PARIS—The eurozone today has become a leaning Tower of Babel. The sovereign debt crisis and the high social costs of austerity have severely weakened its foundation. Whether this tottering edifice designed to thread diversity through the needle eye of a single currency finally collapses and falls, or is able to right itself, will depend on re-founding a European narrative for the 21st century.
The project of European unity was born out of the fear of war, which devastated the continent twice in the 20th century, and the promise of prosperity. Precisely because of the last few decades of step-by-step integration, war is no longer a danger—and thus has lost its force as the compelling raison d’etre of unity. On the other hand, if, as the current situation suggests, integration means more pain than gain, the “lost generation” of youth facing a jobless future can be forgiven for asking “why Europe?”
At the recent town hall meeting organized in Paris by the Berggruen Institute, French President François Hollande called for a “new narrative” for Europe that would appeal to the “post-crisis” generation of today as the “post-war” narrative appealed to the generation that founded the European Union. Jacques Attali, the former top aide to François Mitterrand and mentor to Hollande, told the students of Sciences Po, where the town hall meeting was held: “Young people today are faced with three options if the current eurocrisis is not resolved—leaving Europe, staying in Europe without hope or going into politics and starting a revolution.”
As Attali’s comment suggests, the despair of youth today is destroying their faith in the promise of Europe, as we see with the success of the left-populist blogger-comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy. At the same time, right-wing movements across Europe from the True Finns to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn in Greece yearn for the days before globalization, Muslim immigration, gay marriage and the Growth and Stability Pact.
The great danger is that the despair and alienation over the failure of Europe to deliver a future for its next generation will conjoin with the backward-looking, reactionary right in one great anti-European eruption. That would finally bring the historical project of European integration crashing to the ground.
In this context, pro-Europeans need to heed a truth of the human condition that Charles de Gaulle fully understood: Identity is rooted in the nation—that is, belonging to a unique way of life; what Johann Gottfried Herder called “volksgeist.” Papering over this truth with a currency managed (or mismanaged) by distant bureaucrats with functional acronyms in Brussels only suppressed this reality, not diminished it.
Unless de Gaulle’s “certain idea of France” and its equivalent in other nations is replaced with an “a certain idea of Europe,” the whole thing will shatter into shards of a once-vibrant dream.
The challenge for pro-Europeans is not to dismiss national sentiment, but seek to forge a common identity that leaves plenty of room for diversity while delivering opportunity and security through a strong but limited European government.
At the Berggruen Institute meeting in Paris, students from Sciences Po, the London School of Economics and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin proposed a narrative for their post-crisis generation founded in “freedom and solidarity.” The European identity for their generation, they argued, would be bound up with the founding idea of European civilization—the universality of reason and the free individual—combined with a social model that doesn’t let fellow citizens fall into the cracks as Europe faces the competitive winds of globalization.
It remains to be seen if such a narrative is convincing. Many fear that the 2014 European Parliament elections will become a platform that will give full voice to the nationalist and populist anti-European backlash. Perhaps such an eventuality ought to be welcomed, not feared, because it would force a strong redefinition of the pro-European identity in the face of an existential challenge.
When al-Qaeda took down the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, Samuel Huntington, the Harvard theorist who wrote The Clash of Civilizations, argued that the attacks had “given back to the West its common identity.” The same dynamic will take place if the European idea is thoroughly challenged in 2014.
Whether or not “a certain idea of Europe” triumphs, however, will be determined by how quickly and effectively the present European leaders and institutions stem the current crisis. The announcement in Paris of a concerted “offensive” against youth unemployment by the French, German, Spanish and Italian governments is a propitious start.
What matters now is whether they will deliver hope through concrete action instead of more empty promises between now and the 2014 election. The fate of Europe is in their hands.
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At “Europe, Les prochaines étapes,” a “town hall” meeting in Paris on May 28 sponsored by the Berggruen Institute on Governance and Sciences Po, European leaders called for “urgent action” to respond to the crisis of youth unemployment. There are nearly 6 million young people under the age of 25 without jobs today.
Addressing the gathering, French President François Hollande called for an “offensive” against youth unemployment, saying “we need to act quickly. In this battle time is the decisive factor.” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, where youth unemployment is the highest in Europe, called for “action now without delay.”
Also participating in the gathering were German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaüble, French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, French Labor Minister Michel Sapin and the Italian Labor Minister Enrico Giovannini. Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank, and Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, were also present.
Other participants in the meeting included elder statesmen and former leaders such as Jacques Delors, Felipe Gonzalez, François Fillon and Mario Monti along with student delegations from Sciences Po, the London School of Economics and the Hertie School in Berlin.
The centerpiece of the event was the launch of a “growth initiative for Europe” drafted by the German and French labor ministries in conjunction with the Berggruen Institute.
Ursula von der Leyen outlined the three main elements of the plan:
• Financing for small and medium enterprises (SME) across Europe through a combination of €70 billion made available at favorable rates by the European Investment Bank (EIB); €16 billion in committed, but undispursed, EU structural funds; and €6 billion dedicated by the EU to targeted to fight youth unemployment.
• A “dual-track” training program for certification in schools and on-the-job training so that new jobs are sustainable and workers are properly skilled;
• Enhancing labor mobility by extending the EU’s “Erasmus Program” for higher education that allows students to study anywhere in Europe to include vocational training—“Erasmus for all.”
EIB President Werner Hoyer committed the bank to this initiative as a key way not only to fight youth unemployment, but to prevent further fragmentation of European financial markets which have made credit scarce for SME, which produce most new jobs.
After the morning session at Sciences Po, the labor and finance ministers met at the Elysee Palace with President Hollande to chart the path forward for this initiative. Ursula von der Leyen laid out a “roadmap” for implementation that will include a summit of all European labor ministers and Heads of public employment services in Berlin, hosted by Chancellor Merkel and EU Commission President Barosso, to finalize the initiative and present it “with a single European voice” at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg in September.
She also called on the private sector to “step up to their responsibility” and take part in this urgent initiative. “To be effective, “the German labor minister said, “any jobs created must be demand driven.”
The goal is to mobilize the available sources of funding and link them with effective labor market policy measures. Governments cannot guarantee jobs, only the private sector can create jobs. But the states can conserve and improve young people’s employability. And they can provide European funding for small and medium enterprises to promote growth and employment.