Can Europe Make It?

Euro elections 2014: You Tell Us bloggers discuss apathy (part two)

Young bloggers from across the EU discuss apathy among young people in Europe. Part one here.

Alex Sakalis
2 April 2014
  • Apathy is generated by the EU's intrinsic nature as a mere economic and political body "without a soul"
  • Apathy has no place in the country that gave birth to democracy
  • As long as the EU remains mired in its own abstractions, voter apathy will continue
  • We don't talk about politics in Poland
  • Political apathy: the trademark of youths in advanced democracies?
  • Apathy is generated by the EU's intrinsic nature as a mere economic and political body "without a soul"

    by Jacopo Barbati

    I’m 25 and I don’t consider myself so 'young' any more, but when talking about the 'younger generation', commentators often refer to people of up to 30 or even 35 years of age.

    One of the topics surrounding the debate on these young citizens is their alleged apathy towards politics. Eurobarometer statistics showed that in 2009, at the time of the last elections for the European Parliament, only 29% of people aged 18-24 voted (while the overall average was 43%, peaking at 50% for 55+ year old people). Moreover, it was found that 33% of 18-24 year olds declared that they don’t want to vote at all, in any kind of elections. The most common reasons for that kind of behaviour were “my vote has no consequence”, “no interest in politics” and, above all, “lack of trust in politics”.

    This last result allows me to say that the 'blame' for this apathy towards the EU concerns not (only) our generation, but above all that of our parents (I mean people born from 1950 on). Why? Because the generation before that one experienced the war and thus had some reason to see the ECSC (then EEC and finally EU) as the means to reach Peace in Europe (this is still not completely true if we consider Kant's definition of 'Peace': currently, within the EU, we are in a truce).

    But that 1950s-born generation is the same generation of politicians with whom 'young people' are dissatisfied. The generation that failed in giving the EU a Constitution (2005) or reforming treaties towards a European Federation (the 2007 Lisbon Treaty essentially changed nothing in this regard).

    Why am I talking about a federation? Because the most sensitive topics for people are, in my opinion:

    - education;
    - jobs;
    - social security;
    - sense of 'security' coming from an effective foreign policy.

    Currently, these topics are under the jurisdiction of member states. From this comes the "apathy" towards the EU, because the EU cannot really decide on those topics. The few decisions come, above all, from the Commission. Ideally, I'd like to see a European Federation where the legislative power is up to a parliament elected by the people and the executive power is up to a government legitimated by the parliament.

    But the EU should decide on these topics, especially as education and job "markets" are no longer "national" but "continental"; and that, on their own, the member states are too small to compete and be heard in a globalized world dominated by continental-wide powers such as China and the USA. Also the eurozone's troubles come from the lack of shared fiscal, banking and financial policies: a common currency without a common state is senseless.

    On the other hand, let’s talk about the absolute lack of effort in at least trying to create a European sense of belonging. Programmes like EVS, Erasmus and Youth in Action (nowadays all integrated into Erasmus+) were/are of course useful for this, but not enough, since they involve only a small portion of citizens. Some common European media talking about Europe and European issues would have been useful, but nobody really pushed for that.

    In a few words, for all I've written so far, my opinion is that "apathy" is generated by the EU's intrinsic nature as a mere economic and political body "without a soul".

    And yes, it’s easy to be apathetic towards such a thing, but only our generation can change that, and probably will. Maybe the majority of us are apathetic towards politicians but not towards other Europeans. And this is the first step for building a better Europe.

    Apathy has no place in the country that gave birth to democracy

    by Ioanna Karamitrousi

    The widespread political apathy in Greece has caused much concern among politicians and social scientists. A lot of political scientists believe that social exclusion, disappointment with the political system and the absence of viable alternatives all contribute towards the inhibition of participation in the democratic process. But what is political apathy and what we can do to minimise it?

    Political apathy is indifference on the part of any citizen of any country with regards to their attitude towards political activities - for instance: politicians, elections, public opinions or civic responsibility. A broader way of referring to political apathy in a country is to consider its political culture. Political apathy, if left uncontrolled, can bring about the stagnation of any nation's development.

    An individual’s political apathy begins with a lack of understanding of politics or government to a certain degree and that makes it more difficult for that individual to see the value in universal suffrage and to see the benefits or costs of new policies that the government proposes. That makes the individual see it as irrational to gain such knowledge, since supposedly there would be no benefit.

    Levels and distributions of political apathy are often hard to accurately assess. One can measure political apathy in a given culture by the amount of the citizens’ political involvement, knowledge or activity. Political apathy can be seen to some degree in every society, be it in the developed world or the developing nations, but the degree to which it prevails differs between countries. For a nation to develop and to have its laws function to the fullest effect, there must be a high level of political awareness, such that the ruled and the rulers will serve as a check on one another. In Greece, political apathy is a problem with fewer young adults likely to participate in civic activities than a few decades ago.

    It is important not to be politically apathetic and to be educated politically, largely to avoid instances of politicians doing as they please in matters concerning the welfare of the citizens. Political apathy allows politicians to advance their careers over the interests of the people. Hopefully the political landscape will change with the upcoming elections. Apathy has no place in the country that gave birth to democracy. In a democracy, every citizen has the right to decide and participate in governance and decision-making processes.

    As long as the EU remains mired in its own abstractions, voter apathy will continue

    by Marcus How

    When engaging in free association about the European elections, ‘voter apathy’ is probably one of the first thoughts that spring to mind. There’s really no argument to be had about this. At the 2009 elections, the average turnout across the bloc was 43%, the lowest level yet. Turnout will surely register at a similar level in the upcoming elections.

    The question is why such apathy exists. Sure, there’s the whole idea that the European Parliament is a cypher for the democratic deficit that apparently exists in the EU. What’s more, it’s distant. The overall quality of the representatives tends to be mediocre at best. Engage in free association about an MEP, and thoughts of loose eggs lolling around enjoying languorous lunches on expenses may well spring to mind.

    But the roots of apathy run deeper than any of this, to the argument that the EU generates apathy by its very nature. Wolfgang Münchau recently touched on this idea in his weekly FT column, arguing that the EU primarily exists as a “technical facilitator”. Where its responsibilities are clearly defined, it works well, such as in the areas of competition law, trade policy and environmental obligations – but these areas are abstract as far as the electorate are concerned. At present, the EU is engaged in fostering convergence and integration between member states, while national governments remain in control of the policy packages that actually whet voter appetites.

    Besides its technocratic role, a fundamental principle of the EU is the notion of ‘subsidiarity’. This obscure term originated in ideas of how the Vatican ought to organise its parishes across the world; namely, via decentralisation. Decisions are to be taken at the lowest level possible. In this sense, the EU preserves autonomy at the local level, albeit at the expense of its own visible influence on the daily lives of ordinary people. Where it is visible is in the regulations that small businesses run up against and resent, for the very reason that they are rules and that they can’t really be changed. And where businesses and localities receive funding from the EU – through structural funds, for example – the payments are indirect, passing through national governments.

    As such, the EU guarantees its own abstraction. Its advocates can’t sell it through talking about how it improves economic efficiency between member states. The post-war mantra of ‘let’s cooperate rather than invade each other’ has lost its relevance for younger generations. Academic talk of how the world is experiencing a global shift in the power balance – and that Europe needs to unite to protect its collective interests – is just that: academic.

    An alternative avenue would be to sell a social democratic vision of an EU that guarantees the rights of workers, consumers, depositors (ahem, banking union) and investors. It could control (part of) the welfare net, and demand minimum standards from public services. 

    However, the realisation of such a vision is unlikely for three reasons. First of all, it would demand further centralisation, and national governments (and electorates) don’t like power transfers for fear of losing autonomy over local affairs. Second, whilst it isn’t radically social democratic (actually, it would align the structure of the EU more with the US), not everyone across the mainstream political spectrum would agree with it.

    Finally, this vision doesn’t bring us any closer to crafting a European identity that a majority of people can accept, and strive towards realising. The vision may well improve economic efficiency across the bloc. It may mitigate the effects of future financial crises. But just because the numbers add up doesn’t mean that reality will conform to the final result. In human affairs, the wildcard of emotion and irrationality is omnipresent; sometimes, aligned stars just don’t click. I accept that football is an intelligent, intricate sport, full of innovative strategy; but, for reasons unknown to me, I still find it mind-numbingly boring.

    Elsewhere, what it is to be ‘European’ is a nebulous concept that has little traction with most people, who stick to that which they can identify with; namely, the culture they were raised in. Even those who don’t relate to a particular culture probably couldn’t say what it is to be European without betraying their political convictions. I was born and raised in the UK but my maternal side of the family are Austrian. We spoke German at home and ate a lot of Austrian cuisine. Vienna was a haven of familial warmth and nostalgia, as opposed to commuter belt Essex – which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t and still isn’t. But as I’ve gotten older, although I don’t relate much to the UK, I don’t feel fully at one with Austria. So what am I? Probably ‘European’ – but that’s an identity spawned from feeling culturally stateless, which makes it easier to advocate policies that some people may argue are destructive of their cultures.

    So it seems that a way of overcoming apathy is through crafting a European identity. But that solution raises more questions than it answers. How do you craft such an identity without either, a) arbitrarily pissing people off, or b) becoming like me (and dooming the project as a result)?

    We don't talk about politics in Poland

    by Marzena Sadowska

    In preparing to write about apathy, I took a look at the statistics. I knew that lack of political engagement was a problem in Poland, but I wasn’t aware of the scale - it is frighteningly big.

    Since the transition from communism to democracy, the highest turnout in parliamentary elections was in 1989 - the first free elections. Even then it was surprisingly low, only 62%. It has continued to fall and currently it’s at about 40-45%. The exception here is the European Parliament elections, the first (2004) with 20,87% turnout, the second (2009) – 24,53%.

    Why does it look so bad? We are a young democracy; shouldn’t we be very optimistic about our current political system? Apparently we are not. We distrust our politicians, we regard politics very cynically and, I think, we doubt that we can change anything. This, I believe, sums up the problem of apathy in Polish politics. We, the people, don’t trust that we have the tools and capability for change. Why are we so disappointed? Is it our historical experience? Is it some sort of general distrust for political institutions? Or, simply, it is the fact that we do not see our influence on politicians and politics?

    I’d say it is the last case, or at least mostly that. There are many reasons and many problems mixed in here, but this one stands out to me. To some degree we can blame the political history of Poland, long-term experience of having no impact on politics - but today there is a whole generation of people who don’t remember communism. And these people don’t vote either.

    There isn’t a well developed civil society in Poland. Political parties are not trusted, but NGOs aren’t seen as reliable either. I hope that the second thing is going to change, and maybe it is, especially when it comes to Polish NGOs (on one hand: another one became widely recognisable in recent months, on the other – the face of the best known one is subjected to a witch hunt every year).

    This, I think, could be solved in a big part by good PR. I was told once that the NGOs see themselves as above that kind of thing, which in my opinion is quite a big mistake on their part. Their names and logos are often completely unknown, people don’t know what they do and whom they help. Even if someone is interested and is actively looking for information, it’s often not as easy as it should be.

    The second part of the problem is education. I’m not the biggest fan of the educational system in Poland. Looking back at my middle and high school years, I see a lot of potential and time wasted. In my curriculum there was the subject of social science – this is where I learned about Montesquieu and about the separation of powers and the origins of the parliamentary system. I didn’t learn much about my rights and about what can I do (as a citizen of Poland and the European Union, as a voter). I’m sure that learning about what can I do here and now would be more profitable than learning about the history of political systems.

    I’m personally not a very politically active person - I’ve never entertained the idea of joining a political party. I’m not even used to labelling my own political views: I know what is important to me, I know that I am not well represented on the Polish political stage, but that’s about it. I don’t know who many of my friends vote for – it’s blatantly obvious to me that it’s impolite to ask about it, so I don’t. Do I really care about it? Would I sever friendships because of different political views? I don’t know, it’s hard to say. We don’t talk about it.

    Sometimes we complain about what we don’t like, but we do it carefully, so as not to cross lines, not to offend each other. One of the many surprises for me in Turkey was this: young people I’ve met there seemed to really care about politics and what is more, they seemed to really identify with political parties. In Poland, I don’t think I know anyone my age who would identify themselves with a party’s political line. Come to think of it, I don’t think I personally know anyone who is in a political party, period.

    From time to time, I volunteer, I take part in seminars, I attend conferences. All of this is relatively new, it started when I was at university and at the beginning I had no clue about what in this whole thing interested me. It’s hard to figure it out on your own, especially when you don’t really know the possibilities. As it happens, politics (to some extent) interests me academically and I care about human rights. Many people don’t have deep interest in these topics, so, logically, they don’t pursue it. And then they don’t vote, because what would they vote for?

    Political apathy: the trademark of youths in advanced European democracies

    by Maximilien von Berg

    Economic development and industrialisation have brought material comfort to many generations in the western world. Social and political developments have guaranteed the protection of people’s rights and the fruits of economic development. On the other side of the spectrum, poverty is often mired in autocracy because food and shelter are pre-requisites to developing a political conscience and demands for democracy. Would the fulfilment of democratic goals found in forms of advanced economic and political systems encourage the return to a state of apathy?

    Party membership in advanced democracies has fallen drastically in the last few decades. At the same time, enthusiasm for European construction has hit rock bottom. Whilst decreasing partisanship may suggest people’s voting behaviour will follow party lines less, Europe’s loss of momentum suggests citizens are no longer lured by one of the most important political projects in history. Europe is heavy armour laid onto states. It does not allow them to be agile but it increases their protection: amid obvious constraints, such as monetary policy dependence, Europe as a Union provides much upside by acting as one large market and as a shield.  

    Caleb Colton wrote, “liberty must be earned before it can be enjoyed”. My generation is probably turning a blind eye to European development because it has not fought for it. Never have we experienced the curtailment of our liberties. On the contrary, recent years have shown the mobilisation of youth for the purpose of earning some liberty in various parts of the world. It used to be that we felt the need to protect democracy and to deepen it – now it’s a given. My generation has not fought for freedom or for peace; we have not lived through the difficult balancing times of the Cold War and we do not feel responsible or grateful for what Europe has brought upon us.

    European countries fare well in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, yet we seem to hold our politicians in very low esteem. The European Parliament is probably relatively corrupt as collusion between the worlds of business and politicians is imbued in the system, as well as under very limited scrutiny. The EU is detached from the average citizen and should therefore amplify efforts to talk to the man in the street. Public Relations are one of its areas of expertise, yet European communications are lacking at a time when national governments have given up playing the European card. EU legitimacy is sliding and people are losing sight of the fact that Europe is more protective than it is destructive.

    We could expect extreme debates amongst the young as to what the EU should or should not be. Instead, young people seem to hold it in contempt; they express disaffection whilst politicians square off in the more polarized arena known as the European Parliament. Europe is helping its detractors take advantage of its weaknesses by not working closely with the people and democratically handing seats to parties that seek to suffocate Europe by erecting a smokescreen whilst they plot against it. Wilde advised that we should have dreams big enough not to lose sight of them. But most of us not directly involved with EU institutions seem to have lost sight of Europe, probably because we have always lived with it and do not wake up every morning thinking how wonderful it is to travel, work, trade and shop across the Union.

    Groups of young Europeans mobilising against austerity in various countries are no sign that they are motivated or involved with the European project – they simply demonstrate their rejection of the consequences attached to governments living beyond their means. As such, they are beside the point and not helping Europe at all. By no means is austerity Europe’s responsibility. Young people blame capitalism instead of blaming their governments – governments they democratically elected – and risky trading practices in the derivatives market. There is no fatality attached to the EU – everything remains to be done. But this is only true if youngsters exert their democratic rights.

    I strongly believe my generation has lost sight of a number of normative values that would encourage us to grow more concerned with our Europe. We work hard on developing advanced technology but have become normatively lazy. Innovation has become a dogma amongst the young, but too often this innovation simply serves to make life easier – not better. I would argue that a lot of that energy could be put to better use in thinking about where we want to take Europe in the future. Apps won’t tell us where Europe should go; political debates and ambition for our future will.

    My generation has largely given up on sweating the most important stuff. Results are now expected with minimal effort and time once used for debates and reflection is being replaced by the use of services. Was the financial crisis not enough to trigger a conscience among fellow Europeans? Does the situation in the Ukraine not scarily remind us that East-West confrontation is still latent – that European state-building is by no means achieved? Elders have a responsibility to galvanise the youth into being more concerned and active – not to take an easy ride in the back seat. The youth must be involved in the process, not simply oppose what it deems unfair. We have become very cynical and old before our time. Absentees are always wrong and we must start thinking for Europe if democracy is to retain any meaning. 

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