22. April 2013

A group of active young citizens from across Europe came to Brussels to present their report on Europe’s ‘lost generation’. These young professionals, all members of FutureLab Europe, debated their ideas with European Commission Vice-President Almunia, who accepted the first copy of the report.

A 38-page report unveiled at this Europe@debate event, set out the concerns of young people that their voice is still not being heard in the corridors of political power in Brussels or in national capitals.  Contributors to the report – all participants in the FutureLab Europe programme – confronted European Commission Vice-President Joaquin Almunia with their findings in a Q&A session on bridging the gap between generations as part of the response to the current crisis.

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Two of its contributors summed up the report

Enja Saethren, a student of International Relations at Oslo University, said the crisis had led to a loss of self-esteem among the young. Unemployment was having a negative impact on independence and a whole generation was returning to the family home as a safety net. The biggest worry was that the social contract was “broken”. Young people felt injustice about the disproportionate burden they faced, “while governments don’t seem to understand the problems”.

The long-term consequences, she warned, could be a rise of populist parties and violent demonstrations. Failure to act now would only deepen young people’s disillusionment with the European project.

James Kilcourse from Ireland, a researcher at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, said the word “crisis” was now common in the languages of European and national politicians, but “the rhetoric of  crisis” had not been turned into action and the “crisis of youth” was still not a top priority.  As the report stated, it was wrong to target education for austerity cuts, and to fail to address issues of youth in labour market policies. It was the job of the European Commission to shine a light on this problem: “Europe’s youth needs an advocate at the highest level.”

EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia’s keynote address praised the report as comprehensive and useful. Almunia agreed that the debate about Europe’s future should be about young people.
He said the original aims of the EU’s existence – cementing democracy and human rights across Europe – were being replaced by a need to unite and to further integrate in order to tackle current problems and issues such as immigration, global trade competition, and ageing societies.
But there was a lack of solidarity, opposition in some member states to more integration, and a worrying decline in public confidence in the EU institutions:  economic models had been exposed as seriously flawed, with growing evidence that de-regulation of the European financial sector in the last 25 years was precisely the wrong approach, Almunia said. It was now obvious that increased financial regulation was required, while “non-financial” parts of the economy needed de-regulation and liberation, coupled with a fight-back against corporatism and vested interests.  Otherwise, confidence and entrepreneurship, and the incentives to seize opportunities, would be lost, the commissioner said. The crisis had also revealed rapidly-increasing inequalities in society, and young people should be at the heart of the debate about reversing that trend.
All in all, current problems were creating three different Europes: northern, southern and eastern parts, like tectonic plates prone to shift and trigger shocks thanks to social, economic and political failures; three zones “living the same reality at European level but in very different ways – and creating space for nationalism, populism, protectionism and all kinds of ‘isms’,” Almunia said.
The Commission was working on education, labour, and youth employment, and while such issues were matters for national or local decision-making, the strategic debate about jobs, expectations and opportunities needed to be at the heart of the European project from now on, he added.
Ways of participating in politics were changing, partly because of new technologies and social networks, but political parties remained vital: modernising the way politics really worked was maybe a job for those who would be most affected – the young, the Commission vice-president concluded.

From the discussion

Three FutureLab Europe contributors to the new report then quizzed Mr Almunia.

Theodora Matziropoulou from Greece asked about voter apathy about euro-elections. Almunia said people felt the politics of EU affairs was of no direct interest and that their votes were of no real importance, highlighting the need for better quality public and media debate about the EU.
Answering a question from Heidi Beha from Germany, Almunia said many young people felt betrayed by failed political promises because “the system is not delivering what we asked it to deliver.” But that was a problem for all, and not just the young: it was not about a single generation, but about how generations could help each other.  There should be more youth support in establishing a better market economy, tackling wasteful public spending and increasing transparency.  But he admitted that it wasn’t clear how youth could be more active: “It isn’t easy but we need it.”

Leticia Diez Sanchez from Spain asked how to motivate the young, who had a different perspective on the EU’s relevance compared with years of focus on peace and post-war reconciliation.
Almunia said belief in Europe meant embracing and safeguarding its achievements – democracy and human rights, and social welfare – and bolstering them by dealing with the challenges of immigration and climate change. There were, he observed, far fewer reasons now to be “nationalistic” or “protectionist” than 50 years ago.
The debate was then opened to the audience, with Mr Almunia insisting in response to questions that continued EU enlargement was the best opportunity for collective improved living conditions and standards, and for reducing national and regional disparities. The mere fact of EU membership, he argued, had helped some members to get through the economic crisis.
Asked when we would see the young generation of Europeans “blooming” once more in a thriving economy, Mr Almunia said he was “optimistic”.
He explained: “The present time is grim, but I am an optimist because we have the human resources and capacity, and the collective will to overcome this situation.”

More about the project

Sven Tetzlaff, Head of the Department for Education at the Körber Foundation, a founding partner in the FutureLab Europe project, opened the event by insisting that Europe had to become a project of civil society and not political elites, with more focus on economic and social issues. But for young people the transition from schools and universities to the jobs market was almost impossible, with the real prospect of “a lost generation living through a lost decade”. FutureLab Europe, involving ten foundations with the EPC as the operating partner, was trying to make a contribution to addressing the problem.

FutureLab Europe Course Leader Michiel van Hulten said the EU could only be a citizens’ project if young people signed up to it. FutureLab Europe had selected 30 young people to take part in a week-long seminar in Brussels and they had chosen the subject of their report – reflecting their concern about becoming a “lost generation”.

Read reflections by Leticia Diez Sanchez and Heidi Beha.

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