5 Reasons Young People Will Redefine Europe, For Better or Worse
by Niki Seth-Smith
7 June 2014
There is a common preconception that the younger generation in Europe, particularly on the left, are less interested in the nation than their elders: that the nation-state is a thing of the past, while ‘Generation Y’ are global in their outlook and therefore uninterested in nationality. Precarious Europe, a new media project launching in September, aims to document a very different picture developing on the ground. Across Europe, young people are disproportionately engaging with and affected by questions of nationality, sovereignty, belonging and identity. How this generation responds to these questions will redefine Europe, and perhaps begin the transition away from the historic form of the nation-state.
1. Rejecting the constitutional status quo.
Across Europe, young people are far less likely to vote in parliamentary elections than older generations, while political party and trade union membership has declined and aged dramatically. Of course, the first reason young people across Europe give for not voting in the European elections is the belief that it will not change anything. The current form of institutional politics and representative democracy cannot deliver, and cannot be challenged through participation in its structures. Talk of youth apathy and the idea of the ‘selfish generation’ fail to grasp the politics behind young Europeans turning their back on the fundamental architecture of power and the forms of national and European democracy used to legitimise it, which can be summarised as the constitutional status quo.
2. Demands for radical democracy.
The wave of social movements beginning in 2011 and including Occupy and Spain’s 15M called for and enacted radical forms of participative democracy across Europe and were facilitated and shaped by the younger generation. A global outlook and disregard for borders was and is integral to the politics of these movements and their critique of weak nation-states with sham democracies in thrall to finance capitalism and the logic of austerity. In their European manifestations, these posed a direct challenge to the monopoly enjoyed by national governments and the EU in defining the parameters of democracy, belonging and solidarity.
3. Redrawing national boundaries and creating new nations.
While separatist and independence struggles across Europe have been strengthened by the 2008 financial crash and Euro crisis, only the Scottish and Catalan movements stand a serious chance of redrawing the European map in the near to middle future. In Spain, the latest polls on demographics show support for Catalan independence is highest among under-30s, with 37% supporting an independent state solution. Those aged 16 to 35 are also most likely to vote for Scottish independence (42%) as opposed to Generation X (35%) and the pre-war generation (24%), while a staggering 80% of the 16-17 year olds newly given the right are expected to vote, flying in the face of the ‘ageing electorate’ trend. The Indy campaign is looking at a narrow loss in September, while Catolonia’s ‘referendum’, if it goes ahead in November, will not be legally recognised by the Spanish government. Yet regardless of their success, their importance also lies in their influence as large-scale movements. Disproportionately supported by the young, it is these movements which seek to redraw the lines of power and bring democracy closer to people.
4. Populist nationalism.
A host of parties and movements are sucking lifeblood from the wreckage of unemployment, ruined prospects, precarious living and fear of the future brought on by the economic crisis. Europe’s young people, disproportionately hit, have been obvious targets for populist nationalism in its many guises from ‘moderate’ to openly fascist. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn depends on the 23% of under-35s who support them, as opposed to an average of 10% for the general population, while the majority of their street activists are young men. The youth vote has underpinned the recent surge of support and perceived ‘legitimacy’ of the Front National in France, while the Freedom Party in Austria is significantly more popular with the under-30s. In Italy, the populist millenarianism of the Five Star Movement places it beyond the left-right spectrum. Its promises of internet-enabled direct democracy, EU exit, a basic income and isolationist economics, offer the heady appeal of a seismic constitutional shake-up, and are tailored to appeal to its majority young supporters.
5. The new European hard left.
Greece is the extreme of a trend whereby young people are increasingly polarised electorally, deserting the middle ground in favour of the extreme right and radical left, offering entirely different solutions to the ‘Europe problem’ of enforced austerity, eroded national sovereignty and rapid rates of economic, social and geopolitical change. The European elections manifested this trend, with Syriza, Sinn Fein and Spain’s Podemos among the notable parties making breakthrough gains. Syriza draws much of its support as a party of the young and previously disenfranchised, having emerged into the mainstream after their response to the 2008 riots over the police shooting of a 15-year old schoolboy and the 2011 Syntagma occupation. Podemos (‘We Can’) emerged from the Indignados movement, while Sinn Fein’s success is reliant on their ability to mobilise young men in Ireland and Northern Ireland who would otherwise be non-voters.
To say that Europe’s future rests in the hands of young people is not to fetishise ‘youth’ or make any claims about their heterogeneity. As this piece goes some way to illustrate, 16-30 year olds today across Europe are responding to the current precarious historical moment by adopting emerging and often unstable and developing political projects. This generation inherited a Europe undergoing rapid and disorientating change, when the established foundations of economy, democracy, and sovereignty have been radically undermined. How young people go on to reshape the political and constitutional settlement, or to respond to populist narratives based on false promises of people power and national pride, will redefine the Europe of the future.
Precarious Europe launches on 1 September, 2014. It will help to document and provide a platform for young people on questions of nationality, sovereignty, precarity and identity in Europe. The core team is Yiannis Baboulias, Jamie Mackay and Niki Seth-Smith. Our first step is to build a network of young people across Europe. We are grateful for any one getting in touch with comments, criticism, ideas or contributions. Email [email protected], tweet @precariouseur.