Teatime with Ulrike Guérot


Ulrike Guérot is a writer and academic, specialising in European Democracy and global Europe. She has been an active member of the European think tank community for two decades and has taught both in Europe and the US. Guérot is also the Founder and Director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin. In an interview with Open Citizenship, she spoke to us about the challenges the youth in Europe are facing, and the ways in which they can potentially overcome these.

What do you consider to be the most important challenges for the youth in Europe today?

I think the best thing the youth in Europe can and should do in these post-Euro crisis times is to stick together and not divide themselves into North and South, or creditor countries and debtor countries, following current popular rhetoric. It seems important that there is a young generation out there that signals a strong “united-we-stand” to the national elites. This alone is an enormous challenge, as requires to always looking across borders, to read the press and media of other countries, to dig into the arguments of other countries, and to develop a common reading of the Euro crisis, how we got into the crisis, and how we can move out of it together. In a way, it is the challenge of the younger generation to write that script for the new narrative of Europe that everybody is searching for.

This is not a trivial exercise, since the youth are – as the figures tell – strongly divided on Europe. In France e.g., Le Pen scores 8% higher than national average among 18-25 year olds. Figures for Viktor Orban’s party Fidesz (in Hungary) point to similar findings, which shows that an increasing proportion of young people are affected or seduced by populist voices.  The reason is that these voices  promise a sort of national refuge, warmth or community in times of austerity and the reign of neo-liberal technocracy in Europe.

What this means is that the youth in Europe seems more divided on Europe than any generation before, despite the fact that they could enjoy the promise of prosperity and the dividends of post-war peace. The politicisation of the European debate – beyond the old permissive consensus that Europe is somehow good, which we are all experiencing and testing out e.g. through the frontrunner-campaigning during the last EP-election thus also leads to a strong polarisation of the youth. The youth is deeply split: the more urban, educated youth tends to be strongly pro-European, and is now demanding equal European citizenship in order to radically push for horizontal integration, and things such as equal social rights for European citizens. The more rural  – and often less educated and mobile –members of the next generation tend to prefer ‘national’ or allegedly cosy, populist solutions. One of the biggest challenges for the youth who are committed to taking Europe to a different level, is to take the other members of their generation with them.

Is the EU failing young people? If so, in what way(s), and what must be done to improve this?

The EU is not necessarily or generally failing young people. As most current social studies point out, the future of a young person – whether or not they achieve higher education and social mobility – depends increasingly on the wealth of their parents and their family background. With income gaps increasing all over Europe – in Greece as much as in Germany – there is no general statement available on how the EU impacts a young person’s life.  A young software developer in Germany from a wealthy background, starting a professional career at BMW, has no problem nowadays. The same could be said for IT professionals or people working in the field of energy engineering. In all MINT-studies (Medicine, Information Sciences, Natural Sciences and Technologies), the demography – ever fewer qualified young people – works in favour of the next generation, the “Generation Y” which can claim good jobs, good pay and good work-life-balance. Europe is not in this equation.

Europe starts to matter where the effects of austerity policy (especially in Southern parts of Europe) lead to bleeding cuts in public expenditure, resulting in a lack of infrastructure – education, health care, professional formation, transportation and ICT systems – and the loss of a public sphere. The loss of a public sphere especially seems to be felt in rural areas – from Bulgaria to Spain– and leads to the brain drain of entire regions. Young people from Kosovo or Bulgaria or Portugal are leaving their home regions, with vast impact on family, social and public structures, and socio-economic fabrics.

It is hard to say whether Europe can do anything to reverse this trend or to help these peripheral regions. And it is also even harder to say whether this trend should be stopped in the first place. After all, it is a historical phenomenon; people have always left their homes to find work and more promising lives elsewhere, if and when their own region was in a downturn. So I think that this is much more a general and structural problem than a generational problem.

What is the future of the EU in respect to this generation of young people “taking over” one day?

It is clear that the young generation still seems pretty excluded from the official European policymaking. Its voice – or pain – is heard: that is, when the EU was launching programmes to overcome youth unemployment. But obviously, these initiatives seem to be little more than a drop in the ocean. Young people aren’t really integrated in the opinion and decision making procedures of the EU. I would agree that the European policy system, in many respects, is still dominated by a male-led discourse on integration, which is not really about innovation, but pretty much sticking to the paradigm of national borders, preventing real European solutions.

However, the question is not one of a “take-over” one day: it won’t happen in a day. What is already happening are basically two things: first, there is an alternative youth mobilisation across the EU, with a variety of new European think-tanks and activists which formed around the EP elections and who try to get their entries and influence into the European decision-making bodies (e.g. groups like European Alternatives etc.) Secondly, there is a mobilisation of young people with respect to national policies, requesting change. This seems particularly vibrant in Spain with Podemos and numerous anti-corruption movements. So through speaking up against their national elites, young people are already starting to impact what is done and what should change at the European level, as they increase the policy pressure at home.

The fact that many people – especially men in their 70s – are still in power and holding control of the system postpones or delays the normal aspiration for change (and that this phenomenon is palpable).

Is there a democratic deficit between the EU and its young citizens? Do young citizens have say in European politics?

There is obviously a democratic deficit in Europe, which has been widely discussed and analysed in the political sciences for a long time. This is primarily to do with a lack of parliamentarism, and a European system that is built mostly on indirect or delegated legitimacy, thus depending largely on out-put such as growth or prosperity (which is not assured these days). And finally – what the Euro crisis dramatically revealed – was a system in which the policy of some countries largely impacts the citizens of all of Europe, without these citizens having a voice or vote in the polity of the dominating country. However, the question remains, is this only a generational question? It certainly is somehow, to the extent that the demography in some countries (e.g. Germany) is bad for the youth and points to structural disempowerment: youngsters are too few and cannot really impact the system in electoral terms. The fact that many people – especially men in their 70s – are still in power and holding control of the system postpones or delays the normal aspiration for change (and this phenomenon is palpable). On the other hand, social and radical movements of young people – the Indignacios, for instance – are a way to voice protest and to influence the system, and this has indeed happened. I think this shows that young people are finding ways to have a say in European politics and to make their voices heard; but obviously, protest could be even louder and intense – and that this could perhaps lead to a mass movement like in ’68. Such a movement didn’t really happen (to my own personal surprise) in the days of the peak of the Euro-crisis around 2011, but the potential for one still exists.

What about non-citizens in Europe? Do you expect them to be marginalised further?

The migrants are the avant-garde of Europe in the sense that they confront Europe with its core values – and the fact that Europe is not living up to these values (especially with respect to the refugees crossing the Mediterranean by boat). It is Europe’s biggest challenge: to remain open and tolerant, and to avoid the nasty game that involves Europe standing for values and nation states defending popular interests against these values. The asylum-seekers in their boats – and refugees in general – deeply polarise public opinion. They are the drivers for a nationalist agenda in countries including the United Kingdom (with UKIP) or Sweden (Swedish Democrats).On the other hand, there is a growing understanding that human rights are inalienable, and that Europe must take the lead to signal this in the international system, where no other nation or political entity can claim a moral lead on this question. Obviously, this is easier said than done.

There is some empirical evidence emerging that suggests Europeans are much more in solidarity with one another than the national elites often believe.

Are national politics and identities taking over the European ones?

Indeed, we are experiencing a strong “re-nationalisation” of the European debate. However, the question is whether this is mainly driven by people, or by national elites who try to give into populist voices. There is some empirical evidence emerging that suggests Europeans are much more in solidarity with one another than the national elites often believe. This is also shown in a recent study by Jürgen Gerhards and Holger Lengfeld, which finds that European civic identity and the claim for equal European citizenship is supported by the majority of European citizens[1].

This remains, for now, an open question. The politicisation of the European question has also led to its polarisation, and this is exactly the battle ahead of us as well as the challenge for the next generation.

Are youth issues linked to structural problems – the comparatively weak small and medium-sized industry sectors in Southern states – for example?

Yes, I do think that structural questions and generational problems are linked. Regions are being deserted, and this is becoming ever more saddening. But this holds true as much for Southern Italy as for Eastern Germany or Northern Finland. Medium-sized industry sectors strongly depend on urban areas, proximity to transportation, broadband capacity (often not developed in rural areas), or innovative institutions such as universities. If these conditions are not given, small and medium-sized industry sectors will have a hard time surviving. Europe is indeed strongly affected by a rural/urban divide across the Union.

The youth in Europe tend to be moving in three different directions: the bulk of youth remain acquiescent with current political situations; many others have joined strong anti-capitalist struggles, and the final group have become strongly nationalist and right-wing. What do you make of this?

As I said already in question one, this seems to be precisely the challenge: the politicisation of the European debate leads also to its polarisation and this is at the same time a risk and a challenge for Europe. It is totally understandable that –at least in part–  the youth is turning against a technocratic Euro-system, thus in a way away from both the established left and right. The request for more democracy and a different Europe – which in a way also unites the new young left and the new young right – is a legitimate one. Hence, as you say, many stay acquiescent and rather try to still sneak into the existing system in one-way or the other rather than to advocate for broad policy chance.

So the triangular struggle can probably only work out with a positive result for a newly designed European dimension – in opposition to a return to nationalist thinking –  if Europe discovers and strongly promotes its social dimension. The crux would be to reconcile the left and anti-capitalist youth movements with Europe, and to urge them to work on shifting Europe into a social dimension instead of searching for more social solutions in a national or regional frame. Instead of being against Europe, they would need to conquer the European system and make it progressive, for instance, by advocating a European unemployment assurance, a European minimum wage or a European basic income. The solution no longer lies on the national level, as the Euro is here to stay. The real challenge is not to be anti-capitalist and thus implicitly anti-European, but rather to work for a European social democracy. I would bet that nationalistic movements would cease attracting young people, if Europe started to care; and that the acquiescent part of the youth could then discover that it is important to bother. In essence: the left needs to (re-)discover the “international”, instead of going national too.

As Leopold von Ranke, a famous German historian, once said: “each epoch is directly before god”.

Do young people have opportunities to create their own futures within the context of the crisis, or are they doomed to suffer it out?

Well, I think this is a broad philosophical question –and it certainly does not only apply to this youth. As Leopold von Ranke, a famous German historian, once said: “each epoch is directly before god”. This was in opposition to the Hegelian dictum of progress in history and a deterministic understanding of history, where each generation is only a build-in step for the next.

This means that each generation needs to come to its own happiness and find a new equilibrium. There is no need to take on the paradigms of the past and to feel subordinated to them.

Also, it was certainly not better to be young in the 1920s or 1930s, or even shortly after the Second World War. As much as I see a youth that feels betrayed out there, this only works in relation to the immediate post-war generation, which benefitted from a rather exceptional period of stability and prosperity. And again, how much a young person suffers depends tremendously on where he or she lives and in which family he or she was born into. I would not exaggerate an aggregated generational dynamic that alludes to the existence of a “suffering generation” across Europe.

Could you imagine a broad consensus of young people uniting to voice their concerns, rather than be broken up by race, class, religious creed? If so, how would such a thing be achieved?

Well, I cannot really answer this question; it is really up to you. I actually do not think (or see) that the youth these days seems strongly divided by race, class or religion; rather the opposite. I see more mixed couples between migrants, a mobile Erasmus youth etc. So this is also a reality, and the internet is ever more transnational and helps to amplify demands for an equal European citizenship. Again, the real rupture seems rather to lie in urban vs. rural, and mobile/educated vs. immobile/less educated, which then drives political affiliations. So indeed, the social division of today may shape the European divisions of tomorrow. But again, history always holds surprises, and it should not be assumed that the Euro crisis will not return, and that maybe then we will see political and social uprisings in which the youth will be able to have a voice. And it is also in the hands of an active youth to strongly repeat the claim that you want to hear what could be called the political “speech act” of the European system; that “we-are-all-one” and that this is actually expressed in real policies, e.g. transnational lists for the next EP elections, an EP with right of initiative, a common Eurozone budget, a fiscal and monetary backstop and a common deposit scheme for European banks etc., in addition to the common social policies that I already enumerated. You can hammer out these claims into the political arena!

Germany seems to benefit from the movement of young people from EU countries in crisis– is this good for the EU, or only for Germany?

Well yes, Germany benefits, or more precisely, Berlin benefits enormously as a city, as well as some regions in Germany, for instance the regions around Stuttgart where a lot of German engineering is and where many young Spanish engineers go. Berlin is crowded with European youngsters, who try to form a start up and throw a party, but don’t forget: there is not one Germany – nor one German youth. Germany is, in its Eastern parts, has an ageing and non-dynamic population, and from where young people flee. And there is also a neglected Western part, in which infrastructure is also falling apart and former wealthy regions, e.g. in North Rhine Westphalia, are also entering a wholesale decline. So not all of Germany is benefiting.

Having said this, it is hard to say whether the labour mobility towards Germany is a good thing or not. Labour mobility has always existed. People from Ireland and Italy left for the United States in the past century, and modern America is a product of this. Labour mobility also happens not only towards Germany (Spaniards are also leaving for Latin America, etc.) So the picture is probably more divided. But yes, you have a point which is that Germany seems to be at the core of a labour movement that attracts the young brains of many countries – or offers employment measures such as vocational training, e.g. for nurses. And this is good for Germany, but not necessarily for the regions or countries where these people come from. However: if this could be the road for increasing labour mobility (and then developing significant personal and social ties) across the EU, mixing ever more people in transnational social relations and ties, then I am inclined to be more in favour, because that seems to be the necessary road to increase common identity-building and the political road towards the claim for an equal European citizenship, including social rights!

[1] (http://www.polsoz.fu-berlin.de/soziologie/arbeitsbereiche/makrosoziologie/mitarbeiter/lehrstuhlinhaber/dateien/Gerhards___Lengfeld_2013_Abstrakt_und_Gliederung.pdf?1367713011)