The EFC’s annual Raymond Georis event, taking place this year in the shape of a debate, brought together three young Europeans to give their own perspectives on the critical issues faced by Europe today.
What are their thoughts on where Europe is headed? Where do they see the pitfalls – and opportunities – lying ahead in the coming years? What are their frustrations with the current systems in place and what do they feel can, and should, be done to fix them?
Europe’s future cannot be found in its past
In his introduction, Raymond Georis said that in the aftermath of the two recent ‘big bangs’ (Brexit and Trump) European elites need to concentrate on rebuilding the European project putting citizens at the centre of the process. He also ventured to explain the causes of these twin events as the clash of nostalgias – nostalgia in terms of sovereignty (populists who assert that ‘things were better in the (g)olden days’) and federalist post-war nostalgia for a United States of Europe. Mr Georis was clear that ‘the future of Europe cannot be found in the past’, which led to his introduction of the three young speakers and what future they envisaged.
In his opening, Thomas Dermine described the importance of people being ‘tri-athletes’ who are adept in terms of understanding the private (doing well) and public sectors but who also keep the mind-set of philanthropy (doing good). He also gave a presentation highlighting how nowadays there is an unprecedented ability to create wealth and that the driver of this is technology. Technology has massively increased productivity but its exponential return has not been mirrored in terms of workers’ salaries. The unequal repartition of the fruits of this productivity has led people to lose faith in the powers that be and their ability to improve their lives in future, with this frustration soon turning to anger. Mr Dermine stressed that we need ‘a new social contract’ with a positive narrative on globalisation between citizens and the government.
Mārtiņš Vaivars added a demographic lens by describing what he sees as a ‘generational imbalance’ rather than the often used term ‘generational gap’. With 130 million (and counting) pensioners in Europe – one quarter of the population – there is a sizeable political demographic which displays certain tendencies in terms of how it votes. Mr Vaivars claimed that this group (in general) tends to be more conservative and prone to the aforementioned ‘nostalgia of sovereignty’. As older people have more and more votes, fewer and fewer decisions are made with younger people in mind and in turn young people feel disenfranchised and don’t see the point in voting. He encouraged young people to resist this and instead become more engaged, more active and hence more able to influence the societies they inhabit.
Young people and the European project – a one-way relationship?
Moderator Enja Saethren asked the speakers how this affects the European project. With people under 25 twice as likely to be in poverty after the crisis, Thomas Dermine commented on the anomaly that young people are the worst affected and yet remain Europe’s biggest supporters. Mārtiņš Vaivars suggested that the EU needs to be more supportive of young people beyond the Erasmus programme, which he feels only helps out young people from wealthier and most likely more liberal families. In short: Europe needs to support young people to the same degree that young people support Europe.
Can technology redeem itself?
Both speakers agreed that technology, just as it has been a driver in creating the chasm between productivity and workers’ income, can also be a positive tool for engaging young people in the political process. Social media in particular is a vital tool for engagement and mobilisation of young people, although both speakers offered caveats to this – in particular that social media encourages people to ‘stick to their own’ with regards to their interests and the people they already know they like. Moreover, social media companies are complicit in this as they exist primarily for profit and use algorithms to show you things they know you like just to keep you clicking. An alternative, suggested Mārtiņš Vaivars, are debate clubs where people are encouraged to leave their comfort zones and listen to other people’s alternative point of views.
You don’t fall in love with the market…
Enja Saethren asked the speakers whether Europe could/should be rebranded more closely to its conceptual raison d’être – as a peace project. Moreover, should this new Europe pay more attention to national identities as components of Europe rather than attempt hegemony? Mārtiņš Vaivars agreed that it needs a rebranding, with a focus on something to unite behind rather than against, even if the latter is much more instinctive and easier to manipulate (by populist politicians, for example.) Thomas Dermine commented that ‘it takes a crisis to move forward’, and the EU’s focus should be on psychological narratives rather than economic factors because these speak to people more. He also suggested that this was exemplified in the continued allegiance to leaders such as Putin who maintains strong support despite his economic record. Both speakers agreed that European identity should not attempt to supersede national identity.
Mr Dermine also pointed to European success stories, in particular Europe’s traditional role as an innovator of social progress. And just as voting rights were the answer to social unrest in the industrial revolution era, so now a Universal Basic Income could be the answer. Mr Vaivars concurred on the first aspect, stating that the EU has certainly helped the progress of its members, especially the younger countries and in particular in areas such as human rights. He doubted, however, the EU’s ability to push through Universal Basic Income.
…and politics isn’t sexy anymore either
Gerry Salole asked the speakers whether an ageist narrative now exists to go along with the racism and genderism narratives, and the speakers agreed that it does. Thomas Dermine sees a real clash between generations, where for the first time since WWII young people will not be better off than their parents before them. He also questioned why political parties are not waking up to this and in turn why young people are not more politically active. Mārtiņš Vaivars painted a bleak picture of opaque political parties unwilling to adapt to the needs of young people populated by politicians who are either untrustworthy or unlikeable or both. Instead, he said, young people turn to entrepreneurship rather than politics, or prefer a career in a private company which offers linear career prospects rather than the risky and unpredictable business of politics. In short: young people need to influence politics to the same degree that politics influences young people.
Philanthropy should build bridges, not walls
Thomas Dermine stressed that education is the best investment you can make, whether you’re a government or philanthropist. As an investment it is efficient and yields undoubted results with myriad positive ripple effects. So the idea is sound but in reality the question is: how do you do it? Mārtiņš Vaivars suggested that philanthropy can help by supporting leadership and media literacy training programmes, helping to empower young people to make an impact on society by starting anything from a blog to an NGO. Thomas Dermine added that philanthropy, with its independent nature, can help break down the walls – both real and imagined – that are threatening to divide society once more.
At a time when many parties either fail to see their own role in demolishing these divides, or, worse, seek to make use of them, philanthropy can play a key role building bridges instead.