14. June 2013

“The future is us!” was the title of a workshop in which active young Europeans from the network of foundations that organize the Berlin Foundation Week worked out their questions and issues to discuss with the German Minister of Finance. For FutureLab Europe Estefanía Almenta López, James Kilcourse and Zuzana Novakova took part. Wolfgang Schäuble, a strong supporter of the European idea and the face of austerity policy, was joined by three of the workshop participants on stage on 5 June 2013 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.

In this debate, the young people confronted the minister of the most influential Eurozone country with their ideas and concerns regarding the further development of Europe beyond the current crisis. The discussion brought some strong concerns on the table, although sometimes the minister and the young panelists seemed to talk past each other. Mr. Schäuble focused on a vision of regained growth in the long run, while the panelists were concerned with the situation and prospects of the young European citizens in the near future – or while they will still be young.

Mr. Schäuble argued that the economy can only recover sustainably when competitiveness improves. To achieve that, more flexibility is needed in the labour laws as well as in the young people who need to be mobile across the continent. He stressed the need for more “US mentality” of relying on oneself instead of asking what Europe can do for you. “It is a wrong expectation that the level of freedom and prosperity that we had in Europe since the 1990s is the standard. Of course there is injustice. (…) You cannot have the advantages of a market economy without the disadvantages.” Unsurprisingly, the question of youth unemployment came to dominate the debate.

Free movement – a right or an obligation?

Among other issues, the minister suggested more mobility and flexibility to be a solution to the alarming unemployment rates among people in their twenties. But “not all young Europeans can come to us in Germany” as the moderator provocatively suggested. It is only a very small proportion, the well educated, flexible and bi- or tri- lingual people that can fully benefit from the advantages of the common market, noted one of the panelists. It is more difficult for those who are not highly educated. What is there for this majority? If aiming for a vision beyond the crisis, Europe needs to find a way to engage all its citizens.

Brain drain entered the debate as well. People into whose formation the state budgets have invested so much simply become “exported” talents. What do the crises-striven states earn in exchange for these exports? In words of Mr. Schäuble young people gain experience abroad and come back home when the situation improves. Still, doubts were raised about how the situation is supposed to improve if the innovative potential is literally forced to flee in search for better opportunities. According to the young panelists, further peripherialization of the “periphery” is a tangible threat. As a provisional measure increased mobility stands, but can it be sustainable in the incomplete common market with unequal starting points? So far, a more holistic approach seems to be missing.

More European and more demanding?

Young people do feel much more European then the previous generations, mainly due to increased mobility and programmes like Erasmus. They seem to convey a feeling that Europe must not break down. Yet, that does not necessarily denote their satisfaction with the current direction towards which the Europe seems to be “muddling through”. The youth has been hit hard by the economic crisis. Lack of perspective and the missing promise of a (positive) future connected to the unprecedented level of youth unemployment or precarious conditions, emigration and disaffection has earned Europe’s current cohort of young people the unenviable label of “lost generation”.

Still, the question what can politicians do to respond to the needs of an increasingly frustrated generation remained somehow unanswered. With a grain of salt, this generation is by far not the biggest part of electorate. Yet, it is the one that is expected shape the future of the European project. The debate was prepared by a group of engaged young people from Cyprus, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia, Turkey and Germany. Strikingly, the group debates were much more concerned with socio-economic questions and rising inequality than about the future of democracy. What would it imply for the future of Europe if this happens to reflect the stances of the opinion makers of the next generation?

Read reflections on the debate:
To move or not to move – is that the question? by Estefanía Almenta López
A European Demos – Believe it or Not? by James Kilcourse