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Home / Resources / News / ‘What shall become of us without any barbarians?’ Youth Policy in the Euro-Med

‘What shall become of us without any barbarians?’ Youth Policy in the Euro-Med

Niccolo Milanese, based on remarks given at the Anna Lindh Mediterranean Forum, Marseille, 6th April 2013.

Between 15th April and 20th April, European Alternatives will be hosting activists from Egypt and Spain in France as part of our ‘Stop Precarity, Act Democratically!’ project

The Mediterranean Sea, as our literary history tells us, is famously deceptive. Poseidon and the other gods loved to fool even clever Odysseus. There are many beautiful or attractive ways of combining the words ‘youth’ and ‘Mediterranean’, and our political leaders around its circumference are busy projecting many dreams across the sea, to calm a generation fearful of prolonged unemployment.

There are also, we have to acknowledge, several very ugly dreams which have combined the Mediterranean and youth in recent history. One in particular is expressed in the Fascist ideology which was – of course – a Mediterranean invention. Mussolini dreamed of domination of Mare Nostra – and the first Fascist anthem was called ‘Giovinezza’, a hymn to the beauty and strength of youth, Italian youth, which would dominate a sea Mussolini considered as rightfully theirs.

I want to draw attention to the Fascist threat not only because it is gaining ground again in Europe – look at Golden Dawn in Greece, the Bulgarian Attak party, or the Front National in France – but also because I think we have a historical responsibility as Europeans to try to learn from our history, to not repeat them and – in all humbleness – to make recommendations and offer advice also to people on the other side of the Mediterranean, when we fear that they might repeat some of our mistakes.

The history of the early 20th century is one of intelligent and well-meaning leaders and intellectuals in Europe preparing the ground for fascism by not being sufficiently attentive to the ways in which their words could be misused and transformed in a context of crisis to quite the opposite of what they intended.

With that historical warning in mind, I want to move onto looking at the situation of youth in the Mediterranean.

Demographic imbalance is the real crisis

There is a significant demographic imbalance across the Mediterranean.  Young people under 30 in the European Union make up around 20% of the population, and on the Southern shore of the Mediterranean they make up to 40% of the population. In Europe there is already – and will be for some time to come – a chronic lack of young workers to maintain a welfare state for an aging population, which will mean that there is need either for an influx of migrant workers, for a reduction in living standards for older populations or for a change of economic model. In the southern Mediterranean youth unemployment is the highest in the world and the economic conditions are significantly worse than in Europe. The current economic crisis masks the problem, because in any case there are not enough jobs for young people on either side of the Mediterranean, but the imbalance is still there, and supposing that the economic crisis eases and some more jobs return – which we might suppose is the aim of our political leaders – the imbalance will become more and more apparent.

There is a danger, in the idealisation of youth, to contribute to the idealisation of a highly productive, relatively cheap, highly mobile and highly precarious group of young people  across the Mediterranean who can transfer the surplus value they create either to multinationals or to the (northern Mediterranean) states, which will use it as capital to – in the best scenario – pay for pensions, or – perhaps more likely – to bail out their banks or perhaps to gamble through their banks on global markets.

The obsession with youth policy in the European Union at the moment, as well intentioned as it is and as necessary as it is, risks feeding a psychosis of the older generation in particular which is desperate both for both altruistic and egoistical reasons for a younger generation to support it. If the youth policy is not good enough – if the actions and resources allocated to programs do not match the rhetoric of the importance attached to youth – then there is the strongest risk that in continued crisis fascist sentiment will rise, the (mistaken) idea that young migrants from the south are coming to Europe, forcing down labour rates and taking the jobs will grow, and the (broadly correct) sentiment that the Southern Mediterranean countries are being used as cheap labour supplies for European companies will become more and more of an explosive frustration.

The signs so far are not good. The European Union in its draft budget for 2014, despite attaching significant symbolic importance to youth programs – has not allocated a significant budget (a youth employment initiative worth around 100€ per unemployed young person, for example). There is talk of creating a EuroMed Erasmus scheme and endeavouring to extend youth mobility – which is excellent but in itself does not change the economic predicament of young people as highly precarious workers. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has not yet been reformed sufficiently in light of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, which showed that even in the areas where the ENP was most effective (such as the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Areas with the EU, which Tunisia was the first country to join in 2008) the social sustainability of the reforms was not ensured. The ENP review in 2011 has not adequately addressed the social failures of the previous policy, let alone addressed the systemic economic imbalances between north and south of the Mediterranean. In the crisis-laden and demographically highly imbalanced situation, policy failure is likely to fuel extremist sentiment, and indeed such effects are already being seen.

The youth movements – as actors in politics not just objects of it – need to constitute themselves in solidarity across the Mediterranean to reject the logic of global capitalism. This means they need to start to think of a new economic model for the Mediterranean. I am not sure that amongst the youth movements this reflection has yet got very far. There are many people in youth movements calling for democracy or political liberty, many calling for jobs, but much fewer calling for an alternative economy, rights at work or a fairer distribution of global capital, and very few indeed proposing an alternative model across the Mediterranean.

Democratic renewal is overdue across the Mediterranean

One of the surprising things about youth activism across the Mediterranean over the past two years is that despite significant differences in the context across different countries, democracy has been a major theme amongst all the movements.  In the Southern Mediterranean states the protests have been directed against dictatorships. In the Northern member states the protests have been protests without any very specific target (unless it is the IMF or the EU, which takes the place of a dictator), but rather a feeling of lack of democracy and the evaporation possibilities for democratic participation.

In Europe, the democratic failure that is being experienced by many young people I think goes beyond their frustration at being unable to find a job or being likely to experience a lower quality of life than their parents. I think it also marks the failure of the nation-state, in its current form, to maintain democracy in an increasingly interlinked world, and a world in which the modes of communication and social relation amongst young people in particular have dramatically changed. This failure of the nation state is particularly obvious in the European context, where euro-area countries which are in financial deficit effectively lose a part of their sovereignty to the European institutions, without a corresponding transfer of democracy to those institutions. But I think given the interconnectedness of our world economy I have already spoken about, the Mediterranean Sea as a common good that we share, and a whole series of other links between Europe and North Africa, we could also say that there is a democratic deficit across the Mediterranean. Policies of one country quite patently affect dramatically people in other countries around the Mediterranean and to a much greater extent than ever before. If democracy is about citizens being able to take an equal part in deciding on how to try to shape their common future, the current inter-national arrangement of institutions is clearly inadequate.

My worry is that protestors in Tahrir Square – as much as I support them and appreciate the urgency of their struggle – are focussing on creating a democratic nation-state on a national model from Europe’s history, precisely at the moment that such a model is failing young people on the other side of the Mediterranean: are we really living in such radically different worlds? Perhaps we need to have transnational, non-national, political institutions which are democratic across the Mediterranean. Perhaps the creation of such institutions is as important, if not more important, than the creation of democratic nation states.

This suggests that amongst the youth movements we need to have a deeper reflection about what kind of democracy is necessary for the 21st century. I think the conditions for making this reflection across the Mediterranean are better than they ever have been, thanks to new tools of communication and also the significant feelings of solidarity amongst young people across the sea right at the moment. But we need urgently to start this profound reflection on a common understanding across the Mediterranean.


I have said that I think we should create democracies on a regional, non-national, level, and I see some hope in the Mediterranean as a possible location for that. I want to point out here, in connection with my initial remarks about learning from European history, that I do not think that basing a non-national community on Arabism in North Africa is a good idea, and I do not think the habit of talking of ‘Arab states’ is harmless. I think basing the constitutional identity of a country or political entity on ethnic grounds always ends up being an excuse for discrimination against some minority, and in any case gives a mistaken and dangerous foundation to political community which is not only antagonistic to the commitment to equality which must be at the core of democratic states, but antagonistic to the spirit of openness and collaboration which must characterise all political institutions in an interconnected world of growing mobility.

The Alexandria born Greek-language poet Cavafy already at the beginning of the 20th Century saw that the need for a ‘barbarian’ threat is almost constitutive of Mediterranean politics. We could see these ‘barbarians’ as young migrants, as the unruly youth, as ethnic minorities, as other nationalities, as the PIIGS countries…

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators pass no laws?

Because the barbarians will arrive today
What law can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

As people are finally standing up for their freedom and dignity across the Mediterranean, and there is a (hopeful) risk of there not being any ‘barbarians’ any more, we – young people especially, but all of us – need to answer the question

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

For if we do not answer that question, the final line of Cavafy’s poem imposes itself

They were, those people, some kind of solution

And we will once again look for them, invent them in our minds, and use them to justify our inhumane actions … or our inhumane inactions.