A Mixed Inheritance: Youth, Political Projects, Young Institutions, and National Memory.


I am between the ages of 18 and 30, which is, as I recently discovered, what the European Union considers the “youth” demographic; and as I am currently resident in Germany, these two facts – age and location – make me, at least temporarily, a youth in Europe. Yet I feel a certain distance from the conversations concerning the challenges of European youth today. I attribute this distance to the fact that I am an American, and not a citizen of Europe or of either a EU member state or aspiring member state. Regardless of the distance I feel, it does not change what I read in the newspapers and hear from friends of friends; the frustration of young Europeans navigating the challenges of the contemporary political landscape, the abysmal (un)employment statistics, the promises of this European Union as it grows on this continent, and the disappointments of dreams not realised.  I also encounter interesting rhetorical phrases and elegantly succinct aspirations while reading the news; citations of Churchill’s ‘United States of Europe’, references to the ‘European Project’ or ‘European Dream’. Yet there is something uncanny about these phrases, and they demand an investigation of the philosophical and historical foundation of the political inheritance that the youth are assuming –on both sides of the Atlantic. To liken the project of European integration with that of the United States as political project, and single, federal, sovereign state is tempting, especially rhetorically. Yet the political inheritance of the citizens of the European Union and the United States are markedly different and challenging in their differences –starting with the extant distinction between European citizens and EU citizens. And while the immediate future of these states can obviously be found in their youth, the political inheritance of American and European youth are different; the status of political projects, young institutions, and national memory affect the citizens who must grapple with these elements of political inheritance.

The United States as a political project –a democratic and federal union of states- is one in the same with its geographical expansion, national institutions and national memory. The exception to this conflation of country, continent, constitution, and democracy is the uneven memory of atrocity, the memory which precedes and exceeds the memory of the nation itself: for many legions of people, relocation to and on the North American continent was anything but voluntary. The creation of the United States is part of a historical fabric of which the African slave trade and the displacement and destruction of entire nations of Native Americans should not be overlooked –but often is, as a disruption of the idealised narrative of the United States and its miraculous (self-)creation as a living laboratory of European enlightenment ideals, forged by settlers escaping the historical political and ruling structures of Europe. The Native Americans and the enslaved Africans were denied the promise that the waves of European settlers found in the American project; indeed, they were long denied their freedoms and dignities as human beings, and the consequences of this history continue to influence and haunt American politics and policy. It is a tragic yet sobering fact that not everyone was permitted the rights, liberties, or dignity to act as equal citizens, or equal people in the project that centuries ago united those seeking to flee Europe in the siren call of the “New World” colonies.

Yet while the initial colonial partitioning of North America followed the nationalistic goals of the wider history of European colonisation, after the United States won its independence from Britain and became an independent country, its consolidation, strengthening, and expansion became the purpose and the goal of most governmental action. Regardless of from where hence its citizens came, America was a project unto itself. The westward expansion of the union was seen as a matter of ‘Manifest Destiny’; that is, the divine destiny and obligation of those who arrived on the western shore of the Atlantic and were called “American” to carry the nation west to the Pacific.

Europe, on the other hand, is “The Old World”. Its history and the histories of its many states vastly exceed the national history, memory, and institutions of the United States in its sprightly 239 years.  Its regional (and national) differences in language and culture are far more entrenched and diverse than even the proverbial American melting pot. The tremendous historical inheritance of the European continent encompasses much more than any one of its many countries and the members of the European Union alone. Yet the political project of European Integration is more recent history than even that of the United States. There is a conflict of old –that is, national– institutions attempting a new political experiment on a debated and ill-defined geographic scale. And this is the mixed political inheritance of the youth of Europe.

Europeans live in the landscapes of history –of ancient republics, kingdoms, and empires; of monarchies communes and dictatorships– and with the scars of history. National memories extend back in time for centuries, if not millennia. There are daily reminders that democracy has not always existed here, let alone succeeded. There are bullet holes in city landmarks, there are old walls, there are vast fields – artificial but also ancient– levelled by warfare, and this is not just the case in Berlin. Living on the stages where the long history American students only interact with in textbooks actually took place must prohibit the absolute faith in the presence of democracy and its institutions; there is knowledge here of what happens when democracy fails. Even in the outright failings and miscarriages of democracy in America, there exists still a sense that democratic systems are a given and foregone conclusion; the United States of America has only ever known (and even the Confederate States of America only ever knew) democracy.

Democracy as manifested in the contemporary European Union has really only emerged since the end of the Second World War and the demise of mid-century dictatorships. While the historic origins of democracy were always to be found in Athens –a legacy of the ancient Greeks– modern democracy is a much more recent institution, and is nothing if not disrupted by history and diverse in its manifestations. Different European states have different democratic histories and systems; the British constitutional monarchy is a democracy, but of a different nature than the Spanish parliamentary monarchy; the German parliamentary federal republic is a democracy that is different from the contemporary Greek unitary parliamentary constitutional republic (which itself differs from ancient Greek and Athenian democracy).  There exists an interesting challenge to unite these four different democracies with those in the other 24 member states of the European Union in a confederal democratic body seated in Brussels.

The institutions necessary to promulgate the structure of the EU are very young as well; younger even than the post-war democracies in much of the continent. The challenges of young institutions are obvious; they are not well tested, they operate with little or no precedent, they haven’t matured.

The overwhelming task of maturation sounds familiar: who are citizens, private individuals, and political actors, and how are they reconciled in an individual; what does it mean to be a global citizen with multiple regional, ethnic, and political identities? The ‘youth’ are not a homogenous demographic block, but rather young people who are indeed members of different national, ethnic, sexual, linguistic, cultural, confessional, and social-economic groups; each with their own elective affinities and personal interests and experiences.  And the EU is still in its youth, it does not have all of its manifold issues entirely figured out, let alone those concerning its internal diversity, its neighbouring states, and the cosmopolitanism of the 18-30 year old demographic. And different groups receive different levels and kinds of attention; not all equal, not all positive. This can be said with as much truth in a small social setting in the local level of one’s personal life as it can be said on the much larger level; of national or supra-national politics.

Theoretically, the youthfulness of institutions should serve as an opportunity to be bold and creative; unencumbered by precedent. This is challenging in practice, however, as there is no such thing as an unencumbered institution. National memory casts a long shadow, and even more ‘neutral’ elements of regional or national identity – language, custom, economic capacity, social systems – will affect how bold the experimental steps of a large political project can be.

The larger problem is even more radically existential; the political project of European integration as a cluster of ideals seems threatened by basic concerns; (un)employment, (im)migration, education, economy. A temptation exists to temporarily retreat from the wider project –a democratic supra-national organization of confederal nature under a shared currency– to address important questions of basic (national) need. This is an understandable and natural temptation; to return to the fundamental national unit and try to shore up domestic issues as a matter of national sovereignty.

But this is incompatible with the political project of European integration. To revert to old and tried and tired but familiar structures of national sovereignty is to risk the development of the young institutions of the new political project. Old national institutions must be either surrendered for an experimental (and real) union or reassessed against the new geo-political situation in which the EU finds itself in Europe and in which Europe finds itself in the world.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for this issue of incompatibility, and I would not necessarily advocate emulating the United States –it would be impossible. The European Project is not one in the same with a single country and a shared authorship of history; it is too many tongues, too many cities, too many governments, too many wars, and too many differences to attempt to gloss what has come before this point in history. It is not a national unification from sea-to-shining-sea; the geography of this continent is politically and physically unlike that of North America.

What Europe has is its wealth of history; it has a youth that is more cosmopolitan than any previous generation; it has a position as a desired destination for other people from all over the world. The EU has economic clout despite the Euro crisis; political, social, environmental, and cultural policy that is some of the strongest in the world. And there is exchange; there exist youth who want to know where Europe has come from, where the EU has come from, and where both are headed. And I absolutely count myself among these youth, even as an American. And because my political inheritance as a citizen of the United States is not without its (many) problems, I have come to Europe to acquire a perspective on the situation here, as well as to look back at the western shore of the Atlantic and to consider what political inheritance I will leave my children – I don’t know what passport they will carry, but they will almost certainly be as we are; young global citizens in unprecedentedly challenging and interesting times, attempting to reconcile the necessities of the future with a mixed political inheritance.