Can Europe Make It?

Political apathy: the trademark of youths in advanced European democracies?

Maximilien von Berg
31 March 2014

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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