. These recuperated buildings multiply at a fast pace and we celebrate each new block. Without them, our dear but uncertain, precarious lives in this city whose administration seems to hate it's citizens would be much harsher.
It is in these places of politics in which we can all participate, where the know-how I learned at the University, meant to be used for a job, finds its use. For my flatmates and most of my other friends it's the same thing.
The idea of a politics like this was never presented to me in any of the numerous chapters I read at school about the importance of voting, parties, representation and citizenship in a democratic society. Like most of us, I too have learned that all of that doesn't matter so much. So when we started wondering among a group of friends what each of us actually does think about the Partido X or Podemos, I was rather clear about this in my own mind – probably just new emperors to replace the old. Some were sure to vote one or the other. Many of them feel eager about Partido X, because it proposes not just a new political programme but a new way of participating in electoral politics. One friend went to the open meetings of Podemos, but he told us he didn't understand whether it was only about an electoral campaign or if something more could be done there.
If we are continuously working on solving the daily problems caused by a certain way of governing, why doesn't our organization to solve them count as a vote? Why can't we change laws? Will these new parties help us push through all the changes we have expressed and put into motion after 2011?
The daily assembly inside the occupied BBVA office starts and we have set ourselves to discuss our small victories and decide our next plans to pressure the bankers. There's a very different idea of politics and democracy forming in my head than the one in the school textbooks.
– Carmen, an imaginary barcelonesa in her twenties
Correlations with real events are coincidental but nonetheless true.