Photo:  Garon S

Photo: Garon S

Who’s Afraid of Generation Europe? | pt. 2

By Ellyn van Valkengoed

People I know – friends, classmates, colleagues -  say they no longer believe in democracy, because ‘as a system’ it can never work. I don’t think they mean it, since they’re the same people who wandered the streets at night in a daze after the American presidential elections and (almost) cried over Brexit. It seems like the natural thing to do: when things aren’t going your way, blame it on the system.

But I worry that the rest of the world won’t see it this way, in a time when even the New York Times reports that millennials no longer consider democracy ‘essential’ to government. This isn’t even a fact, but a misinterpretation of the original research results as it turns out. I’m worried that damage is being done; that everyone will mistake this showcase of cynicism about democracy for the real thing, the same way parents worry about sensitive high schoolers who dye their hair black and stitch skull-shaped patches onto their backpacks.

In the first part of this essay, I wrote about the ways in which politics now seem to be carried out against the interests of young people and why, in relation to this, we’re not making ourselves heard.  That was about the system. This part is about us. Specifically, about our identity as Europeans.

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If my generation is in any way more skeptical about democracy than before, Europe must be where it started. This isn’t only because national independence, the voice of the people and membership of the EU are the issues that are at stake for many of the political parties shaking up the establishment now. It's also because we sense that Europe, the continent, finds itself at a critical turning point.

In 2014, academic Jonathan Holslag (1981) wrote a book which he dedicated to his students first and to Europe’s youth second. It’s mainly for us, he states, that the hollowing out of Europe and its politics is more evident. The world order is shifting: Asia is on the rise while the United States’ hegemony is waning, and Europe’s borders have become hotbeds of violence. Then there is the fallout from a global economic crisis to deal with and battles fought over immigration and employment.

Yet it’s not all bad: Europe, to me, is also a shorthand for how we grew up, with its adventures and opportunities. It’s Erasmus, cheap air travel, interrailing passes, every flavor of beer imaginable (Earl Grey and caramel, anyone?). It’s clubbing in Iceland till your fingers curl and freeze, and friends gained and lost as they move to and from Brussels or Paris.

The trouble with European identity is that its greatest strength – a diversity of experiences – is also its predominant flaw

Being European comes with a sense of connectedness owing to hundreds of hours of history classes on WW1 and WW2 and the French revolution. It’s part of the timeline of our childhoods. The treaty of Maastricht, which formalized the EU as we know it today, was signed in 1992, the year I was born. It was followed by the introduction of the Euro (2002) which opened possibilities to cross borders IRL, just as the internet (Google, 1998; Facebook, 2004; YouTube, 2005) made it possible to talk to anyone anywhere.

Even our sense of style isn’t as unique as we’d have you believe: If Instagram had existed back in 1774, I am sure Young Werther would have had an account. It would have featured snaps of sunsets and the yellowed pages of old books and brown leather riding boots that fold at the knee. 25-year old Johann von Goethe had already come up with a pretty successful parody of the hipster phenomenon, long before anyone even knew what that was.

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The trouble with European identity is that its greatest strength – a diversity of experiences – is also its predominant flaw. Europe is easy to understand when you are zipping across its borders or watching the sun flash on the surface of the Thames, but hard to explain in a crisis. It’s a bit like going on a gap year: you sense the world is bigger and more interesting than you’d imagined, but there’s always a moment when you come home to the old bedroom in your parents’ house. You’ve changed, but everything else is the same as before.

Europe leaves you with a language made for academic papers, newspaper analyses and history books. Its rhetoric doesn’t scale down to a tweet or up to a television debate. And everyone knows that in the end, decisions are made at home: or even in another member state, while you wait powerlessly for referendum results to come in.

I also know it’s not entirely fair to assume everyone of a certain age considers Europe the way I do. Of course we didn’t all go to university, and we didn’t all study abroad. Most of us can’t understand each other when we’re ordering beer in the pub. We’re not all dealing with the same situations either: some of us twentysomethings are living in mom’s basement, others buying their first houses.

But not thinking about this issue further is a recipe for disaster. Or, as Holslag wrote:

‘The tension doesn’t lead to unity, but instead to a paralyzing divide between rebellion, outrage, cynicism, and, for those who haven’t been struck by crisis yet, a conservative apathy.’

I think 2017 might be the year that crisis begins to catch up with all of us, equally. Cynicism and apathy aren’t the answer, but a starting point to talk about democracy and Europe and its future. If democracy could be better, how could we improve it? How can we make room for experiences that aren’t our own? We will go home, but let’s try to not lose sight of each other.

Read the first part of Ellyn's essay series here

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Ellyn is an Are We Europe staff writer focussing on European identity and other issues