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Tuesday, 16 August 2016 19:45

Europe on the edge: the betrayal of an entire generation

Written by Sarah Bahengam
European Youth Title imahe
Photo: duncan c (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

Europe is on the edge. Brexit, the anti-democratic developments in Eastern Europe with authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary, and the rise of the far-right in Germany with the AfD and Pegida movement as well as in France (Front National) anticipate the imminent collapse of the European Union as the biggest peace project in our common history. Nevertheless, in all the debates on which direction our continent and the world should take, the political elite ignores young people. They fail to recognise that they cannot set the course for the future without paying attention to those who will be most affected by today’s decisions.

The rise of the far-right is symptom of a lack of political alternatives with one big loser: young people.

As the political establishment is merging into a single conglomerate where the parties on the traditional spectrum from the left to the right become less and less distinguishable from another, it does not come as a surprise that a considerable number of people these days, particularly among the older generation, consider the far-right as the only political alternative. Rightfully marginalised in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, the AfD in Germany and the Front National in France now suddenly manage to attract wide parts of the electorate. Yet the political elite does not realise that in order to stop these alarming developments, they need to promote other political options.

 Bernie Sanders

   Photo: Alex Hansen (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0 - Bernie Sanders

Instead, the mainstream parties in the West continue to put obstacles in the way of anyone who stands for a democratic alternative to right-wing demagogues. They dismiss the former American Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as a ‘populist’ without recognising that he enjoys widespread support – particularly among the youth - because he has taken up the challenge of profound change in the name of justice and equality. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, is even among certain members of his own party regarded as unelectable, since he realises that New Labour has abandoned its claim to a left-wing opposition. The German political elite still points a finger at the GDR-past of the left-wing party along the Umbridgean lines of ‘progress for the progress’s sake must be discouraged’ because apparently, we if we allow the left to develop as a respectable political option, we will dig out Stalin himself from the depths of his tomb. Nevertheless, it is precisely this emphasis on the past and the adherence to the status quo that prevents progress. The future, as the German journalist Georg Diez rightfully analysed, has therefore always belonged to the left. 

Sadly, the majority of the mainstream left these days contributes to the rise of the far-right, since it willingly jumps on the bandwagon of political synchronisation with its soft line approach to the conservative right. The German Social Democratic Party and the Green Party already said goodbye to their ideological roots with the Agenda 2010 13 years that disregards workers’ rights, yet they seem to feel very comfortable in their new position as ‘centrists’. The French President François Hollande revoked his Socialist background in February when he saw himself compelled ‘to represent all French people’, as if a French president had to be politically neutral. The reason for this new centrist ideology, so the mainstream left often justifies itself, is the so-called Realpolitik. They consider themselves to be forced to abide by a reality that does not leave any space for traditional left-wing ideals. In doing so, however, they regard reality as a given from above rather than a circumstance that has been created by politics and that can therefore be also reconstructed by the same. They simply refuse to take any responsibility for the world we are living in.

If Europe introduces stricter immigration policies, it is the youth that will be affected by low pensions and a labour shortage.

The lack of political alternatives has thus provoked the rise of the far-right that is now undermining Europe at the expense of the youth. If Europe introduces stricter immigration policies under the pressure from politicians like the FN-leader Marine Le Pen who might become President next year, it is the youth that will be affected by low pensions and a labour shortage in light of the demographic crisis in countries such as Germany. Brexit, too, will most likely limit the educational opportunities young Europeans have with exchange programmes, for example Erasmus

Nevertheless, the political elite refuses to take a look at these horrific consequences for the younger generation. Instead, politicians, certain media, and also other parts of society often accuse them of being ‘self-centred millennials’ who do not care about politics and the state of the world. If young people do not vote, then no wonder the right is on the rise. By pointing the finger at young people, however, they disregard the fact that the apparent disinterest of young voters in politics is the result of those very political shortcomings rather than some natural youthful insouciance and egoism.

Moreover, studies all over Europe over the past few years suggest that young people might be less likely to engage with parties, but that they therefore express their political opinion through petitions, a more conscious consumerist approach, and movements outside the party system. As the youth is generally more progressive than previous generations with a more liberal attitude towards LGBT+ rights, different social classes, gender quality, and worried about their future on an increasingly competitive job –and housing market, it is no surprise that the political establishment no longer offers them a platform to raise these issues.

Nuit Debout
Photo: Thomas Bresson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0 - Nuit debout, Place de la République, Paris

Consequently, the French youth has started venting their anger through the Nuit debout movement. What started out as a protest against the labour reforms in Paris in March quickly turned into a youth mass movement across the country against the government as a whole, TTIP, unemployment, the gender pay gap, and anti-immigrant sentiments. Even though President Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed their ‘understanding’ of the youth revolt and offered minimal concessions, the Socialist Party has enforced the labour reforms through a vote of confidence in the National Assembly and continues ignoring their general dissatisfaction with the government. As Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, First Secretary of the party, put it in April: ‘The only practicable line is the Hollande line’.

 Vote remain

Photo courtesy: Rosa Cato

Despite the disillusionment with their national governments, movements such as Nuit debout highlight that young people have not given up on their political voice yet. In light of the nationalist developments across Europe, they even take their desire for reform and a better future further to a European level. Criticism of the European Union is not alien to the younger electorate given its democratic deficit with little legislative power for the European Parliament and its destructive neoliberal nature that has provoked the Euro crisis. Nevertheless, the values of the European Union, such as free movement, and open borders are still motivation enough to defend this institution against the likes of Marine Le Pen and now-resigned UKIP-leader Nigel Farage. In Poland, ten thousands of people gathered for a march in May against the euro-sceptic right-wing government of the Law and Justice Party that antagonises Brussels and scraps independent media and jurisdiction in the country. In Britain, the social media was flooded with posts by young people who called upon their peers to register and vote, since the youth is generally less likely to participate in elections. In spite of a suggested turnout of only 36% of the 18-24 age group, 75% of those who did go to the polling station voted remain. Also after the vote these social networks show the youth’s perception which is that, they will need to clean up the economic and political mess their parents and grandparents have left with Brexit.

Considering the political consciousness of young people, it is now up to the political establishment to descend from its ivory tower and to start reflecting upon the impact of its policies from today on the generation of tomorrow. This goes for the left in particular. The far-right has traditionally shown little sympathy for the ‘rebellious’ or even ‘rotten’ younger generation. However, if young people cannot even rely on a united left as their ally, they will be betrayed and deprived of their future because the political elite did not offer any possibility of change to those who are dissatisfied with the status quo. And so the right will take the helm on the starboard track even though the youth screams ‘port!’ and Don McLean’s famous ‘American Pie’ will not be any less relevant than it was in 1971: Oh and there we were all in one place // A generation lost in space // With no time left to start again.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 August 2016 10:35

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