Pessimism and populism on the rise in a Europe without hope
by Joe Litobarski
If the European Union wants to survive over the long-term and, despite appearances, let us assume that it does – the EU must convince people that it can deliver a better future. Almost any hardship is easier to endure if you can tell yourself you are doing it for your children. Yet, at the moment, the EU is completely failing to offer people that most necessary of qualities – hope.
Hopelessness is, perhaps, the single most serious threat to the long-term viability of the European project. If you want to understand the rise of populist anti-politics movements like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, then look at the 90 per cent of Italians in the Gallup-Debating Europe survey who believe that young people will have less secure jobs, less secure pensions and earn lower salaries than their parents.
The research, conducted mostly through phone interviews in April and May, surveyed national representative samples of 5,500 people aged 15 and over across six EU member states; representing more than 70 per cent of the population of the continent.
The findings make for grim reading. Majorities in all countries surveyed believe that young people will enjoy their work less, live with a greater chance of being made redundant and have a more precarious retirement than their parents’ generation. In all countries – with the exception of post-communist Poland – majorities answered that they expected young people to earn lower salaries than the previous generation.
When Gallup conducted similar research in 2011, it found that Europeans overall were confident in their countries’ economic stability in the near future; although they did not expect any rapid improvement. However, this latest research suggests that optimism has collapsed. In 2011, when asked if they would rate their future lives as worse than their current lives, only 14 per cent of respondents in Italy and 17 per cent in France thought things would not improve. However, when asked today whether they were optimistic overall about the future for young people in Europe, 66 per cent of Italians and 65 per cent of French respondents said they were pessimistic.
Some of the results may be explained by the fact that people accept that in an increasingly globalised world, lifestyles and working patterns will have to change if Europe is to remain competitive. In general, for example, respondents also said they expected the next generation to live in a cleaner environment, have more time for leisure activities, live longer, healthier lives and – in a world increasingly connected through the internet and social networks – be much more likely to keep contact with their friends.
However, telling a generation that they will have to work harder, longer, for less pay and doing less enjoyable work is hardly a vision to inspire hope. The strategy of austerity will have to start delivering results soon or it will be unsustainable. Growth figures released earlier this week show that the eurozone economy has contracted for the sixth consecutive quarter. And unemployment figures released last month were again at a record high.
If mainstream political parties cannot deliver a feeling of hope for the future then the recent successes of extremist, nationalist and anti-politics movements suggests there are plenty of alternative visions out there that electorates might start listening to.
Joe Litobarski is editor of the online forum Debating Europe