Europe is rumbling with discontent. Economies in the south have yet to fully recover following the 2008 financial crisis. The hardest-hit group are young people, who are failing to join a fragile labour market, while a lack of growth suppressed wages, and austerity politics hollowed out public services.
This was the backdrop against which Elena Askløf and Peter Laugesen set off across the continent in 2013 to interview young people. Their project, Our Europe, won them the Charlemagne Youth Prize in 2014 for their coverage of life as a young person in Europe.
“On both the left and the right across Europe there is a ‘fuck the establishment’ attitude – fuck the older generation, fuck politicians,” Askløf explains. “We experienced such an enormous level of dreaming and desire for change.”
After spending a year holding talks and seminars about their experiences, they set off again last September. This time, they went in search of activists and change makers – people who were taking action to address the problems that their governments were unable, or unwilling, to address.
“There are so many problems that aren’t being taken seriously. There is a feeling that the older generation looked after itself, but didn’t hand over a healthy society to the young people, so they cannot be relied upon. That’s why they feel the need to take action and create the society they want,” says Askløf.
Their four-month trip took them from Denmark to Istanbul, Athens, Lesvos, Palermo, Madrid, Berlin and Amsterdam where they met protesters, media activists, eco-village entrepreneurs, and local organizers.
They returned with valuable insight not only into the diversity of grassroots movements that are taking shape across Europe – from volunteer hospitals and universities for refugees to social businesses – but also into the strategies and tactics the youth employ to bring about change.
“We saw a lot of grassroots movements that have arisen to address issues created in countries by national governments and the EU. In Greece, for example, health insurance is connected to work, so when you lose your job for two years, you lose your insurance. Hospitals are also understaffed, so a group of activists created Helliniko Medical Center to make sure people don’t get chronically sick or die because of the budget cuts. They want to stop people dying of austerity,” Laugesen explains.
Images of volunteers helping refugees ashore on Greek islands have been published in newspapers around the world. But the assistance doesn’t end there.
“Many Europeans have reacted to the refugee crisis with the feeling that it can’t be true that refugees arriving by boat have not been treated better. So thousands travelled down to provide the reception the Greek government should have given them. We visited a group of people in Berlin who have started an online university for refugees, so the newly arrived Syrians for example, can get an degree and, through that, get better integrated. It’s another example of people who aren’t waiting to vote for the society that they want, they are actively making it.”
While some movements started with a motivation to fill a gap left by the state, others offered a political alternative to the establishment. In March 2011, the movement Real Democracy Now! (¡Democracia Real YA!) was kickstarted in Spain, leading to the anti-austerity Indignant Movement, which held protests that drew millions across the country.
These, in turn, led to the formation of the political party Podemos, which is citizen-driven through around 1000 assemblies, or ‘circles’.
“We propose simple but deep changes: to reclaim democracy, place politics at the service of people and Human Rights, and to be able to choose the economic model in which we work and live,” the party states on its website.
Not all of Askløf and Laugesen’s planned stories panned out. In a visit to a sustainable village in the mountains outside Athens, they found a lone man holding down the fort after the other volunteers left following a disagreement.
They also had to tread carefully, especially in Greece. There, the political situation is particularly polarised following the rise of the far-right political party Golden Dawn, which sits in both the Greek and European Parliaments. Left-wing activists couldn’t understand why Askløf and Laugesen would want to talk to Golden Dawn, and threatened not to speak to them if their interview would appear on the same website as the neo-Nazi party’s.
Grassroots activism isn’t a preserve of the left wing, however. In Nice, they interviewed a man from Generation Identitaire, a right-wing youth movement whose goal is to promote French identity and cultural values. They oppose both immigration and globalisation, and use bold actions to draw attention to their cause.
“They were incredibly good at gaining attention,” says Laugesen. “They have a clubhouse, publish a magazine, and host a European summer school. But they mostly get influence from actions like climbing up mosques and unfurling their banner, or flying their flag in front of journalists outside EU institutions. I learned loads from them. They are disciplined and dedicated. They aren’t doing it for fun, it’s serious business. They think Europe is in danger, that people are ‘flooding in’ from abroad, they see Europe as under invasion. I don’t see it that way, but we learned from their strategies and methods.”
Left and right united
The goal of speaking to groups such as Generation Identitaire was primarily to learn about how they seek influence. Other groups in Poland and Italy were equally interested in sharing their techniques, and seemed completely convinced of their cause.
What they found was that movements on both the left and right were motivated by the same issues, but that their analysis and conclusions were different.
“The views on the left and right are surprisingly similar,” says Askløf. “They share a critique of capitalism and consumerism. Generation Identitaire feared that by mixing cultures, we will lose our identities and the values that we have in common. Fundamentally, they argue that we need to share something to believe in, and that once that stops, we simply become consumers.”
Laugesen added that the left and right were both critical of the EU, though they didn’t offer the same solutions.
“The left-wing party Syriza in Greece is active in pointing out all the issues with European cooperation, and argues that we need to create a Europe with more solidarity. The right-wing National Front in France is also highly critical of the EU, but thinks the solution is to leave the EU completely. There is also overlap between young Podemos and Generation Identitaire supporters, who both critique the political corruption in the establishment and the lack of focus on problems facing the working class. It shows a more complex political landscape than we normally imagine. The traditional left-right spectrum has overlaps created by the generational question and by working class issues. In many countries, it is the right wing that has taken on the role of looking after the workers.”
The case for Europe
While formally non-political, Askløf and Laugesen are Europhiles and are concerned by a lack of historic understanding about the benefits the EU has brought Europe, particularly among the younger generation.
“For a lot young people in Europe it’s not a valid argument that the EU provides peace between nations,” says Askløf. We have never lived through war, so a lot of young people believe that we can have the same peaceful situation with out EU.”
Laugesen is also concerned by parties such as Jobbik in Hungary that would happily pull the country out of the EU, and by the decision in the UK to hold a referendum on EU membership in June.
“They promise a better situation outside of the EU. But it’s a nationalistic fantasy plucked out of thin air, with no basis in reality. That’s what’s interesting about UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who first went to great lengths to criticise ‘welfare tourists’ and guest workers, but when it comes down to it, he’s enough of a realist to admit the UK is better off in the EU. If Cameron knows this, most people must know it – that we make each other stronger.”
The crises Europe has faced in the past decade have only polarised opinions on cooperation. On the one hand, some argue that their problems are directly related to European cooperation, and that splitting up would allow nation states to implement the measures required to rebuild their economies and security. Others argue that the crises are a product of a lack of integration.
New European politics
Either way, it’s undeniable that the problems facing Europe are transnational, whether it’s finding a humane and fair way to deal with refugees or moving towards a green energy economy. Askløf and Laugesen found that on these issues, in particular, activists had built strong international networks to coordinate their efforts.
When the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in 2009, the EU took a major step toward becoming more democratic by giving the European Parliament more powers. But European politics still hardly features in national media, which are more interested in the affairs of local parliaments. And when the EU is raised in national media and parliaments, the discussion often turns to the ways in which it limits, rather than empowers, member states.
“It’s frustrating that there is no progressive critique in favour of moving the European project forward,” bemoans Laugesen. “The problem is also that people want to have a simple position on the EU. But we don’t have that simple view of our own parliament, we have a nuanced view of it. Just because we are against a law, it doesn’t make us want to abandon parliament.”
Others feel the same way. In February, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis launched the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 25), whose goal is to reinvigorate the EU as a democratic institution in a bid to fend off extremism.
“Today a common bureaucracy and a common currency divide European peoples that were beginning to unite despite our different languages and cultures,” states DiEM’s manifesto. “A confederacy of myopic politicians, economically naïve officials and financially incompetent ‘experts’ submit slavishly to the edicts of financial and industrial conglomerates, alienating Europeans and stirring up a dangerous anti-European backlash. Proud peoples are being turned against each other. Nationalism, extremism and racism are being re-awakened.”
Laugesen’s optimism for the project is muted, however.
“If a left-wing and progressive Europe is to succeed, then DiEM25 is needed. But who is fighting for that in Denmark? Only one Danish politician, Rasmus Nordquist, from political party The Alternative, was there for the launch. But he hardly made a peep about it. We need someone to carry it forward.”
We can all be activists
Askløf and Laugesen understand the apathy many feel toward the issues facing society. Tax evasion and corruption, for example, are huge issues that individuals are mostly powerless to address.
But with the skills they picked up on their journey, they now hope to inspire people to take a more active role in shaping the society in which they live.
“Change is underway, you just have to know where to find it,” Askløf says. “We aren’t finding it on the streets and at the barricades only in France and Macedonia these days. You can’t just wait for the start of the revolution to join.”
She adds that it doesn’t take a huge commitment to make a change. On Lesbos, in Greece, they met a large group of women from Stavanger, Norway, who decided to spend two weeks on the island as volunteers helping refugees. Then they went home to their everyday lives.
“I think it’s a trend that people are taking on democracy as a value, and becoming co-creators in the process. It’s better than having a large mass of people doing nothing and an elite few doing everything. I am hopeful for a really living society where people are increasingly thinking democratically and politically in what they do.”
Askløf and Laugesen are in the process of writing a book about their experiences and they continue to tour Denmark, holding talks about activism and young people in Europe. They bring with them the tools and strategies for effecting change that they picked up during their travels.
“After our presentation, young Danes can’t say they don’t know what to do,” says Laugesen. “If poor, unprivileged and out-of-work Spaniards can start a revolution with no resources, then what can these privileged Danish kids do with all their resources, knowledge, money, time and opportunities? That’s the mental revolution we are going for.” M