European Elections Special

Leaving Neverland

Unlike Peter Pan, Europeans need to grow up. Rather than clinging to false fairy tales, we must realize that the overarching ideologies no longer function and that we cannot return to a state in which we separate our fates along national borders.

Until 2008, my generation, “Generation Y” or “the Peter Pan Generation”, could not have had an easier ride. To us, back in undergrad, the make-up of the European Union, with its many organs and institutions, seemed vague and intangible. We used to joke that the Erasmus program, from which we all benefited, must be the EU’s single most successful endeavor. This program, which allows students to spend 3-12 months living and working in another European country – many of them for the first time – certainly fostered ever-closer and deep-seated unions: of friends, lovers and of love for other cultures.

Though we didn’t think of it in those terms at the time, working, studying and traveling across borders were of course the archetypical market freedoms imagined by the common market. But the greatest benefit we derived from our travels was not economic: we developed the ability to move beyond the petty idiosyncrasies of our national identities and mentalities. In the course of this we discovered that we have as much, if not more, in common with those of our generation from other parts of Europe than with our parents’ generation back home.

The lottery of birth

Unlike national identity, this was not an accident of birth. We realized that all of our hopes, thoughts and ambitions were shared, and were based on common perceptions and challenges. Whether from Spain, Italy, Greece or even Britain, our unity was forged on long late-night stumbles home, in a cotton-wool swaddled childhood dream without consequences. We shared a common present and knew we would share a common future.

These were the privileges of the European project and the freedoms of the common market. And now we are all being served the price of the latter – unequally, while tied together by a common currency. What we lack now, more than closer economic integration, fiscal integration or a banking union, is the solidarity we once had: the sense that we are still one people sharing a common future.

If you go to a twenty-somethings’ party in Berlin, you’ll hear talk of start-ups and internships. At a similar party in Athens, most of the attendees will be unemployed, worried, distressed. In both cases the guests will be equally well educated, diligent, open-minded. But suddenly the so-called “lottery of birth”, the privilege of being born in one place instead of another, is again just as relevant within European borders as beyond them. And it becomes ever easier to forget that so recently we all stood together.

Unlike Peter Pan, we need to grow up. And sometimes I fear we are growing up the wrong way. If we can still remember the future that we believed we shared, then our generation cannot return to a state in which we separate our fates along national borders. We cannot lazily assume the troubles some member states face are entirely self-inflicted and not our concern, all the while ignoring those troubles’ fundamental structural problems.

The view from Neverpeak Mountain

We need to act, or at least fully face the daunting facts of which we’re sleepily aware: rather than clinging to false fairy tales of stronger and freer markets, we must realize that the overarching ideologies no longer function and that the standard counter-ideologies are no better. We have inherited a broken system and a very uncertain future: a slow motion crisis, surveillance states par excellence and a forecast for the environment that resembles a natural catastrophe.

What role we have played in the creation of these systems and catastrophes is immaterial. How we deal with them will define our future. Our parents are not going to fix this crisis, solve these problems or come up with new overarching ideas. At some point it will no longer be their crisis. They were the generations that rebuilt our cities from rubble and played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the inception of European Union, promising that this continent would never see another war. We stand on the shoulders of these giants. It is here, from Neverpeak Mountain, that we can see beyond the horizons and realize that our responsibilities lie in investing in a common future.

Read more in this debate: Martin Brusis, Eckart Stratenschulte.

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