Fighting (for?) Europe: How European Elites Lost a Generation
The European Union is in bad shape. Not only is the common currency in a shambles and the economies of many member states moribund, but young Europeans no longer see how the EU helps them. Millions of them are taking to the streets to demand a future. By SPIEGEL Staff
When Kostas Dekoumes, a 24-year-old Greek, is asked about Europe, he launches into a rant about German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When Oleguer Sagarra, a 25-year-old Spaniard, is asked the same question, he says that Europe represents the only chance to find work. Karl Gill, a 21-year-old Irishman, responds to the question by railing against the banks.
And when Jacques Delors, 85, is asked about Europe, he says things like: "Europe needs a pioneering spirit," and he asks: "Do the men and women of this era truly want this Europe?"
Delors, together with former French President François Mitterrand and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was one of the driving forces behind the European Union, and under his leadership as president of the European Commission, treaties were signed that would be impossible to forge agreement on today.
Delors represents a time when Europe inspired the imagination of statesmen. The goal was to secure peace in Europe and prosperity for the continent's poorer countries including jobs, education and justice. Europe was a promise. When Kostas Dekoumes, Oleguer Sagarra, Karl Gill and hundreds of thousands of other citizens protest in the squares of European cities, it is to demand that governments and politicians make good on this promise. In their opinion, Europe is in the process of making them poor. In response, they are speaking out and exerting pressure on their governments, just as the financial markets are doing.
A Look at the Zeitgeist
When Delors, an elegant man with a soft face, worries about the common European currency -- a monetary union which in recent months increasingly resembles a teetering house of cards -- he talks about the debt crises of individual countries, and he says that the markets are testing the EU "because they are convinced that it is not capable of taking action." All of this is very disconcerting, says Delors, but it isn't the real reason for the scope of the crisis.
"We are talking about the Zeitgeist, aren't we, about the 'mood'?" says Delors. By that he means that two crises are unfolding at the same time in Europe today. On the one hand, there is the debt crisis faced by individual nations. The second crisis, and the more dangerous one, is a crisis of meaning. Do Europeans -- the citizens and their political elites -- even want the historic project of a European Union anymore?
The search for an answer to this question inevitably leads to those places where agitation is at its most intense, where citizens are fighting for the future, even if is only their personal future. It leads to Barcelona, Dublin, Athens, Lyon and Lisbon, to the rebellious crowds full of rage but not necessarily full of hope.
Spaniard Oleguer Sagarra is no revolutionary. He is a conscientious young man who wears eye-catching glasses. He has lived in Montreal and Sydney, speaks fluent French and English and is trained for complex data analysis. Sagarra used to think that he wasn't the kind of person who took part in demonstrations. Such a person is made for work.
Sagarra is sitting on a large rock at the foot of one of the twin fountains on Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona. A small tent city covers the square behind him. Young people are siting in front of the tents talking, some are sunbathing, while others are painting protest signs or cooling off in one of the fountains. There are makeshift information booths at the center of the tent city. Sagarra, an academic and the son of Ferran Sagarra, the dean of the Barcelona School of Architecture, spent the night here, on the street.
In about an hour, shortly before it gets dark, thousands will gather on the square once again and start banging on pots, just as the Argentineans did in the 1990s during their economic crisis, shortly before the country's bankruptcy.
Spain is currently experiencing the worst crisis since it became a democracy. Thousands of young people have occupied the central squares in several Spanish cities for weeks now. Sagarra sums up the mood of his generation in a short sentence: "It's every man for himself." Forty-four percent of young people are unemployed.
"I finished school more than a year ago," says Sagarra. "There were more than 50 of us who graduated with degrees in physics here in Barcelona. Only one person found a job. One of more than 50. I speak several languages and I'm a physicist, and I'm living in the room where I lived as a kid."
Some from Sagarra's class have gone to the Netherlands or Germany to pursue their doctorates. For them, Europe is a place that promises work. Sagarra doesn't question Europe as an idea, nor does he see Europe as the enemy. "A lot would be achieved if politicians weren't serving the business lobbyists and special interests, but the people instead," he says.
The young protesters' demands are modest. They want more citizen involvement, a reform of voting rights and curbs on the power of banks. One of the protest signs reads: "We are not against the system. The system is against us."
That system consists of the banks, which are secretly counting on government support, and the governments, which have gone into debt to rescue the banks -- especially the governments in the so-called PIGS states, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Just a fleeting acquaintance with the news is enough to realize that Europe's fate is tied to these countries' national debts. There is surprising common ground between the international financial markets and Europe's young citizens: Both are leery of the European project, its institutions, its leaders and its currency.
To put things harshly, today's EU, in the perception of the majority of citizens, from Estonia to Portugal and from Finland to Greece, can be likened to Franz Kafka's "Castle." Perhaps not as sinister but every bit as secretive; somehow omnipresent, but physically elusive; a domineering, faceless power that decides who becomes rich or poor.
It is a paradox that an even greater dose of this Kafka-esque, unloved Europe would be necessary to survive the present-day crises and the challenges of the future.
Portugal is a case in point. The country has been battered by global competition. As recently as the 1990s, Portugal was an important textile center that only ran into trouble once China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Investors began turning their backs on the country and, beginning in 2004, focusing on new European Union member states in Eastern Europe, which had lower taxes and lower wages.
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