Timothy Garton Ash per The Guardian
“I was mad at you,” says Mario, an Italian student. He was angry about a column I wrote just after the European elections in May arguing that to choose Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European commission was the wrong answer to the continent-wide discontent those elections revealed.
Well, as the commission president, Juncker, proposes a prestidigitated investment package to boost the European economy, and the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk prepares to chair his first summit of EU heads of government, it’s worth asking again who is going to save the European project. My answer: it will not be saved without the more active engagement of Mario and his contemporaries – the Erasmus and easyJet generation.
Of course, the rescue also requires good policies from above. But Super Mario – that’s Draghi, chairman of the European Central Bank, not Balotelli, the Instagram footballer – can’t do it on his own, even with another €1tn on his balance sheet. It needs young Mario too.
I have never known a time when there was so much intellectual pessimism about the future of the EU among those (including myself) who have been its ardent supporters. Here are three big reasons for this pessimism. First, the eurozone. Loukas Tsoukalis, a pro-European expert, notes that “the design was wrong, and so was membership”. Too many, too diverse economies were hitched together in a common currency without a common treasury. These fundamental design flaws have been exacerbated by German-led austerity policies, which underestimate the differences between national economic cultures, and the need for more investment and demand.
Second, the politics. Election after election, opinion poll after opinion poll, has revealed that European voters are deeply disillusioned with their current politics and political elites. That expresses itself both in more apathy and in more votes for anti-establishment, anti-system parties of every colour – from Hungary’s Jobbik and France’s Front National, through Britain’s Ukip, and Germany’s Alternative for Germany, all the way to Italy’s Five Star Movement, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza.
If this is so within the member states of the EU, how much more is it true of the European institutions? Planet Brussels has become the showcase example of remote elites. The television shots from European summits show endless middle-aged men in suits getting in and out of large black cars.
Despite direct elections to, and enhanced powers for, the European parliament, there is scant sense of popular representation. And there is no pan-European political theatre. Fewer than 500,000 Europeans watched any of this spring’s three pan-European televised debates between the main party groupings’ Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) for the post of European commission president, whereas more than 67 million Americans watched the first US presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.
This brings me to a third ground for gloom: there is no shortage of manifestos, plans and books dedicated to saving the European Union, but most of them are written by people the wrong side of 50. Appeals for more “leadership” pour from retired leaders, who imply that everything was better in their day.
I see few proposals coming from the generation of young Mario. On the face of it, this is odd, because his is the first generation to have enjoyed Europe as a single space of freedom, from Lisbon to Tallin and Athens to Edinburgh. When I invited suggestions for this column on Twitter, Dan Nolan replied: “Compulsory Erasmus for all”.
He linked to an interview with Umberto Eco in which that great sage argued that the university exchange programme Erasmus “has created the first generation of young Europeans. I call it a sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children. The Erasmus idea should be compulsory – not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers.”
Quite what the priest Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam would make of becoming a synonym for sexual revolution I’m not sure, but there is something in this. There is a lived, everyday Europe of transnational intermingling. In the EU-wide Eurobarometer opinion polls, the most popular answer to the question “What does the EU mean to you personally?” is “freedom to travel, study and work anywhere in the EU”.
Although those who “tend to distrust” the EU outnumber those who “tend to trust” it by nearly two to one, the younger the respondents, the more likely they are to express trust – though that’s still only 46% of 15- to 24-year-olds. One in two young people in Greece and Spain are unemployed, and they can reasonably ask: “What has Europe done for me lately?”
Nonetheless, there are many young Europeans – including a whole post-1989 cohort of central and east Europeans – who have been great beneficiaries of the European project. Yet we hardly hear their voices on Europe. In part, I think this is precisely because they already have the Europe that earlier generations aspired to.
They like Europe, but it is not their great cause or dream. Instead, they become passionate about other issues and places: the environment, sexual equality, global poverty, animal rights, online freedom, climate change, China, Africa. If the basic freedoms they value in the EU were suddenly revoked, they would surely mobilise to defend them – but Europe’s decline, if it happens, is probably not going to be like that. The institutions will remain, but gradually be hollowed out, like those of the Holy Roman Empire. There may be no sufficiently dramatic wake-up call until it is too late. (For some east Europeans, Vladimir Putin is that wake-up call, but apparently not for most west Europeans.)
Yet I also think we older Europeans don’t ask them often enough what kind of Europe they want. I was recently asked by a European academic institution to participate in formulating a new version of the Schuman declaration, the seminal 1950 proposal for the first steps to today’s EU. I replied that I thought we would do better to ask the post-89er, Erasmus generation. The last I heard, this institution was planning to approach a clutch of former European heads of state to draft such a declaration.
Well, good luck with that. Another one of those is just what we need.
So I’m really grateful to young Mario for caring enough to be mad at me. Go on, be angry. Be mad at us. But change Europe. It needs it.
• This article was amended on 8 December. We mistakenly described Desiderius Erasmus as a 17th-century Catholic priest. This has now been corrected.