Next year you’re 18 and will leave secondary school, no doubt excited and at the same time worried. For the average European teenager, the future must look like a vista of both adventure and bleakness. Joblessness, debt mountains, prophecies of monetary meltdown and the rare prospect of a secure professional career muddy the view.
35 years ago a generation of school leavers - your parents – looked at a similar future equally thrilling and bleak. Coming of age in the shadow of nuclear holocaust and terrorism, this generation had to make do with double digit inflation and unemployment. And yet it also sparked a sexual revolution, embraced communism, anti-conformism. In the 1970s, this generation also took to the streets, yelling anti-government slogans, opposing school reforms considered backward and elitist. It demanded free access to university in a continent equally on the brink of political collapse. Then the Iron Curtain fell, Germany accomplished its long lasting dream of reunification, and Europe even overcame the energy crisis. In the mid 1980s European economies started growing again and enjoyed what appeared to be a long period of stability. But all that turned out to be one gigantic illusion.
Almost everyone - politicians, bankers alike - abused what shy recovery there was, profited from deregulation and offshoring, outsourced jobs abroad while dismantling the remnants of the welfare state at home. In just one generation, income inequalities threw us back to the inter-war years, preparing the ground for a new Great Depression, only this time right on our doorstep.
What went wrong? Our endemic desire to be part of an elite, to be different, to be rich and powerful, to build empires. An end that justifies all means. Europeans are forever the offspring of Machiavelli, trapped in an historical rollercoaster that can bring us a monarchy-toppling French Revolution and then a few years later Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor. Forever prisoners of our own contradictions, we shun equality even as we hail democracy. We fail to evolve. And yet there’s hope.
The new generation of teenagers is the first born inside the United Europe’s multi-cultural melting pot, one no longer just populated by Europeans. Multiculturalism may very well be our savior, wresting us out from the straitjacket of our history, thrusting the old continent into an environment where other ethnicities, less developed than ours but less cynical and more positive, will play a big role in its future.
Watching the student demonstrations in Parliament Square in London recently, I saw a new Britain and a new Europe. Never before has this country seen this type of protest - perhaps only when Thatcher wanted to introduce the poll tax, but the motivation at that time was money, not equality. The new blood of the children of immigrants both drives transnational protest and cements solidarity amongst Europe’s young. Teenagers equally wary of tomorrow and yet determined not to let history repeat itself want a different Europe. Their solidarity flies on the wings of the net, an international agora connecting to WikiLeaks, Porto Allegre, and all the other initiatives to transform our planet.
I wish I were young again to walk that line with you, to share the experience of reshaping a continent. My generation had similar dreams but failed to achieve them. As we grew up we regrouped into old and new elites. And that is why corruption, inequality, criminality are rampant today, why a class of incompetents rules us and a celebrity press feeds us stories we do not want to read or listen to.
Will you succeed where we failed? I believe so. Because the socio-cultural paradigm of Europe has finally shifted, and those who rule us today do not represent such a shift. As your generation comes to power, then the political paradigm will inevitably alter. Europeans will no longer be explorers; they will not adventure across unknown seas to steal others’ treasure, they will not scale the highest mountains to plant flags, nor will they look West or East to decide what to think and how to behave internationally. But they will be able to delve into the new multi-cultural spirit of a reinvigorated continent for new economic, social and political formulas. That is the Europe I dream of for you and the one I want to belong to.