Occupy Europe: How a generation went from indifferent to indignant
Occupy Europe? From Madrid to Athens, young people facing a bleak future are casting doubt on European identity.
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Democratic values were ascendant, borders were falling, and old animosities were evaporating. Indeed, Europe was a cause, and with its enlightened youth, was preparing to lead the way.Skip to next paragraph
The Bosnian war was an early reality check on how prepared Europe was to sacrifice in the name of its values. But the 1999 Kosovo intervention to halt ethnic cleansing and nationalism on Europe's doorstep, and a commitment by Brussels to keep the peace and integrate the Balkans (with the United States), helped restore the narrative. A war crimes tribunal at The Hague, the first since Nuremberg, prosecuted hundreds of officers and soldiers from those wars.
Yet the European dream is suddenly in question. Under-30s have more doubt than optimism. It is the first generation since the 1950s that feels few thrills about a Europe project. The 17-nation eurozone is debt-ridden. Ugly splits are manifest between northern- and southern-tier states. The cohesion brought by a Franco-German relationship bent on keeping Europe whole and vibrant has frayed or become exhausted.
"For a long time, I believed in Europe. I thought it was magnificent," says Olivier, 27, who studied philosophy but now works for France's National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies. "It was brilliant, especially in terms of its historical configuration. But today I am not satisfied.... I would love a strong Europe that speaks with one voice," but Europe is increasingly directed by Germany, says Olivier, who, like some of the others interviewed, would give only his first name.
The Germans built a competitive export economy and don't want to pay for what they see as the irresponsible fiscal policies of southern "siesta economies." Greece (twice), Ireland, and Portugal have needed bailouts, and it isn't over. Spain and Italy are not out of the red-ink woods. Youth riots in London this summer may have been a singular, compulsive event, but they hold a warning.
Europe's political elites are under attack from radical right populist parties that target Muslims and immigrants; mainstream politics accommodates views seen as extreme a few years ago. "Inward looking" is a popular phrase for Europe-watchers. New global powers like Brazil and China aren't necessarily taken with European models of international conduct. The broad vision of Europe's postwar leaders seems in short supply.
"We need a Franklin Roosevelt and what we've got are a bunch of Herbert Hoovers," says Karim Emile Bitar, at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
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Anciently in Madrid, Puerta del Sol is where all roads led out to Europe. The square is framed by a pinkish town hall and the kind of 19th-century three-star hotels that guidebooks describe as having "character." Tourists and sun are plentiful. But until May 15, it was not a place of political symbolism, not a Tiananmen Square of Spain. That changed as Puerta del Sol, or "Sun's Gate," became a Tahrir Square for Spanish youth, who flew the Egyptian flag in solidarity with the Arab Spring.