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Greek youth, once bastion of EU support, sour on membership

In Greece's referendum, youth turned out even more strongly against Brussels' bailout plan than the rest of their countrymen. Why? 

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    Members of the youth wing of the governing radical left Syriza party on June 27 hold papers calling for a 'No' ('oxi') vote in the referendum in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Though European youth are usually more pro-EU than their elders, Greek youth bucked the trend in the country's referendum, with some 80 percent voting 'no.'
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Amid all the philosophical debates over the ideals and obligations of the European Union, Brussels has long counted on support from at least one demographic: youth. 

Young Greeks say they are just as Europe-minded as their peers in Spain, Britain, or Germany. They eagerly take part in the continent’s popular Erasmus program for studying abroad and increasingly move to other EU countries for the jobs that are so scant at home.

So why did 80 percent of Greek youth cast a defiant "no" on Sunday against Brussels' bailout plan for the country?

Though they may see themselves as European, Greece's young people also say they’ve had enough. Polling figures show their distrust of the EU is higher than the average, more so than in other crisis-hit countries in southern Europe – and that could grow if they are kicked out of the eurozone or forced to bear reforms they consider socially unjust and even anti-European.

“Youths don’t question Greece’s belonging to the EU. They are nurtured to believe that [Greece] is the cradle of Europe,” says Maro Pantelidou-Malouta, a professor of political science at the University of Athens. But she adds that anger about the direction of the EU and its treatment of Greece is mounting – and could even become a boon to the extremists in Greece who reject the EU altogether.

“It is dangerous,” she says. “That kind of anger can turn to the extreme right sometimes.”

'Not among friends'

Today’s youth overall are far more pro-European than the generation who joined the struggle that led to the downfall of a military junta in 1974. Known as the “Polytechnic generation” after the university where the junta's fall began, they were largely leftists and communists who saw the European Economic Community (EEC) – the name of the EU at the time – as a capitalist sell-out.

After military rule ended, the socialist PASOK party, founded by Andreas Papandreou, surged in popularity on an anti-EEC message. But when they won power in 1981, the same year Greece entered the EEC, the tune quickly changed. Greek youth, like the public at large, saw vast sums of European money redefine the rural landscape and increase their standards of living.

Among the beneficiaries is Danai Kotsaki, a university student in mass media in Athens, who was an Erasmus student last year, living in Budapest for six months, where she met people from all over the world. Many of her friends are now working in the Netherlands, Britain, and Spain. She has no doubts about her European identity – or its benefits. “We [Greeks] may shout at each other all the time and not be very obedient citizens, but we are a part of Europe,” she says.

She says her “no” vote in last Sunday’s referendum was a protest against austerity and about the way Europe is treating Greece today. “We don’t feel like we are among friends, but we feel like the kid who did something wrong and now has to be punished,” she says.

Those arguments are what propelled Greece’s ruling Syriza to power in January and scored Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras the stunning victory Sunday even as the imposition of capital controls spooked Greek society. But there was an age component.

While Mr. Tsipras had promised the public that a “no” to the austerity inherent in the bailout deal was not a vote against the euro, among the 40 percent who voted “yes” were his older supporters from January, who feared financial collapse if they followed him this time.

Young Greeks, however, were not cowed. “Sometimes I think that maybe our exit from the EU would put an end to this,” says Alexia Pappa, a 22-year-old student of communication and cultural management, who is working as a waitress.

Time to go?

John Karteros, a 26-year-old journalist, says that being Greek in Europe today feels like “being adopted by a rich family that forces you to live in the doghouse outside,” he says. “You are part of that family, technically, but you don't feel like you belong there.”

And his views on whether it’s worth staying in "the family" have flipped since the referendum. The referendum results have largely been brushed off in the rest of Europe, especially by Germany, which insists that Greece must come up with a viable plan of spending cuts or be cut off from future funding – meaning an exit from the currency union.

“Three days ago, I'd say that I want 100 percent to stay in the eurozone,” he says. “Given the most recent news and the new ultimatum given by Germany, I think I'd prefer to go.”

Euroskepticism is much higher in Greece than in Northern Europe, like Germany or the Netherlands. It is even higher than in Spain, where youth unemployment is just as widespread. In a eurobarometer poll carried out by TNS in 2014 among 16-30 years olds, 62 percent of Greeks thought EU membership of their country is a strength. That falls well below the 82 percent of Dutch respondents, 78 percent of Germans, and 74 percent of Spaniards. The European average was 70 percent.

Aggelos Kapetanidis, who works at the European Parliament Office in Athens and is charged with educating high school students about the way the EU works, says Greek youths hold contradictory views about the bloc. “Young people – and this is for older people too – want all the goods that derive from EU membership,” he says. “But they are not satisfied with the way … institutions treat the Greek people.”

And some worry that the latter sentiment could be manipulated by extremist parties like Golden Dawn, the ultra-nationalist far right, which appeals to young men disgruntled by their lack of opportunities.

“The huge majority of young are critical of the way the EU is handling the situation and voting with Syriza,” says Professor Pantelidou-Malouta. In fact, she says, their resounding “no” in the referendum was not viewed as a vote against Brussels at all. “On the contrary, they strongly think that it is they who are pro-European.”

But others among youth are moving against the project entirely. “There is also the [dark] side.”

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