Disengaged and Turning Away? European Youth at the Crossroads

Pedestrians wait to board a subway train at an underground station in Naples, Italy, on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. In Naples, th
Pedestrians wait to board a subway train at an underground station in Naples, Italy, on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. In Naples, the local youth unemployment rate in 2012 was 53.6 percent compared to a national average of 35.3 percent. Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Alexander Pyka is founder and board member of the Young Initiative on Foreign Affairs and International Relations (IFAIR). Currently, he is doing his doctorate in International Law in Berlin and works as personal assistant to a former head of government. In 2013, he was selected "Global Leader of Tomorrow" by the St. Gallen Symposium, "Global Shaper" by the World Economic Forum and "Top 99 under 33 Foreign Policy Leader" by the Diplomatic Courier in Washington D.C. He studied law in Hamburg and Tel Aviv.

ROME -- Immersed in Rome's busy nightlife, one may easily forget that every second young person passing by is currently without a job and, many fear, without a future. It is here that some of Europe's best policy schools and organizations like IFAIR, a young think tank, have decided to hold the 6th European Public Policy Conference. The event united over 70 students from around the world and brought them together with key members of European academia and politics.

The biggest challenge Europe's faced since its foundation

Former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who steered Greece through the most turbulent times of the beginning crisis, gave the keynote address in which he fairly summarized the dire state of affairs:

"There is much talk lately about the prospect of a 'lost generation' in Europe. What happens to a generation that is not integrated in the labor market? How does that affect our future competitiveness? How about social cohesion? We simply cannot afford a lost generation."

This prospect of an empty future is already having an impact on today's politics: "The rise of ultra-nationalist parties across Europe is a by-product of people's disappointment with the political establishment. Many conservative parties have been playing into the hands of far right movements -- desperate to win back votes as people turn away from mainstream politics."

Eventually, the dim chances of today's youth might even have a long-term effect that is much more severe. "What's really at stake is our citizen's confidence in Europe as a political project. A generation of frustrated citizens and protest voters is calling the whole notion of European integration into question."

A question of power or oblivion

Historic events are rarely perceived as such by the people who live through them. In this moment, however, we might actually stand at a crossroad of historic proportions. While commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, we are facing a situation which might lead to the decline of the European project. From the perspective of young Europeans in their mid 20s, such historical failure should be seen with anger and frustration.

For our generation, there is no alternative to a strong and united Europe if we want to preserve its core elements and values. These include not only the rule of law, human rights for every man and woman, peace, political freedom, science and culture. At Europe's core also is an almost unique net of securities for the old, sick and unemployed. In a globalized world, no single nation state will be able to defend these attributes against newly emerging powers.

It finally comes to what Tony Blair said in the middle of the European financial crisis: "Those essentially in opposition to the whole Europe project are on the wrong side of history. In its essence Europe is the right idea, at the right moment of time and in the right geographical space between East and West."

Put your money where your future is

However, the abstract idea of "power or oblivion" is as appealing to a 22-year-old unemployed in Greece as a look into the crystal ball of a fortune teller. Europe needs to offer more than its lofty tales of peace and prosperity. This is the time to act, not to deliver empty promises.

The European Union must begin to provide tangible benefits in the lives of everyone again. Current measures by the EU, labeled "Youth Employment Package" or "Youth Guarantee", provide the right ideas in principle, but they are poorly funded. The European Union, "continuously puts its pig farmers above its unemployed youth," as one participant at the conference put it. More than 281 billion Euros are earmarked for agricultural subsidies in the EU's budget for the next seven years. Against this, the mere 6 billion Euros earmarked for the fight against youth unemployment must seem like a bad joke.

We must do everything in our power to help Europe's struggling economies, so that they are able to provide prospects for their young generation. But if that fails, we must provide young workers with the effective opportunity, education and language skills that enable them to find a future elsewhere in the Union. One of several specific proposals made during the conference was the establishment of an "Erasmus for Jobs" program that allows any citizen who is currently not employed or in education to receive a voucher to retrain anywhere in Europe.

After all, this is the idea behind a European citizenship and the consequence of a common labor market. Now or never is the time to bridge the gap between the legal possibility and the actual opportunity. Yes, this road will be paved with spending money. But the alternatives are much less desirable.