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Europe has lost the confidence of young people

Greece’s ‘no’ vote signals generational, deep-rooted, bitter and potentially irreversible sentiment across the continent

July 9, 2015 2:00AM ET

The ballots spoke in Greece last Sunday, when 61 percent of voters opted to reject more austerity. They did so despite loud threats, ranging from immediate expulsion from the eurozone to economic armageddon. There simply wasn’t much more Greek media, opposition parties and European Union officials could have said or done to warn them off. Their scare tactics failed miserably.

The country’s flamboyant Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis left his position to smooth things out during the negations. He has been replaced by the significantly more low-key, Oxford-educated Euclid Tsakalotos. Barely 24 hours after being sworn in, he is in Brussels alongside Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to make a last-ditch effort to reach a deal.

The actors are running out of patience. While incomes plummet and life becomes harder for ordinary people, a silent run on the banks has drained 40 billion euros from Greek financial institutions since January. Capital controls and a limit on withdrawals followed, just as the tourism season began, creating issues with the resupplying of hotels and other facilities. The delay between the announcement of the referendum on Friday and the imposition of withdrawal limits Monday morning bled the banking system further. This, in turn, created trouble for the government in the midst of its high-stakes gamble.

Time is running out not just for the negotiators and the Greek people but also for faith in the European project as a whole.

Polling in Greece by the company Public Issue before the vote pointed to a significant shift in public sentiment — one that is generational, deep-rooted and potentially irreversible and contradicts popular myths.

Greece’s resounding “no” came down to demographics. Of the 63 percent of the population that voted, polling shows “yes” enjoyed a majority only among those 55 or older. Over 70 percent of voters 18 to 25 said “no.” 

In other words, the generation that is largely considered the most European in Greece seems to be the one willing to gamble its membership in the eurozone for a future away from austerity and unemployment, which is at a staggering 60 percent for those under 25.

Another popular myth is that public servants overwhelmingly support accepting creditors’ austerity conditions. However, “no” held a majority in every category except employers, pensioners and housewives. Public and private sector employees went for “no,” and so did students — by an astounding 83 percent.

Europe looks more like a bureaucratic project dead set on imposing a particularly moralizing brand of austerity than a union seeking to create a common future in good times and bad.

Consider the context of the referendum: The Greek mainstream media, which is largely controlled by oligarchs with vested interests in the country’s continuing membership in the eurozone, launched a campaign of fear that breached every sense of journalistic ethics and has prompted an investigation by the authorities and the Journalists Union. European officials dispensed warnings of financial doom and dire consequences if Greece voted “no.”

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, went so far as to say that the question of the referendum was invalid, since his proposal wasn’t on the table anymore, but went ahead to campaign, alongside many of his counterparts, for “yes.”

These moves backfired spectacularly. Why? Almost two-thirds of Greece’s Europe-oriented people are so skeptical that their future lies with the euro that they voted “no” despite the media blitz, predictions of doom and risk of economic disaster. This isn’t to say that this demographic doesn’t have a significant presence on the “yes” side too, with a lot of valid concerns and arguments. But it indicates that Greece’s youth has had it with Europe.

And not just Greece’s youth. Not coincidentally, this is largely the same demographics that backed the “yes” movement in Scotland when it voted on whether to become independent from the United Kingdom. There too, the young were voting not along nationalistic lines but against austerity and financial precariousness. Similar studies reinforce the argument around Europe, with Podemos in Spain for instance.

This points to a simple, scary fact: Europe has lost its grip on young people. It has failed to capture their imagination. It looks more like a bureaucratic project dead set on imposing a particularly moralizing brand of austerity than a union seeking to create a common future in both good times and bad.

This sentiment will spread not just among the traditionally Euroskeptic right but in leftist circles too. Journalist Nick Cohen, writing for The Spectator, wrote that “the growing awareness on the left that the EU is turning everything we thought was true about it on its head will have political consequences.” He went on to predict that this would ultimately push the British to vote on exiting the EU.

Right now, a deal between Greece and Europe feels close. The compromise won’t be neat or pretty, but it is Europe’s last chance for unity. It’s not just that barely a billion euros in cash remain in the Greek banking system or that companies have had problems importing and paying their bills and that the toxic precedent this whole mess is creating will provoke new crises in the eurozone. It is not just that political goodwill has all but evaporated on all sides. This is a social deadline as well.

Europe was supposed to bridge differences and create the conditions in which the nightmare of World War II would never repeat itself and the future would be prosperous for all. But the EU has spread suspicion among the people it was supposed to unite and condemned its youth to unemployment and cynicism. This can’t go on.

If Greece exits the euro, the financial damage is likely to be manageable in the long run, but the political repercussions will be deep and far reaching. It will give the green light to other countries to leave too. It will poison the atmosphere among Germany, France and Italy, which will view one another with increasing ambivalence as France rejects Greece’s exit from the euro, fearing a bloc in which Germany monopolizes power. This is the last chance to stop the disintegration of the European Union. It must mean a change, of course. And it must include everyone.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe. His work has been featured in The London Review of Books, The New Statesman, Vice, Open Democracy and The Guardian, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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