The slope to elitism harms Europe

Posted on 12. May 2014

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katerina-pekarek-2012-2014-modifiedWhat do young people feel when they think of Europe? What would they want to change, where does the EU plays on their nerves? Handelsblatt Online and FutureLab Europe joined forces to bring up a set of young voices. The respondent today is Kateřina Pekárek (29) from Czech Republic, living in Germany.

1)    For me, Europe is … home and safety. I do not feel particularly Czech, rather as a European from Prague, currently living in Berlin. When I travel around Europe, I do not have the feeling of going to another country, just to a different region of the same. I have lived in a few European countries over the time and each of them was no doubt enriching and brought along new experiences but each felt like home once I had a bed, a fridge and a shower. It is very comforting that wherever you go in Europe, you can rely on things working on more or less the same basic principles: there will be reasonable working conditions, health and social insurance, consumer protection standards, decent schools and a more or less working administrative and judiciary, securing wellbeing and safety – that’s what you need to get on with your life without being worried about elementary human needs. For me, Europe is the smallest common denominator of experiences which we all share – the bad and the good, common history including wars, terrors and famines but also victories of spirit as well as culture. From my point of view, European countries underwent a similar development, which brought us to a similar understanding of the value of human life, dignity and work, unique in the global framework. This is what I like about Europe and why it feels like home – I know that wherever I go, I will share the same basic standards with others and that is something, which can be build upon.

2)    What I do not like about the EU is the general smugness and comfort of the ivory tower, the bureaucrats in Brussels seem to live in and enjoy. There is a false feeling of safety that the EU is indispensable and its constituents have to come to terms even with the most formalistic decisions. I have seen a joke in the social media lately: EU Press Release: “The EU Commission realized with shock and horror that the Russian army invaded Crimea not using energy saving light bulbs!” This joke does illustrate a very irritating fact – in historic moments requiring sharp focus and united action, the EU concentrates on regulatory details and does not see the bigger picture. I am a strong advocate of European integration and I even favor regulation on the fields, which might in the opinion of some more liberal voters be better left alone, such as energy, consumer protection and labor law, but the EU Commission seems to have lost its sense of measure at times. EU Commission officials are no doubt highly skilled and educated professionals – after all the EU is one of the most sought employers in Europe and recruits the best – but their sense of elitism might prove rather harmful to the cause at some point. The constituents (this notion is especially strong in the Czech Republic) might decide that if a body can regulate the admissible angle of cucumber curve, it has probably nothing better to do and is quite expendable. Focus on the substantial and united action in international affairs might be a more advisable strategy.

3)    I vote, because it matters. I tend vote in all elections, although I live outside of my country. The ladies at the Czech consulate already know me by name because I am one of their few permanently registered voters. However, this time I will probably meet even less fellow voters than usual – European elections seem to matter to very few people. In the Czech Republic, only 39% of people consider them important, which is the lowest number of all kinds of elections. I do understand their reasons but do not share their opinion. People often quote the feeling of powerlessness and the impossibility to influence real decision-making as the reason of disengagement in the European elections and European politics in the broader sense. But I do vote because not voting means running the danger of enabling others to take this decision for me. These others might be people, which I would rather avoid in everyday life, let alone be subject to the rule of their political views. In the upcoming European elections my main motivation for voting is the fear of enabling those on the right nationalistic side of the political spectrum to take the reign in the European Parliament – the likes of Front National or Jobbik would not only hinder further European integration but might even manage to torpedo the European project in one electoral term. As much as I see room for improvement in the functioning of the EU, I would not like to see the freedoms I enjoy under this arrangement destroyed by a bunch of disgruntled nationalists.

4)    What has to change in the EU? The EU is a fundamentally good project. However, its structure was never intended to host more than half a billion of constituents and allow for a reasonable chain of democratic legitimation. The lack of democratic legitimation does not seem to excessively bother the EU politicians, with the honorable exception of Martin Schulz. It does, however, trouble the voters, especially the young ones. When I did a small informal survey for the Körber-Stiftung a couple of years back, the lack of democratic legitimation was the most quoted objection to further European integration and to the EU in general. There is a strong mistrust to the notion of being governed by a body with large powers, which is not directly politically accountable to an elected parliament. It is true that the last decades have seen a positive shift towards a greater political accountability of the European Commission and to a more significant empowerment of the European Parliament. However, this is not being perceived as sufficient. On the practical scale, we need a fiscal Union and more proactive leading personalities, who could represent Europe as “one man.” Nevertheless, this is not going to happen until there is a clear and unequivocal democratic mandate for such actions. Without this mandate, the EU institutions run the danger that the electorate will perceive their decisions as being “about us, without us” and they will not achieve democratic acceptance among the population.

5)    Prejudices we are confronted with? Inherently, if the question is what prejudices are we confronted with, it implies that there is a WE. WE defines a group with assigned attributes, which then enables the existence of prejudices. Who is we? The Europeans, the Czechs, the East-Europeans? The generation Y? Each of these is confronted with a set of prejudices: the Europeans live in their glorious past with values thoroughly useless in the modern global world, the Czechs love their comfort, beer and offer passive resistance to any sort of leadership, the East-Europeans are hungry for money and would do any sort of humiliating work for a buck, the generation Y is lazy, arrogant, spoilt for choice and expects an easy life. I, as a generation Y Czech attorney working for a Berlin law firm and married to a German, usually have to deal with the following, partly funny remarks: “You don’t have that typical Czech accent” “Haha, another Czech mail order bride?” “Ah, so you work in a law-firm as a Reno (secretary)?” “There is enough work but you people expect to start high up”. Mostly, you just learn to laugh and shake it off. It does not matter who the “WE” is: WE, the people, usually only try to live the life we have: get a decent job that pays the bills and is not completely mind-numbing, find a nice person and a couple of good friends to share the life with, and sleep safely at night knowing that we can rely on the fact that it will be the same next morning.

This article is a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab Europe and Handelsblatt Online. To read the original text click here.