Europe can be quite loud on Thursday nights: it then sounds like Shakira, tastes of sweet cocktails and feels carefree. At around seven in the evening, when most Members of the European Parliament are on their way home, young men and women come flooding out of the Brussels Parliament building, descend eight steps and cross a zebra crossing to the Place du Luxembourg. Within minutes, the bars there with their white awnings are crammed full, music is blaring from the loudspeakers, and interns, lecturers and office managers in suits or formal skirt-and-jacket combinations are standing around in tight groups, talking, drinking and dancing. This is where Europe presents its most attractive side: young, educated, multicultural – and united. The generation that meets at Place du Luxembourg is made up of people who move naturally across national borders, who live and think internationally.
This generation associates the European Union with freedom, democracy and cultural diversity. Yet the institutional EU has little appeal for the majority of young Europeans: more than 60% are only “slightly” or “hardly interested” in the politics of Brussels. So from this point of view there is something special about the revellers at Place du Luxembourg, because they are all engaging with the apparatus of European politics. So how does this generation tick? What does Europe mean for them?
In front of the Grapevine Bar on the Place du Luxembourg, Nasser Ayash is leaning on a mushroom heater – a plastic cup of beer in his right hand, a copy of the yellow Reclam edition of Hölderlin’s poetry in his coat pocket. Nasser, dark hair and dark eyes, is 26 years old, has a degree in electrical engineering, studied for a semester in Aachen, and has a penchant for German poetry. Nasser is Greek and grew up in Athens, the son of an architect and a seamstress. He knows what it means to live in a crisis state: his father has no work, because there is no demand for buildings at a time when people have to fight to hold on to their existing properties. His mother, who specializes in embroidery work, rarely shows her sewing skills because few people can afford an embroidered pillow when they don’t know how they are going to pay for their food for the next day. After graduating from the University of Pathros, Nasser worked for an electrical company in Athens – until the boss said he couldn’t pay any salaries at the moment, but Nasser could still stay on if he liked. Nasser Ayash didn’t stay on. He has been living in Brussels for four months. He’s doing an internship with the European Parliament’s IT service, where he earns about 1,200 euros a month. He is now a part, albeit a tiny part, of the European system which is demanding existential sacrifices of the people in his home country. Nasser says: “Europe is my chance.” For him, the European Union means 4.5 million square kilometres of unlimited possibilities. Nasser is aware that many of his countrymen see the EU as a stealer, not a provider of opportunities. It makes him sad to note that people forget the “greatest thing” about Europe: the gift of freedom, the chance to settle anywhere.
Alexander Alvaro was only slightly older than Nasser Ayash when he came to Brussels from Dusseldorf in 2004. The FDP politician with German and Portuguese nationality was the youngest Member of the European Parliament at the time. Today, at the age of 37, he is the Parliament’s Vice-President. That’s remarkable: after all, the public often have the impression that Brussels is primarily used to prolong the sell-by dates of veteran politicians. Yet Alexander Alvaro says: “It’s up to our generation to define what we want to achieve with the European project.” He’s on the third floor of the Parliament. Cameras are whirring, spotlights have raised the room temperature from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably oppressive. Alvaro has just given the BBC an interview, now it’s the turn of Russia Today. It’s the day on which Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum in the UK on whether the country would stay in the EU. The UK is well known for its scepticism about Europe, although EU membership is not negotiable for the majority of young Britons: “The young people are less guided by national self-interest,” says Alvaro.
Young people are a minority in the European Parliament – but an organized one. In 2009 Alexander Alvaro founded EU40, an association of all the EP’s 110 members under the age of 40. When asked about his intentions, Alvaro speaks of his encounter with a chief of the Canadian Cree Indians. In every decision this man took for his tribe, he thought ahead for seven generations. The EU40 is also trying to work according to this principle, he says. The young MEPs from 27 nations and 7 parliamentary groups saw themselves as a think tank, as lobbyists for their generation. They are working on a white paper for Europe’s future which discusses a federal organization for the EU and the direct election of the Commission President. “It’s a beginning,” says Alvaro. But he also knows that paper is patient.
Impatience is a privilege of youth. Aileen Körfer is young and impatient. She shifts her weight from one leg to the other. Aileen comes from a small town near Aachen. Like Nasser she’s completing an internship at the European Parliament, in the office of its President Martin Schulz (SPD). Aileen has been listening for a long time this Thursday evening at Place du Luxembourg – to Nasser’s reports from Greece and also to what a fellow intern from Hungary has had to say: Vanda Valastyan was talking about the censorship in her home country, which she experienced as an employee of a local television station, as well as her colleagues’ frustration and the helplessness they feel. Vanda has a sober view of the EU; unlike Nasser she is free of pathos. In Vanda’s view freedom is not a gift, but her right. And if her own country denies her that right, she leaves. End of story. “If you’re dissatisfied with where you’re living, you have to go and find a place where you can be happier,” she says. Vanda has found Brussels.
Aileen can no longer contain herself. “Why do you all keep your heads down? Why do you remain silent?” she shouts in a voice as clear as the mineral water in her glass. She rattles off the unemployment figures from Spain, Greece and Italy, talks about a European generation that is better educated and more able to communicate than any generation before it, and ends by saying: “You have to fight, go out on the streets, to change your country.” Vanda raises her eyebrows; Nasser shakes his head: “People are protesting every day in my country. The only thing this protest has achieved so far is to give a boost to extremist parties.” Aileen isn’t convinced: “Who – if not us – is supposed to stand up for a future of social justice and equal opportunities?” Nasser also wants this kind of future, it’s just that he finds it more difficult to imagine. He looks at Aileen, and his expression is provocative and hopeful at the same time. “If you talk about ‘we’, then tell me what you as a German can do in practical terms to change the situation in my country.” Aileen is silent for a while, then she says quietly: “That’s a good question.”
People are working on answers every day in an old building in Rue Wirtz, a small street a few hundred metres from Place du Luxembourg. The Federation of Young European Greens (FYEG) have their office here on the ground floor. The FYEG’s spokesperson Terry Reintke is sitting between shelves full of Fair Trade crackers and bottles of organic red wine. Terry has short hair, wears a short skirt, has light skin and a very bright mind. She works 20 hours a week in Berlin for a Green member of the Bundestag and spends the rest of her time touring across Europe. Pristina, Athens, Maribor, Belgrade, Brussels – that’s been her itinerary in recent weeks. Wherever she goes she gets together with young people. When asked to describe the emotional state of the European Union, the first word that comes to Terry’s mind is “fear”: some people are afraid that something will be taken away from them, others that nothing will be left over for them. “For my grandparents Europe was peace, for my parents it was prosperity; for my generation it is practical reality,” she says.
This taken-for-granted reality of Europe must not fall victim to fear. Terry has clear ideas on how to prevent this. She and the Green youth movement, for instance, are fighting for an EU-wide “youth guarantee”, a programme that guarantees to get young people a job, an apprenticeship or a training place after four months of unemployment at the latest. “It would be a sign that the EU doesn’t give any young person up as lost,” says Terry. Then fewer young people would give up on the EU. Terry also wants a bigger say for all citizens: a European civil society with more direct democracy.
In Ireland it was primarily the young people who rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. In France the Eurosceptic right-wing populist Marine Le Pen had the highest approval ratings among 18- to 24-year-olds. In Germany the turnout at the last European elections was just 30% among 30 year olds. So how does Terry Reintke intend to reignite passion among her peers? “By crossing borders every week in Europe, by talking with the people, telling them about our ideas,” she says. Terry’s journeys are a beginning. Like Alexander Alvaro’s white paper on the future, Aileen Körfers idealism, Nasser Ayash’s belief in his chance and the work done by all those who gather every Thursday evening at Place du Luxembourg. ▪
Source: change – the magazine of the Bertelsmann Foundation, No. 1/2013