People demonstrate in favor of Greece's European future. Athens, Greece, July 9, 2015. Pikoulas Kostas ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
“Go on, be angry. Be mad at us. But change Europe. It needs it.”
- Timothy Garton Ash, in The Guardian.
The 1989 Generation Initiative is an open policy network committed to mobilizing young Europeans to lead the long term regeneration of the European project through the development of innovative policy proposals. Rodrigo Vaz is Head of the Portuguese Chapter.
Manuel Serrano: The mission of the 1989 Generation Initiative is to reinvigorate the European project and reflect the ideas of young, committed Europeans. How did this initiative come to be?
Rodrigo Vaz: The Initiative kicked off in London – it was started by a group of students at the London School of Economics, in 2015. It was triggered by a perceived need for renovation of the European ideals and the EU policies. The Initiative came as a response to a challenge issued by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian, calling on young Europeans to assume a leading role in charting Europe's future. It seeks not only to produce proposals that are in line with an ecumenical vision of Europe, but also to implement this vision though practical projects over time.
The 1989 Generation Initiative is an open policy network committed to mobilizing young Europeans.
MS: The European Union is currently facing an existential crisis. Many European have lost faith in a project that brought us close together and avoided conflicts in a continent once ravaged by war. How can we reverse this situation?
RV: I am inclined to think that the way out of this situation is through a change in policies as well as in the dynamics of the Union. There is a range of policy proposals, from institutional reform to the shaping of the EU as a global actor, which we address in our 1989 blog @ EurActiv. We will certainly be discussing these at our upcoming conference on Tackling Populism, this February at the LSE. But I would add to this a sense of urgency in changing the dynamics surrounding the European project. I would argue that for too long, since the 2008 crash, we have seen the EU reacting as events unfold, always on the defensive and always behind schedule. This is hardly ever the right recipe to counter any crisis, let alone one with such deep implications as the one we are facing. I am convinced that a way out in the crisis is through the reversal of these dynamics. This goes hand-in-hand with policy proposals: reforming the political architecture of the European Union, for instance, is a bold measure that would reenergize the dynamics of the European project.
MS: What is going to happen now that Britain has decided to leave the EU? Should we worry about a contagious effect?
RV: The answer to this lies in political decision-makers, inspired – and inspiring - leaders and a conscious civil society. It is crucial that European political actors and voters come out and reject populist threats in no uncertain terms. The EU will stand stronger together if its members do not surrender to centrifugal forces – we can all gain from it. The way voters lean in several countries holding elections this year – France, the Netherlands, Germany - will be key to assessing whether there is a real risk of contagion. I think that in Germany and France, especially, the risk is low.
Protestors and media gather at the British high court, in London, on December 5, 2016. NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
MS: Your 2016/17 work program addresses populism: the aim is to understand its origins and appeal. In a framework where the elites have apparently failed us, how can we overcome the fear and hate rhetoric?
RV: I believe we have to engage in a conversation that addresses the causes of citizen discontent across Europe: the lack of social mobility and the economic hardships and the increasing inequality. To this, I would add that there are dangerous divisive threats running through our societies – in terms of age, ethnicity, religion or other criteria. Today, we find ourselves in a situation that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Even if some of these tensions were definitely present before the 2008 crisis, they only made it to the mainstream in the last couple of years. The way this divisive rhetoric can most effectively be fought is by an economic policy agenda capable of delivering at a European scale. But it is crucial that this should go hand in hand with the conversation I mentioned: a renewed narrative stating the merits of an open, tolerant, liberal society – that is, transcending nationalism and demagoguery.
Today, we find ourselves in a situation that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Even if some of these tensions were definitely present before the 2008 crisis, they only made it to the mainstream in the last couple of years.
MS: The media are also to blame for the current state of anxiety and misinformation. Should we invest in more effective communication strategies? Should we dwell on the advantages of belonging to the EU to offset the current negative narrative?
RV: There is definitely a need for a new, fresh narrative. And there is much room for improvement in communication. Populist forces have been much more efficient at spreading their narratives. However, I would be careful to put the blame on the media. Even if I do agree that some media coverage has benefitted those who want to build walls between us, and that fact-checking unfortunately is not always the main priority for some of the media, the burden is on the political actors who believe in open borders and a liberal order: they must come out, speak up and trump those who do not. Think of the last Canadian and American elections: two media-savvy candidates ended up winning the election – and yet, the differences between them are not only stark but quite obvious.
Demonstrators protesting in solidarity with the millions of other women in the United States and across the world, against the election of President Trump. Warsaw, Poland. January 21, 2017. Anna Ferensowicz Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
MS: The 1989 Generation Initiative has chapters in several European countries. Can initiatives like this help us champion inclusiveness and plurality in a world where populists manipulate citizens’ anxieties against the others?
RV: Absolutely. As the President of the Initiative has written in a post for the 1989 Blog, if there is any hope to be found out there, it is definitely the resounding support for the European ideal from the 89ers (young Europeans born after 1989 – that is, European millenials). This support must translate into initiatives like this one, which mobilises young Europeans to work together towards strengthening that ideal. It will ultimately fall on us to defend the values we stand for.
MS: You are currently establishing a new chapter in Portugal, the very first in Southern Europe. What do you think about the future of the region - and Portugal in particular?
RV: Portugal is indeed the first chapter in Southern Europe, but we will be establishing new chapters soon. Southern Europe was the region most affected by the aftermath of the 2008 crash, and here the correlation between economic depression and permeability to populist forces is nearly perfect – Greece, particularly, comes to mind, but so does Italy and Spain. I believe that there is a renewed sense of urgency, then, in fighting for a liberal, open Europe in the South. That narrative must be accompanied by economic deliverance. Interdependence is key, and pro-European political forces need to find new, effective ways to cooperate and achieve positive results for every member state. This will not be achieved without realism, and without creativity.
The narrative must be accompanied by economic deliverance. Interdependence is key, and pro-European political forces need to find new, effective ways to cooperate and achieve positive results for every member state.
Portugal managed to form a new government last year with a rather creative parliamentary agreement. It is not for me, certainly not in my position, to dwell on the merits or the disadvantages of the solution which was found. But it seems to me that the crucial factor is that nationalist forces have not been strengthened by the crisis in Portugal. This is something to be proud of and to build on.
Creativity also means exploring new spaces for cooperation and compromise. The first EUMed summit was held in Athens last September, and we just had a second summit in Lisbon, just a few weeks ago. It is still too early to tell whether it will achieve meaningful results in shaping a common agenda and a set of priorities, but its very existence is, indeed, quite encouraging.