Last October, Britain saw a minor furore erupt when the comedian Russell Brand was invited to edit a special issue of the New Statesman. In the flagship piece (not merely an editorial but a lengthy article over the middle pages), Brand meandered through the multiple crises currently engulfing the world and, with an apparent mixture of playfulness and sincerity, made a call to arms to young people for an abstract revolution of consciousness. The first step: disengage with the existing system by refusing to vote.
Contrary to middle-class opinion, Brand is no idiot. His argument may have lacked specificity but it was highly prescient in its diagnosis; in fact, the reason Jeremy Paxman failed to land a blow on him during their tie-in TV clash was that Brand identified and refused to play by the rules which are recurrently used to beat mainstream political figures into submission. He managed to tap into, and indeed give form to, the widespread sentiment amongst young Brits that politics, as conventionally practiced, is not only irrelevant but also counterproductive.
This sentiment is neither unfounded nor limited to the UK. Young people across Europe have good reason to believe that politics does nothing for them and actually kicks them down at every turn. Although this is the first generation to grow up without the shadow of the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc looming over them, the last two decades have seen unprecedented bureaucratisation and ideological convergence within ostensibly democratic states. Mainstream politics has increasingly become the preserve of an affluent elite seemingly more concerned with catering to big business and directing failed wars abroad than their own citizens.
These phenomena are most manifest in the Europe-wide austerity programme pursued relentlessly by the central institutions and member-states. The democratic glitter the EU held during the long boom years has rubbed off, revealing the grey stone of technocracy. The inevitable results of a highly precarious global financial system and a botched monetary union are being cleared up with tax rises, spending cuts and immensely high unemployment rates which are hitting the young hardest. If a national government breaks rank and refuses to acquiesce, it is removed and replaced by one that will. It is certainly not only the young that are disenfranchised and suffering – the elderly, the poor, women, ethnic and sexual minorities are as well, to various extents in different parts of the continent. Indeed, there is no bigger problem facing the future of European democracy than a population that feels it has no stake in society.
The backlash against Brand's editorship came in the form of commentators bemoaning the fickleness and fecklessness of the young, giving the sense that all down-to-earth, civilised folk thought he was talking nonsense and just playing for a bit of publicity. Naturally, this consensus was overwhelmingly formed by wealthy, white, middle-aged media professionals, for whom democracy (regardless of their political persuasion) largely means getting what they want without too much trouble or negotiation. They are the type of people who vote and provide opinions which people listen to, so in turn politicians listen to them. One feels that their criticisms somewhat supported Brand’s point.
There will not be a UK general election on which to test out these theses until next May. However, for those who have come of age since the last European Parliamentary elections in 2009 (the present author included), this May will be the first opportunity for a large cohort of young people to express their views on Europe directly at the ballot box.
Needless to say, it has not been a good five years for the EU. Promise after dewy-eyed millennial promise has unravelled in the wake of the Eurozone crisis: the ideal of the single currency has been muddied, inter-state antagonisms and various far-Right factions are on the rise, and the Troika – comprising the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF – has revealed itself less an international safety mechanism than a dictatorial Roman triumvirate. Whilst nationalist demagogues like Nigel Farage in Britain and Marine Le Pen in France ride a wave of discontent with the EU, Europhiles are notably absent in making the case for retaining even the current level of integration.
Neither are the prospects of change at the ballot box particularly edifying. The Parliament is the only directly elected body of the various European institutions, and it is not exactly a powerhouse of democratic accountability: it cannot draft bills itself but only amend or reject those drafted by the Commission, and it requires a full two-thirds majority vote in order to force resignations from the Commission. Power resides, none too subtly, with the unelected bodies in Brussels which, however well meaning they might be, remain largely unaccountable.
So, in short, why should young people bother to vote in May? What will it possibly achieve? I have three reasons to offer.
The first is a reminder. This year sees several important anniversaries, amongst them the centenary of the start of the First World War and a quarter-century since the fall of the Berlin Wall. These dates, 1914 and 1989, bracket the most fervent and extreme period of political experimentation in European history. There were times in those years – most notably the 1930s and early 1940s – where it looked as if democracy might genuinely perish from the earth as people (and often most fervently young people) fell in step behind fascist and Soviet-communist leaders. Our grandparents’ generation fought total war to protect and restore democracy to Western Europe, and later our parents’ generation were instrumental in bringing down the authoritarian regimes in the east. European democracy may look badly worn today, but we should think carefully before throwing away the victories won by previous generations: the right for citizens to choose a government of and for them.
The second reason is a suggestion. The decline of democracy is a spiralling process: as people become disenchanted with the potential for change they stop investing democratic institutions with legitimacy, and so those institutions become less and less accountable, and so people become more disenchanted. But the converse can also be true. The European Parliament of 2014 lacks real political sovereignty, but by supporting its democratic credentials, its power and accountability will grow. It makes sense to use the only door already half open to us, to use the Union’s only partially democratic institution to force democracy into the whole system. The Project for Democratic Union would eventually like to see power at the European level centred on a bicameral legislature, the lower house consisting of party-political deputies as the Parliament is now, and the upper one elected on a regional basis. This is only one suggestion, but such radical reforms will occur with a genuine democratic mandate.
The third reason is a warning. It is at times like these that the lure of fear and insularity exert their strongest influence, and in contemporary European politics this has meant the renewed rhetorical priority of the nation-state over the member-state. Crisis begets suspicion and division; the temptation is to turn inwards, to listen to Eurosceptics as they attempt to claw back national sovereignty. But that way truly is the road to serfdom, both economically and politically. It has been a very long time since nationalism was a force of progress; more recently, it has found expression in enforced cultural homogeneity, the demonisation of ethnic minorities and isolationist ruin. A Europe of economic stagnation, inter-state barriers, low wages, greater inequality, social strife, energy scarcity and worsening climate change is not one in which we will want to grow into adults and raise children of our own. Yet that is the price of giving up the Union in search of a non-existent past.
So, sorry Russell
Brand – young people should vote this May. Read the manifestos, support your
party of choice and don’t expect the world immediately. But then if things
don’t turn out right, by all means get out on the streets and start protesting.
We will only get a proper European democracy if we demand it.nion – London Office.
The article is written by James Bartholomeusz, Project Assistant at Project for Democratic Union – London Office.
Edited by: Svetli Vassileva