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,. 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 thefaced 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 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.
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— 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 .
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.
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.
Does Europe Mean Moving Abroad for Work?
A strong EU could not have prevented this adverse competition, but it could have softened its impact. Brussels should have tried to balance interests. If the concept of European unity had been taken seriously, the EU could have considered direct aid to Portugal. Nothing of the sort happened, of course.
Now Portugal is surviving with loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Germans call it a rescue package. The papers write that Portugal is now under the “European rescue umbrella.”
When Paula Gil, 27, reads this sort of thing in the newspaper in Lisbon, it means very little to her. Rescue? Like many Portuguese, Gil feels that her country is not being rescued but taken over. By a foreign power. By Europe.
“We aren’t getting any aid. We’re getting loans,” she says quietly. “But does one fight debt by going even more deeply into debt?” People she has never voted for can now influence her country and her future, says Gil. People like IMF executives, ratings agency analysts and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of.
Gil, a petite young woman, studied international relations in Great Britain. She has a Master’s degree and speaks English fluently. She is currently doing an internship with a non-governmental organization. She doesn’t know how many internships she has already done, but at least this one is paid, which is unusual, says Gil, €750 ($1,080) a month for full-time work. She spends €300 a month on the room she rents in a shared apartment. She has no health insurance or unemployment insurance, and her internship ends on Dec. 31.
Many young Portuguese are in the same boat. Some 27 percent are unemployed.
Would Even Go to Angola
She doesn’t need a job that will last forever, or one that pays a lot, says Gil. But she does expect to be treated with dignity and to get what she feels she is entitled to: health insurance, unemployment insurance and a contract that cannot be terminated from one day to the next. Sometimes, says Gil, she is afraid she will end up like her mother, who is 47 and unemployed. “At first, you get part-time jobs in Portugal — because you’re young. Then, when you hit your mid-40s, you don’t get any jobs at all — because you’re old.”
Gil applied for many jobs after receiving her university degree, including positions in France, Spain and Great Britain. She says she would even go to Angola, a former Portuguese colony. At the same time, she finds it absurd that the only way to succeed is to look for work outside Portugal. “You can’t expect an entire generation to emigrate. The country has invested a lot in education, and we are better educated than any generation before us. And then they send us away? Is this Europe?” Gil asks.
She says that she always liked the European idea, but that she now has the feeling that a European idea or identity no longer exists. What does exist, she points out, is European money and a European economy, dominated by the wealthy north, by countries like Germany. “The way I feel about Europe is that I am a second-class European,” says Gil.
But who is responsible for Portugal’s debt? Who is supposed to solve the problems?
A Few Thousand Protesters
Gil shrugs her shoulders. Entire governments are agonizing over the same questions. How should Gil, a 27-year-old intern who became part of the protest movement more or less by accident, know the answers? She and her friends had announced on Facebook that they were going to hold a demonstration on March 12. Someone had come up with the idea over drinks at a bar. No one had much experience in this sort of thing. They hoped to attract a few thousand protesters.
More than 300,000 showed up on March 12. On that day, Portugal’s youth protested in several cities throughout the country, revealing the frustrations of an entire generation. “It was really about just one thing,” says Gil, “an outlook for the future.”
The protesters in Portugal will probably never be as furious as they are in Greece or Spain. “It isn’t our style,” says Gil. “We are the only country in the world that staged a revolution with flowers. With carnations.”
Not long ago, Gil met with some of the old fighters from the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. The former army officers have an office in Lisbon and still exert some influence in society. Now they were getting to know Paula Gil and the “geração a ràsca,” or “generation of junk.” “One of the old officers said to me: Our revolution was easy. We had one enemy: the Portuguese government and the dictator. But who are you fighting?”
There are no easy answers to his question. Are they fighting the crisis, the banks, Europe, capitalism? Something as abstract as Portugal’s debt, a number with many zeros behind it? Is it even possible to protest against debt, or revolt against numbers?
Gil says that she isn’t opposed to the politicians, or to democracy, Europe and the banks. She has nothing against the system, the favored adversary of all rebels. Gil simply wants a chance — to be allowed to participate, and to work, nothing more. That is her dream for Europe.
Young people throughout Europe have agreed to organize a joint campaign. “One Voice,” Gil calls it, as she stubs out her last hand-rolled cigarette. It sounds almost like the idea for one Europe that politicians once set out to build — and that was never built.
It isn’t just young Europeans who have lost their connection to the ideas of the European founding fathers. Of course, they live with the achievements of the community, but they are hard-pressed to find arguments for why this union should be continued, expanded, developed or intensified. The slogan “No More War!” that marked the beginning of the European unification process has become devoid of content, because that goal has already been met.
It is also Europe’s current state that prompts Frenchmen like Julien Boyer to head out to the Place Bellecour in Lyon every evening at 7 p.m. “The free republic,” one of the banners reads. Phrases like “Let’s be outraged!” “They’re our banks!” and “Democracy 2.0” appear on other banners — or the tongue-in-cheek message, printed in smaller letters: “There are non-smokers here too.”
They aren’t demonstrating. They’re a little further along than that. “People who do nothing but demonstrate are just leveling accusations and leaving it up to the government to find a solution,” says Boyer, a young man of 30, wearing a shirt with a jacket, with his hair combed back neatly. He could be an up-and-coming employee, but the impression is deceiving. He is wearing more respectable clothing because he is handing out flyers to the citizens of Lyon and, subversively enough, was trying not to look like someone who is trying the change the world. An engineer by profession, he once worked in office jobs as a technical sales consultant, all the while feeling a deep sense of unease about the world. For years, it was a feeling he expressed only on the Internet, in blogs and on Facebook. And now everything has changed. Why?
“Because it’s time,” says Boyer.
The Search for More Democracy
It’s time for the pamphlet written by 93-year-old Frenchman Stéphane Hessel, “Indignez-vous!” (“Time for Outrage!”), to have its effect in, after having triggered the protests in Spain.
It’s time for Boyer, a former engineer and current freelance web designer and manager of the website, to spend every evening with outraged citizens on Place Bellecour, with 20, 200 or 300 people, depending on the weather. It is the “assertiveness of people thinking for themselves,” in cities like Rouen, Angers, Lille and Montpellier, that Boyer finds so appealing.
They are sitting at the base of a statue of Louis XIV, holding an “Assemblée générale,” or general assembly, and saying the things that matter to them into the microphone: Solidarity with the outraged citizens in Spain! In Belgium! Greece! Should alcohol be banned during the assembly? What do we do about plastic garbage? What could a society look like in which everyone has a real, paid job? Who is bringing food for dinner tomorrow?
They talk, sometimes with the furor of people trying to shake off a colonizer or a dictator. The word democracy keeps reappearing, even though they know perfectly well that they live in a democracy. It just isn’t the one they want.
It’s dark now, after 10 p.m., and while the Democracy Task Force earnestly discusses the environmental crisis, the power of lobbies and banks and the weakness of representative democracy, another task force is on the move in the pedestrian zone on Rue Victor Hugo, turning off lights. They have discovered how to switch off neon signs. They leave behind flyers and slogans scrawled in pink chalk, as they turn off the signs of commerce, at a shoe store, at a travel agency and at a pasta store. Click. They believe that there are too many lights on in the world at night, and that saving electricity helps reduce the need for nuclear power plants. Click. Too much light in the world. The fireflies are dying out. Click.
Impossible to Influence
Boyer, a Frenchman and a European like millions of others, talks of decentralization, civic activism, but no parties. He wants direct democracy, politics at the grassroots, a Europe governed by the base.
Europe — the word itself has a pleasant ring to it. The EU allows countries to grow together, which Boyer likes, in theory, but he doesn’t like the way they are doing it. For him, today’s Europe is the opposite of direct democracy, a place where decisions are made by impenetrable committees that are almost impossible to influence.
Boyer has no answer to the question of whether this Europe can be tamed, with more referendums and more civic activism. But that, at least, is the hope of the many who convene on public squares and network on Facebook, and it’s the hope at reelledemocratie.fr.
Real democracy. It’s a big word, and he knows it. Is the world out there receptive to the idea? In Lyon? In France? In Europe?
Until then, the screws of debt continue tightening, and in the world of networked markets, it operates almost like a law of nature, as the lenders lose confidence in the borrowers. The rating agencies, sharply criticized after the global financial crisis for having been too lax, are now doing their jobs as demanded and downgrading the credit ratings of some countries on the strength of solid arguments. This prompts investors to demand higher interest rates as a premium for their willingness to assume risk, as well as to cushion the blow of possible payment defaults in advance. The high interest rates, in turn, only further increase the debt burdens of beleaguered countries. To them, it feels as if they were stuck in a trap with no way out.
The Real Crash
It is a. Every evening for the last two-and-a-half weeks, Kostas Dekoumes has gone to Syntagma Square, the Greek version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “There were 500,000 of us on Sunday,” says Dekoumes, “half a million people.” He says that he is neither a leftist nor a right-winger. In fact, he says, politics doesn’t really interest him.
Dekoumes, 24, is wearing flip-flops and a black T-shirt, and he has piercings, tattoos and a full beard. Until now, there were plenty of things more important to him than demonstrations, things like rock music and motorcycles, whose tires he repaired in his father’s workshop.
His parents, who vote for the Social Democrats, always explained things to him on the few occasions when he had questions about politics. Now he calls his friends every day and tells them to come to the square with him.
Dekoumes talks about freedom, about Angela Merkel and the International Monetary Fund. Standing on the balcony of his parents’ apartment, where he still lives, he blows smoke from his cigarette into the sky over Athens.
His mother, a bookkeeper, still has her job. But his father, who has been selling motorcycle tires for 20 years, recently had to let three of his employees go. And although he didn’t lay off his son Kostas, he did reduce his wages. Which explains why Kostas is only driving a small scooter these days, instead of the big motorcycle he used to drive. He bought his first motorcycle at 17, an Aprilia RS 125, a street bike. He sold it to buy a better one, a process which continued until a few months ago, when he lost his fifth motorcycle in an accident. He could only afford a scooter after that. This is the biggest crisis for Dekoumes, the real crash.
He says that his grandparents were guest workers who worked in factory near Düsseldorf in western Germany. They were poor and they worked hard, but by the time they returned to, the lives of their children, Kostas’ parents, had improved. Things have always gone uphill for them, he says, while everything seems to be going downhill for him.
One of Europe’s Fools
Dekoumes says he knows that there is really no solution for Greece. His country’s debts are already so high that he can’t even comprehend the number. Bankruptcy will come, but when it does, he says, he still wants to be a proud Greek — not someone reduced to driving around the city on a moped.
And not someone who is dependent on the government, “on the assholes I didn’t vote for,” he says, or on Europe or Angela Merkel, who, for Dekoumes, is the face of evil. This is his image of Europe: There is another government above his own government, one that is much worse than the Greek government, and that government is headed by Angela Merkel — the worst of them all.
The Greeks, he says, bought their washing machines, their cars and their traffic lights from the Germans. The only reason the Germans are doing so well, he says, is because the Greeks exist. “Now they’re doing their next deal with us.”
For Dekoumes, who prefers to walk rather than be seen driving a scooter, the most important thing is his dignity. He doesn’t want to feel like one of Europe’s fools.
Evening has come, and Dekoumes trades his flip-flops for his Nikes, grabs his backpack and his camera and, driving his parents’ car, picks up his friend Psi, a student. They smoke in the car and don’t say much to each other. The streetlights are plastered with Signs that read “Óxi!” or “No!” — a reference to the Greek sellout. “We own nothing. We are selling nothing. We pay nothing!” The word “Óxi,” written in red ink, appears throughout the entire city. The Greeks have become the people of No.
In the past, “Óxi!” was a symbol of resistance against Mussolini’s occupiers.
Dragged Along by the Crisis
The organizers of the protest movement use Skype to stay in touch with young people in other countries, in Spain, France and Portugal. The Spaniards are pressuring the Greeks to take things a step further. The Greeks are the worst off, they say, which is why the experiment should begin in Greece.
They don’t elaborate. But they do tell stories about people who were poor for a long time and were always peaceful, but who stopped being peaceful when they realized that nothing was changing.
The Greek parliament will vote on the next majoron June 28. Large protests like the ones that took place in late May are scheduled for the evening before the crucial vote. The organizers expect more people turn out than ever before. Óxi!
Many like to compare the rebellious Greeks with the peaceful Irish, who are expected to perform the same balancing act of cutting costs while trying to stimulate growth. In Ireland, as in Portugal, a stronger Europe could have prevented worse things from happening. The island nation — exhibiting a lack of solidarity still tolerated by the EU today — built itself up as a tax oasis, sucking vast sums of foreign capital into the country. The banks were poorly regulated and it was widely known that their executives were in bed with the government.
When the roller coaster of the global economic crisis dragged Ireland along with it, the small country announced that it was prepared to guarantee its banks’ liabilities to the tune of €440 billion — a sum more than twice as high as the country’s economic output at the time. It would not have come to this if the EU had had the gumption to at least try to stop Ireland’s low-tax policies years ago, and if Brussels had had the power to impose tighter controls on the banks.
It is evening in Dublin, where a banker and a young Irishman are having an argument at the Porterhouse Pub. The Irishman stacks beverage cases by day, but now he has a stack of paperback books in front of him. The title of one of the books is “Marx Today.” “Tell me something,” says the banker, a man in his early 40s, wearing a gray suit with cufflinks, as he points to the books, “what exactly do you Irish expect to get from this shit, from Marx, from the theories of the 19th century?”
“At least these theories didn’t get us into the shit.”
The banker chews on that for a moment. Then he sticks out his hand. “My name is Johan,” he says. “I’m a Dutchman, and I’m pissed off.”
“My name’s Karl, and I’m an Irishman,” Karl says amiably, “and I’m pissed off, too.”
Karl Gill, a bearded redhead with a round face and a round belly, was born in Dublin, the fourth of four children. His mother was a seamstress and is now a housewife. His father, who used to work for a telephone company, is now the janitor at a school called the Scoil Lorcáin. Karl still lives with his parents in a tiny row house in the town of Dún Laoghaire, only a few kilometers away. Getting his own apartment would be an impossibility. He is 21, but he seems older and more mature. He studied sociology and political science at the university, and for the past three years has been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He is something of a leftist rising star. He hopes to be voted into the Dublin City Council and later into Ireland’s parliament.
Benefiting from the Boom
“Why, Johan,” he asks, “are you so pissed off at the Irish?”
“Because I think it’s unfair that countries that keep their finances in order, like the Netherlands, should pony up for others that live beyond their means. The protests and the outrage on the left, these are just smoke screens to cover up unrealistic demands. Why should a Dutch worker pay for a Greek protester, someone who doesn’t produce anything, who contributes nothing to Europe?”
“Good point,” says Gill. “But you mustn’t forget that it wasn’t the countries that were living beyond their means and benefiting from the boom, but always individual classes within society…”
“Oh come on, classes?”
“Okay, then individual groups. While other groups did not benefit, or hardly at all, and certainly had no power to make decisions. And in Ireland those who are not responsible for this mess are supposed to pay the bill? Do you think that’s fair? I don’t. That’s why I’m fighting back.”
“What about the Spanish mothers?” the Dutchman asks. He sounds irritated.
“What do you mean?”
“The Spanish mothers! I recently read about this in a study or an article. They would rather send their kids to a football school, where they learn to dribble, because they have dreams of their sons becoming strikers, instead of encouraging them to learn something worthwhile — a trade, or math or languages. Instead, it’s football! That’s supposed to be Europe? Are we supposed to prevail in the world market by watching each other play football? And we’re supposed to pay for that?”
“So it’s a cultural problem?”
“Absolutely,” says the Dutchman.
They toss sentences back and forth at each other like actors in a revolutionary drama.
Saddled with Debt
“Look at me, for example, Johan. I’m a student. Just because I happen to be Irish, I’m supposed to be responsible for some of the government’s debt, and suddenly I’m saddled with thousands and thousands of euros in debts? What about the retirees whose pensions have been cut? What about the students who don’t have rich parents? We are supposed to tighten our belts for a party to which we were never invited.”
“You have to start somewhere,” says the Dutchman.
“That’s true.” Karl uses his fingers to list his points. “We have to start by reforming the tax system. The big companies that were lured here with low tax rates need to pay more now. By the way, what’s your profession, Johan?”
“Banker, uh, consultant,” says the Dutchman.
“Where do you work?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Oh.” Karl reaches for his glass and empties it.
“I have to get going,” says Johan.
Are Karl Gill, Kostas Dekoumes, Julien Boyer, Paula Gil and Oleguer Sagarra dedicated Europeans?
No — they don’t want more out of life than other young Europeans. Sagarra wants to work as an engineer, somewhere in Europe. Gil doesn’t want to be a second-class European or live in a colony of the IMF. Boyer wants a democratic Europe, not one that’s run by bureaucrats. Dekoumes wants a real motorcycle. That’s his idea of Europe. And Gill wants the same kind of tax system that exists in other European countries, a tax system that makes the rich poorer and the state richer, and everything a little more socialist.
None of this sounds like Jacques Delors, or like the Europe envisioned by statesmen like Mitterand and Kohl. The people of Europe looked on as these men shaped their policies, and they enjoyed the benefits. Now, as things become less comfortable and possibly more expensive, the European idea is being reexamined, precisely by those whose future is being influenced by this idea more than ever before.
And now those who in the past showed very little interest for the European Commission, the Parliament and the bureaucracy in Brussels — because they assumed that they weren’t expected to be interested in these things — are reading daily about the strange things European statesmen have done with the European idea: things like circumventing their own regulations, falsifying statistics and breaking promises. They are responsible for an impressive number of rule breaches and untruths. Can anyone blame Europeans who, in the last few months, have learned more about Europe than they ever wanted to know, for being distraught — to put it mildly — over what their governments have done in their names and with their money?
The real paradox is that it is precisely those young Europeans in Lisbon, Barcelona, Lyon, Dublin and Athens who need a strong European Union. They need a union that redistributes work in Europe; that monitors the banks and speculators in different ways than national governments can; that regulates the handling of nuclear power, nuclear waste and energy policies on a European level; and that coordinates climate protection for the countries. In short, they need a union that exists not because political romantics from the postwar generation want to keep it alive. They need a union that exists because the Europeans of tomorrow see it as their greatest opportunity.
But perhaps the entire historic project has already been brought to completion. The European idea has made it possible to reconcile the destroyed continent after the war and get it back on track. Europe was helpful in surviving the chill of the Cold War era. The EU was able to help process the fall of the Berlin Wall and heal the most serious wounds of the division between East and West. With its two waves of expansion eastward in 2004 and 2007, it contributed to providing a continent — long divided along artificial lines — with a common form once again. The Balkan countries will still have to be brought home to Europe, and so will Ukraine, perhaps. The prospects for Turkey aren’t looking so good.
But for the moment, the real question is this: Do Europeans recognize why they need Europe?
BY ULLRICH FICHTNER, JOCHEN-MARTIN GUTSCH, BARBARA HARDINGHAUS, RALF HOPPE, JUAN MORENO AND BARBARA SUPP
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan