Growing up in the shadow of intolerance
Despite the recent rise of radical, extreme or populist movements in Europe, young Europeans still accept democracy and reject violence, an EU-backed project has found. However, many feel that the political establishment does not represent them, leading them to consider alternative politics. Politicians must start listening more to young people to engage them fully in the democratic process, the researchers advise.
© tunedin - fotolia
For young Europeans today fascism, Nazism, Stalinism and even the Cold War are distant events of which they have no personal memories. Still, as has been shown by the recent success of radical, extreme or populist movements in parts of Europe, the past may still be casting a shadow across the contemporary political landscape and presaging an uncomfortable political future.
Central to shaping that future are the political attitudes and behaviour of young people. The EU-funded MYPLACE project is investigating young people’s political, social and civic participation, and the influence of Europe’s political legacies on their present attitudes and actions. It is also assessing their future receptivity to radical political agendas.
MYPLACE asks whether “difficult pasts” and “depressing presents” lead to “radical futures”, says project coordinator Hilary Pilkington of the University of Manchester in the UK.
“Youth civic and political engagement must be understood as firmly rooted in its structural – including the historical and cultural – context while recognising that this changes across time and space, and that young people themselves are active agents of that change,” explains Pilkington.
MYPLACE is carrying out the research in 14 countries across Europe – from Georgia in the east to Portugal in the west, as well as from Greece in the south to Finland in the north.
The project starts from the assumption that Europe’s radical political and philosophical traditions have much in common and their popularity is of a cyclical nature. The project takes a case-study approach based on in-depth research in two contrasting locations in each participating country. Exceptionally, the researchers examined four locations in Germany, to reflect the different political legacies when the east and west of the country were divided during the Cold War.
The advantage of this approach, argues Gary Pollock, MYPLACE survey team’s co-lead, is that it provides the deep local context needed to understand the motivations for engagement and activism among young people.
“A careful selection of contrasting research locations allows us to better represent specific intra-national experiences than to represent each country in an averaged way,” he notes.
MYPLACE’s research involves surveys, interviews, focus groups and ethnographic studies – which allows the team to build a fuller understanding of how political engaged young Europeans feel and how their attitudes affect their civic, political and social participation.
“MYPLACE replaces the routine, and often abstract, iteration of the reasons for young people’s ‘disengagement’ from politics with an empirically rich mapping of their understanding of the civic and political space that they inhabit and why they may choose to absent themselves from formal politics,” explains Pilkington.
A unique aspect of the project is its study of contemporary attitudes on political and civic engagement in the context of past political legacies. Central to this has been gaining an understanding of how the past is interpreted through the construction and transmission of historical memory.
The findings of this part of the project, explains Anton Popov, the co-lead of this area of the research, “demonstrate how internalisation of political heritage via mnemonic socialisation within families is conditioned by both the national political agenda and the socio-economic situation experienced across Europe”.
Another unique feature of MYPLACE has been its integration of the measurement of young people’s political attitudes and behaviour. This was done via locally representative surveys of 16-25-year-olds.
The project team made a deeper interpretation of these aspects through follow-up interviews with selected survey participants. They also did extended ethnographic case studies with more than 40 activist groups.
This holistic approach has thrown up results that challenge claims about the political ‘apathy’ of young Europeans. MYPLACE’s surveys indicate that 42% say they are in fact ‘interested’ in politics.
“Employment, housing and the environment are the three issues that are of greatest interest for these young people,” observes Pollock. “The European Union, immigration and rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, in contrast, scored lowest in terms of the level of political interest.”
The lure of alternative politics
Mick Carpenter, co-lead of the policy aspect of the project, says the concern is that political interest does not translate into comparable levels of engagement with formal politics and the political system.
He adds: “This is mainly due to the low level of trust and high level of cynicism that exists in most of the MYPLACE countries towards politics, politicians and the political system.”
In terms of trust, young Europeans tend to invest relatively little in the political system and far more in the courts, the military and civil society organisations, such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, MYPLACE found.
Although this is not true for all locations and countries, it may explain why many young Europeans are more likely to be involved with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other forms of social activism than in formal politics.
The survey data, which also measured levels of cynicism, show that young people feel remote from what they perceive as the political elite across Europe.
“Absolute levels of cynicism were high and are a clear indication of the general strength of views across all locations,” concludes Pollock. This was reflected by a project survey, which found that 60% of young respondents agreed with the statement that ‘politicians are corrupt’ while 69% believed that ‘the rich have too much influence in politics’.
This should not lead to the hasty conclusion that young people are disconnected from politics, or apathetic, and therefore disinclined to engage in it, says Pilkington.
MYPLACE’s multidisciplinary approach, Pilkington suggests, “is able to reveal that paradoxically young people often say they are ‘disinterested’ or fed up with politics but in a very engaged and passionate way”.
Moreover, while young people have been increasingly disinclined to engage in traditional political participation, they also continue to support the fundamental principles of democracy and believe that the most effective way to influence politics is through traditional means.
“Voting in elections received the highest mean score for effectiveness of political action,” says Tina Zurabishvili, who is the co-lead of the MYPLACE survey team.
While the project is still ongoing until May 2015 and final conclusions have not been reached, Pilkington suggests that one way of interpreting this paradox to view young people as being engaged in a disavowal of politics and the political.
This could be interpreted as a demonstrative dismissal of what is imagined as ‘the political’ whilst engaging, on their own terms, with ways of changing the world that they choose not to call ‘politics’, she explains.
Listen to the youth
The project also found that young Europeans in general are opposed to political extremism and the use of violence to achieve political aims. Still, there is little room for complacency, since young people, despite their generally liberal attitudes towards social issues, often possess a hostility towards immigrants and minorities not dissimilar to nationalist or populist radical parties, says Pilkington.
Pilkington’s own experience of conducting follow-up interviews with young people – including members of the radical English Defence League – revealed that anti-immigrant or racist statements are often made more routinely or ‘unreflexively’ by ordinary youth rather than by young activists widely represented as far right.
MYPLACE has generated a number of recommendations for policymakers and practitioners designed to boost youth participation in the democratic process.
The project recommends that they should more effectively reach out to young people and reduce the potential for social unrest. Central here is the urgent need for diverse policies that would improve the economic situation of European youth who have been affected disproportionately by the recent economic crises. Treating young people as active citizens capable of social change is also essential.
“Boosting participation requires tackling the attitudes of politicians and the establishment, as well as empowering young people, through citizenship training and strengthening youth NGOs, to take an active role in voicing their political concerns,” emphasises Carpenter.
“If we do not listen to youth, their only option will be to shout louder and say things that we would prefer not to hear,” argues Pilkington.