One More Time with Feeling (Or Can Europe Talk to Its Youth)


Reflection by Ivana Dragičević


"The sun on the meadow is summery warm.
The stag in the forest runs free.
But gather together to greet the storm.
Tomorrow belongs to me." (John Kander)

Young people are not only the future, they will be deciding factor in the next elections.” Thus spoke Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, on her Instagram account at the end of July 2023. Above this quotation was the photograph of a smiling Metsola taking a selfie with a smiling young woman. Scrolling down the account of the Maltese politician, a member of the conservative European People's Party, you would have suspected that she is already campaigning heavily for the next EU elections in June 2024, and that in her campaign the main target is youth. You would probably be right. 

After the pandemic changed everything so fundamentally, with war in Ukraine bringing Europe to another shocking crisis with severe and uncharted repercussions, the uncertainty of political choices in times of fear and lack of trust should not be taken for granted. When “future” is the word that cannot be painted clearly – even though the buzzword “future” features in every EU policy – to ask the question of who, exactly, is our future is of crucial importance. Not simply hoping we will find a straightforward answer. 

In Europe, the intertwined challenges of youth participation and the future of democracy unfold like the intricate layers of a geopolitical tapestry. The youth, “digital natives,” equipped with information at their fingertips, find themselves torn between the allure of global connectivity and the need for local (national, European) engagement. Liberal democracy, once a beacon of citizen representation, has faced a paradox for quite some time now that reflects heavily on youth: the very tools meant to empower participation have become avenues for misinformation, polarization and distortion of everything that was. Studies show that almost 70 percent of teens are likely to believe conspiracy theories, so in times of geopolitics playing big, that makes them the main targets of proponents of disinformation. The erosion of traditional institutions mirrors the crumbling pillars of a bygone era. The youth, grapple with the further paradox of choice: a dizzying array of ideologies and platforms that, while promising empowerment, can often bewilder and disengage. Populism tempts the disillusioned with easy answers and sows the seeds of discord within liberal democratic discourse. Or, what's left of it. In some European countries, institutions were captured through a democratic process by those who advocate a concept  labeled a long time ago as “illiberalism.” Anxiety, collective exhaustion and insecurity all contribute to possible scenarios that can in turn lead either to radicalization or apathy of young people.

It’s Still about Trust...

More than a decade ago, in his book In Mistrust we Trust, Ivan Krastev wrote a comprehensive treatise on our present disappointment and mistrust in democracy. Today, everything still revolves around trust, and this is well illustrated by the results of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, as their editorial director, Tim Weber, explained to me. He says it’s of the utmost importance to notice that there’s a huge trust gap in Europe between people who are well educated and earn a lot and the majority of the population: “For the first [group], the system works, democracy works – but for most people it does not. They’re losing their jobs, they feel insecure, they feel threatened by the economy, technology, [the state of the] environment, foreigners, and therefore trust collapses. And people who didn’t have success yet, because they’re just starting out, the young ones, are in that group.” NextGenerationEU, Youth Guarantees, many programs and projects are out there – but it seems they’re happening in a parallel universe. Young people don’t trust media or political parties. Media and political parties don’t represent them. If we borrow definitions from psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychological development, the trust-mistrust stage begins at birth and lasts until a child is around 18 months old. That stage shapes a person’s view of the world and their personality and helps them deal with conflicts in all other stages in their lifetime. That either results in our psychological strengthening or weakening. So, if we think about societies through these lenses of individual psychological development, we are either reliving this first stage of our development repeatedly, or we're not able to use these primal experiences to strengthen us as societies that change constantly until they die.

Voters 2024

Articles are written daily and books almost monthly about a democracy crisis or issues related to trust. I'm not a scholar, nor a think-tanker. I cannot offer grand ideas or solutions. I've spent all of my career on the ground as an international affairs correspondent and journalist. Traveling the world for a quarter of a century, I've seen wars and displacements, dead and wounded; I've spoken with presidents and war criminals, I've listened to lies and witnessed what corruption can do to human life.  I come from Europe, but a part of Europe with a different recent historical experience from Western or Eastern Europe. From that experience I've always approached everyone equally, and the only thing that mattered was conversation based on accepting the experiences of the other. In uncertain times like this, I myself have struggled greatly to try to find a meaning, understanding how cognitive dissonance can hit hard in times of crisis and where it can lead to.

I spent last year filming a documentary series called “Voters 2024,” about generation Z in Europe, with a focus on those who will vote for the first time in the next EU elections, but not only them. I’ve talked with various experts that deal with youth, youth representatives and young people from forgotten and desolated parts of the continent. I went to trap concerts and visited suburbs and peripheries where hope doesn’t live anymore. I’ve seen and heard the best pupils in the classrooms and the worst ones; the latter were surprised because, they said, no one usually talks to them or asks them what they think. I got the same answers from the youth in different deprived areas of the continent, for example, in parts of Croatia that were hit by an earthquake, or from urban peripheries in Belgium. They feel completely unheard. In talking to them, listening to them, I finally found some meaning, and started to think that trust can be rebuilt out of this age of mistrust, but in some new forms, by these young people and for them. Does old need to be destroyed for new to come?

Is There a Future without a Future?

Europe, an aging continent with a goal to be climate neutral by mid-century, needs resources to reach that goal but also to keep the engine of democracy and rule of law up and running for the future. These resources are not just rare earth minerals or lithium that will “fuel” the economy of tomorrow, they are first and foremost human.  Europe is a continent at war with resource-rich and nuclear autocratic Russia on its eastern border, and to its south, it has the youngest and most potent continent in the world, but is failing to regain the trust from Africa, both because of the colonial legacy of Western Europe, and Chinese and Russian influence building up on the continent throughout the last decade or more. Russia is especially keen to target the dissatisfaction of the African youth, as we’ve seen in the Sahel, where Niger is the youngest country in the world, and, after the coup, Burkina Faso has the youngest president in the world. Meanwhile, Europe’s southern Mediterranean Sea border is still filling up with the corpses of young Africans, as EU migration policies are for years failing to produce a sustainable and humane construct in the framework of overall future policy-making. Within its Schengen borders, Europe still maintains deep pools of intact inequality, which affect youth and their chances the most.

The share of people younger than 30 in the overall population in Europe is decreasing, now being around 16%, compared to 18,5% ten years ago. Eurostat data shows that aside from the Spanish autonomous regions of Melilla and Ceuta, the regions with the highest share of young people on our continent are all three Irish regions and the capital regions of France and Belgium. By contrast, the regions with the lowest shares of children and young people are eastern German regions, some northern Spanish regions and Liguria and Sardegna in Italy. Demography is always reflected in politics and vice versa. 

The influence of social networks and the digital sphere creates cognitive discrepancies that are building up in the overall reasoning of the new generation, which school systems are too slow to adapt to, understand and act accordingly. Job (in)security together with an education and skills mismatch, unaffordable housing, or access to quality healthcare, add to the overall insecurity. If we put a frame of global polycrisis around the selfie of the young Europeans of today, seeing how the world out there looks like adds to the overall feeling of disenfranchisement in the era of Zeitenwende.

Europe is a continent without its Google, TikTok or ChatGPT, trying to restore rule of law and the flagging appeal of liberal democracy in times of big tech, authoritarians and nouveau populist gurus that distort the intellectual resilience and understanding of participation and politics – which we once knew and still fiercely cling to as though nothing has changed within our monitory democracies, as they’re called by political thinker and professor, John Keane. I spoke with him about the trends that we see today in Europe concerning youth and their political participation. “Much depends on what we mean by politics,” he says. “If politics is about elections, parties, politicians, then the survey evidence that’s accumulating shows that in many existing monitory democracies, young people are disaffected, they don’t join parties, they don’t vote, they have limited respect for politicians. If politics means engagement in public life, trying to affect power through public actions, assemblies, helped by online engagement, [such] as climate strikes, then, there’s a lot of young people involvement.” Keane also mentions a third sense of politics, enshrined in the 1960s feminist slogan “personal is political.” “The idea that there’s a politics of everyday life, that who gets what, when and how in everyday life can be determined by you, by changing the way language is used, by thinking differently about bodies and choice, the food we eat, the way we dress – these are political matters and it’s in this sphere in which we’re witnessing a flourishing of youth politics,” concludes Keane.

Youth and Elections: Who to Vote For, When There’s No Candidates Like You?

Can we materialize that energy into our parliaments? The European Youth Forum published the data that show the scale of under-representation of youth. “While one in five Europeans is between the ages of 18 and 35, just one in 15 (6 percent) of MEPs are in the same age group. In contrast, one in five Europeans is between the ages of 51 and 65, but the number of parliamentarians representing the age group in the European Parliament is at 42 percent.” The best illustration is that the number of members of European parliament younger than 30 is equal to the number of parliamentarians named Martin. There are six of each. 

The youngest political group in the current EU Parliament convocation is the Greens/European Free Alliance, whose average MEP is 48 years old. I spoke with German Green Niklas Ninas, who is, at 30 years of, one of the youngest MPs in European parliament. He tells me that the rejuvenation of European politics is a must: “We have so many people in Europe younger than me. My niece just turned 22 and she has a very different life than I do. And I’m the one who should be representing her and people her age? We need more youth in political process, and more young people to be courageous enough to run for office.”

But it’s not just a question of courage. Maria Rodriguez Alcazar, president of the European Youth Forum, the biggest platform of youth organization in Europe, answering my question on how to engage youth, tells me, “Many young people throughout the continent don’t now at all what participation is, because we don’t learn about it at school, which should be one of the first places in which we can engage in decision-making around us. So, it’s crucial that we have citizen education in high schools. It’s a right of young people and it’s the responsibility of institutions to promote that participation. I’ve met many young people that told me that they loved what I did when I was 14 and that they wished they had that opportunity. There are so many young people that didn’t have a chance to join youth organizations or clubs, because no one gave them information.”

Expert on youth policies Corina Pirvulescu thinks that one of the main obstacles for youth participation is political parties themselves.

“I think the youth are recognized by European institutions as an important electorate, but they’re not recognized by politicians and political parties as an electorate that they need to address specifically and talk about their issues, and I think that’s the challenge, because as much as we can do as civil society with engagement in mobilizing young people for participation in elections, if the politicians, the ones they need to vote for, are not addressing them, then it’s like the dialogue of the people that don’t speak the same language.”

There can be no generalization about the political preferences of European youth, and the case of France shows that it can swing fast and in the complete opposite direction. For example, some of those who voted for the first time in 2017 and voted for Macron, voted for Le Pen in the Elections of 2022. But, if we look at results of national elections in Europe in the last couple of years, Europe’s youth vote leans more and more to the right.

Democracy of Tomorrow?

With Brexit and Trump, 2016 was a turning point in the history of modern democracy. I spoke at that time with Lord Robert Skidelsky, who told me it cannot be an accident that those two things happened in the birthplaces of neoliberalism. Whatever the interpretations are, from that moment on, it was crystal clear that the time we knew was no more.  

With psychological manipulation via technology, the idea of Dominic Cummings, Brexit campaign architect, was to turn the tide by bringing out those who never voted, who felt abandoned, forgotten, and who thought there was no sense in political participation. Fear was the driver, “taking back control” was the solution. In Steve Bannon’s cookbook from the other side of the ocean, the idea was to make the country – therefore “ourselves” – great again. The scenario of liberal democratic mainstream destruction was made through the mainstream institutions. Media, big-tech, political parties, states, NGOs and elections. Lies, manipulation and disinformation were mainstreamed. And it worked. The genie has been out of the bottle for quite some time now and everyone is still asking what new forms of representation might be able to mend the destroyed synapses of societal trust. If the old mainstream were fighting hard against the wave of populism or far right, trying to show how those people play with people’s emotions, they either failed or did not have a clue about what was happening and why, and it would not be the first time in history. If everything was so good, why did all the chaos happen, and did we learn anything for the future to come?

If Europe decided to put “fight for democracy” at the forefront of its internal and external policies, it needs to understand that in a fight with disruptors in the brutal age of know-it-all conspirators, autocrats dressed in democratic gowns and liars covered in strawberry-flavored seduction smell, the fast-track inclusion of youth is key. Putin with his own “Z youth” project already made enormous efforts to secure Russia’s future, and we don’t need to dive too far into history again to quote Hitler himself saying that he who owns the youth gains the future. Can democratic society “own” its youth in that way?

Can We Really Hear and Acknowledge Youth Voices Out There?

For years, a lot of force within the EU has been used to try to find a model that will attract the youth towards participation in elections and overall. From schools’ ambassadors of European parliament programs to other forms that are being exercised throughout the continent, with the latest hype being citizens’ assemblies. In some distant future, we can play a romantic scenario. By embracing civic education and cultivating critical thinking, the youth can become the architects of their democracy, mending the frayed fabric of civic engagement. We had a deliberative process within the Conference on the Future of Europe, which, because of the COVID pandemic, went very much under the radar of most of the EU population. Within its conclusions there was an introduction of a “youth-check” of legislation. Another recommendation was to lower the voting age to 16. Several EU countries did it already; Austria was the first country, almost 16 years ago. It also had the youngest prime minister of the continent at certain point. But that didn’t stop him being engaged in a corruption scandal. 

The year 2022 was named European year of the youth; however, due to the war in Ukraine, much of it, as with CoFoE, stayed under the radar. Instead of ensuring what was concluded and promised, namely, that all policy-making on the EU level was going to be seen through the lens of youth, that didn’t happen. Frédéric Piccavet, the vice-president of the European Youth Forum, said to Euracitv: “We are tired of being overlooked or tokenized.” 

So, what's the problem? Why is it not happening? Who can be bold, make decisions and empathize with today’s youth in such a way that truly includes them in the process – not as a selfie/Erasmus model, but as citizens of Europe with voting rights, who in times of trouble understand what is at stake, and don’t need anyone to guide them, but can lead themselves?  Who can drag them away from dangerous and malign TikTok or WhatsApp/Telegram wormholes if those who are desperately trying to create counternarratives completely miss the picture? The patronizing needs to end.

Unequals and Unheard 

Case Van Gogh

Phoebe Plummer is one of two girls who became famous in autumn 2022 for throwing a can of tomato soup over the glass protecting Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. The backlash was swift, as the world went berserk over the act of two climate activists. Hooliganism and vandalism were two of the public labels given to the act. “Why didn’t they go to HQs of oil companies?” “What does art have to do with this?” screamed the comments in the newspapers or on Twitter. A series of similar acts followed around Europe. Some of them labeled as terrorism. The words that Phoebe Plummer spoke, after she glued her palm beneath the painting, went unheard:

“What is worth more, art or life?  Is it worth more than food, more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of the painting or protection of our planet and our people. The cost-of-living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families they can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup. Meanwhile, the crops are failing, millions of people are dying in monsoons, wildfires and severe droughts. We cannot afford new oil and gas; it’s going to take away everything that we know and love.”

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, screamed about a highway to climate hell and global boiling. It’s catchy to paraphrase an AC/DC song, but global emission reduction goals are still far away from being turned into reality, and the overall skepticism and aggressive attempts to ignore climate change are on the rise. If bad guys disrupt all the time, why wouldn't we listen to the disruption of the youth, disruption that cares about our future? 

These young people are genuinely desperate, and you don’t mock people’s desperation, anxiety, and fear. That’s where problems always start. I’ve met with climate activists from Extinction Rebellion in Croatia, Fridays for Future in Stockholm and Berlin. One thing they have in common is that their climate anxiety is real. They have support groups, they talk to experts and psychologists, they’re coping themselves and trying to find solutions themselves, because within the institutions that should be there for them, there are no such mechanisms. After experiencing so much crisis and catastrophic events during their lifetime, reading the scientific data and reports, envisaging their future as “hell” or “boiling,” they are finding their own cure. And that cure is action. Could it be that young climate activists, from being the world’s heroes, such as Greta Thunberg being invited to every global summit possible, at the end became nothing more than hooligans, and a pain in the ass? How dare you!

Case Banlieu

In autumn 2022, after the World Cup match in Qatar in which Morocco defeated Belgium, the streets of Brussels were filled with young people celebrating the Moroccan victory. The celebrations turned to violence. Shop windows were smashed, cars overturned and torched. Police used tear gas and water cannons. Those who did that were Belgians. Of, as some like to stress, of Moroccan origin. And the majority of them were younger than 30, mostly teenagers. Why did this happen?

Ibrahim Oussari dropped out of school at 13. He tells me that the school system is just not for everyone. He’s a self-made tech entrepreneur, who received a knighthood from the King of Belgium and is a member of the board of directors at Proximus, Belgium’s largest telecom company. Born and raised in Molenbeek, a part of Brussels that became notorious for the fact that the majority of the 2015 Paris attack terrorists came from there, he decided to initiate a start-up incubator open for all the young people irrespective of who they are. MolenGeek, a clear reference to Molenbeek, brought CEOs of the biggest global tech firms to this part of the “heart of Europe” to which European politicians rarely come. MolenGeek became a successful project and brand that has since spread around Europe and Africa. Talents needed for the global labor market of tomorrow are fostered. Being there, talking to Oussari about what he went through and where he is now, fills your heart and mind with hope. He understands what needs to be done and does it. I asked him whether he ever experienced discrimination himself.

“Of course, all the time, even now. You know, I live in my body, but I don’t have a mirror with me all the time that would remind me I’m from Morocco.” I interrupted him: “But you’re Belgian.” I always remember from the words of one famous Algerian journalist who told me, “When it’s good stories, they always talk about Zidane as French, when it’s bad, like the terrorist attack in Toulouse, it’s always ‘Merah, of Algerian origin.’” Oussari smiles, and continues, “Yes, I’m from Belgium, but my skin, my face... a lot of people look at me as a Moroccan guy, but in my mind I’m Belgian. In my life I had some bad experience with discrimination, so I created a reflex about it. I don’t want to go to the new place, because sometimes they say there’s no place for you here. I developed some habits not to be confronted with discrimination. That’s why I like Molenbeek, because there’s no discrimination here, there is a lot of diversity.” I started thinking about the time of terrorist attacks when there were peaceful protests of citizens of this part of Brussels against stigmatization. I took a taxi at Place Lux, just in front of the European parliament and said, “To Molenbeek, please.“ 

The White older Belgian driver told me, “I don’t drive there.”

“You know what’s discrimination?” Oussari asks me rhetorically: “It’s not about that I don’t give you a job, it is the situation if someone needs to choose between one ‘real’ Belgian and one Belgian with different origin, they will choose ‘the real Belgian.’ This is discrimination, this means that you don’t have the same, equal chance. If you want to have less discrimination, you need to involve people from diversity at the decision-making level. From gender to ethnicity, to disabled people… If you don’t have it, you will always repeat same things, because you just don’t know. You may not be bad, but you just don’t know nothing about experiences of these people.”

I ask him what he thinks about the kids who went out there to break windows, who don’t feel included, and what can be done to encourage them to participate. “In Belgium voting is obligatory,” he tells me, as the country also lowered the voting age to 16, “but young people don’t believe they can change something. So, we will need to recreate trust in the system, but for now it’s really complicated. Because these young people they have some bad experiences in life, they see directly that people in politics don’t understand how their life looks like and that’s why it is urgent to build new trust, because without it, nothing can be done. They’ve stopped believing in the system and they feel very alone. It’s complicated when you’re 21 or 25 and you feel alone. How can you trust your government, your city when you feel alone, and no one understands you?”

The Morning Will Come When the World Is Mine…

It’s the exact same sentiment that we find within all the other parts of the youth spectrum, for example those young men of Europe that find words of empowerment in the preachings of Andrew Tate, those who are getting reached by TikTok feeds that share Putin’s anti-LGBTIQ messages. It’s the same sentiment that we find in groups of young people that are not understood in their new identities, or their new identities are being targeted by the new political right. When we list things that are there, around us, we should also never forget that one of the biggest terrorist attacks in European history, the one committed by right-wing terrorist Anders Bering Breivik, was politically motivated and that its target was the youth of the Social Democratic party of Norway, led at that time by Jens Stoltenberg. It is also worrying what is happening in Germany. A violent neo-nazi coup attempt was recently dismantled, and then this spring, Germany’s domestic spy agency formally designated the youth wing of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, whose share of votes is increasing in Eastern Germany, as an extremist group, showing us that the anchor of post-WW2 European values is drifting away. The new political right being mainstreamed; it is also well-versed in how to deny any connection with fascism; as Giorgia Meloni, when she was a protégé of Steve Bannon, once said when asked about connections of her party with fascism: “I was born in 1977.” A couple of years later, she had won elections and become one of the most loved politicians in recent Italian history. To give an example of this: In Rome, in December 2022, I witnessed something I can’t remember ever seeing in Europe: a huge crowd of ordinary citizens gathered next to the back door of the government building, waiting for the prime minister to come out, on an ordinary working day, waving, clapping, sending kisses...

I’m still not as sure as Metsola that youth will be deciding factor in the next election. If they do, hopefully they will decide to turn the tide in a better direction. This generation is probably the first one that doesn’t know anyone who lived through the experience of WW2, so distorting narratives being played out in the digital cosmos are landing on blank canvases. Which teacher can contest Elon Musk? This Putin guy is riding a bear on TikTok, is he cool? Who can answer that question in schools? Who can explain things in the classroom when schools became the main target of contemporary ideological warfare, where picture books are banned because they explain diversity or books like Catcher in the Rye are being questioned by parents demanding home schooling? Who can explain that migrants cannot steal their homes and jobs, or that they can’t cure cancer with vitamin C? Times are cruel. Election cycles come and go, but the fundamentals must be changed completely. Trust-building in local communities; fast school revamps; accessible public health for all young people, including reproductive health and mental health; guest lectures in schools, including good influencers, role models as singers; detecting empathetic peers in the classrooms that can build up school communities from within; supporting inclusive environments; fostering school elections and campaigns; calling specialized teams to help teachers who don’t have knowledge about certain topics, be it AI, or disinformation. Participation should be fostered from kindergartens, which should be free and accessible to all kids of Europe. COVID showed us the state of play and widened the gaps and discrepancies between youth in Europe once again. As our eyes are looking out towards a villain from the East at war with Europe, we should never forget how propaganda works and has worked. In times like this, we cannot have political leaders who tell the youth studying to be European diplomats that we are the garden and rest of the world is jungle. This is wrong. We need inclusive and diverse space that we will call Europe in the future, and for that we have to truly rely on a youth that can feel today and tomorrow. We need new ideals, ideas and real action. Otherwise, the only garden that we ourselves can grow again will be the beer garden in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in which the young, blonde boy sings that tomorrow belongs to him. And everyone joins in.

This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.