Remarks by Niccolo Milanese to the EU-Southern Neighbourhood Forum, Brussels 28th May 2015 – as part of the panel on Parallel Mediterranean Experiences: common challenges and approaches to secure a better future for youth.
For the past years I have been working in this context to, on the one hand, coordinate and organize young political activists throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, and on the other hand create dialogue with the political institutions in the same regions – on the basis that if you don’t engage with the institutions you end up with institutions you don’t like. That basic belief made me quite unpopular sometimes on both sides, amongst the institutions and amongst the movements: the institutions are made uncomfortable when the have to work with people who are often angry or disappointed with them, and the movements are sometimes taken out of their comfort zone when they are forced to confront the compromises and trade-offs required in political institutions. But if anyone is listening on either side, I’ve come up with three simple headline messages to address to all those working for ‘youth’.
- Careful about using ‘youth’
It might seem like youth is an unproblematic scientific term, but there is no shared definition of who counts as ‘youth’, and the term often functions ideologically.
One day a politician can justify austerity by saying that ‘it is important to cut the deficit because it is unfair to pass on our debts to the younger generation’. The next day the same politician can justify increasing the cost of university education (and therefore putting anyone who goes to university into debt) on the grounds that young people have their whole lives to pay back the investment they make into their education. On the third day the one and same politician is surprised that no young person has any confidence in him at all any more. What actually has happened under the cover of a rhetoric of ‘youth’ in this kind of manoeuvre is a transfer of collective debt onto individuals, some of whom may be young, others of whom are not.
We are all familiar with ways in which applying the label ‘youth’ is used as a way of disenfranchising that group of people. It can also be used as a way of justifying lesser rights, or even of giving benefits at the expense of some other group.
When we think of many of the phenomena of injustice we associate with youth, whether it be job insecurity or difficulty of entering the job market, lack of affordable housing, the expense of good education, these are actually phenomena which affect the whole society.
Young people may experience the injustice in greater numbers because they are more vulnerable, but typically to make successful campaigns, we need to show that the issue is universal.
Otherwise youth remains a minority, or is regarded as a more or less privileged group, to be balanced against other parts of society. Therefore paying attention to the ‘youth’ framing of issues is particularly important both for campaigners and institutions.
- Make change possible
We often say we are pushing for change, or trying to make change happen. It may be a more difficult question to ask if we are making change possible. Every campaigner wants to achieve change, and every politician dreams of bringing about change. But even as they do this, both campaigners and politicians may be reinforcing structures which actually prevent real change from taking place, usually by acting to reinforce their own positions. Making change possible also means potentially losing one’s own privileges or centrality. It requires admitting that the change might actually come from structures and processes in which one is not involved, which one might actually be standing in the way of.
This could lead those in the movements to ask to what extent those movements are reinforcing some elements of exclusion or injustice, by asking who has access to the movement, who speaks on behalf of it, whether it is acting democratically in allowing space also for other movements and interests. And it could lead the institutions to ask whether – despite what is often in the rhetoric of politicians – they are really allowing change to take place, or facilitating it.
That is something that the European Union needs to ask itself very seriously at the moment – is the EU as an institution really allowing change to take place?
- Make mobility meaningful
Both campaigners and policy makers in the Euro-Mediterranean region speak a lot about mobility. This is justified: the lack of international mobility (through restrictive and discriminatory visa regimes) of people from the Southern shore of the Mediterranean is one of the main things holding back both social and economic progress in those countries. We need to be careful when talking about mobility not just to talk in terms of opportunities for individuals to find work or training, however.
If we allow mobility to be reduced to opportunities in this way, we reinforce a logic which makes mobility appear threatening for the majority population, firstly by suggesting mobility will mean people face greater competition for any opportunities there are, and secondly by suggesting mobility is an individual privilege, and has no social consequences.
We need to make mobility meaningful, and by that I mean we need to make it socially meaningful. In the programs of mobility that are put in place by political institutions, there needs to be thought about how those who are mobile touch the places they travel to. Those who are mobile need to be allowed, and encouraged, to contribute socially, economically and culturally to the places they go to. At the moment we tend to shut out ‘visitors’ from the possibility of contributing. Instead of creating a common world, this has a tendency to turn real situated places which are culturally rich and connected to their surroundings into non-places of transit, whether those places of transit be universities, towns, cities or companies.
Mobility becoming meaningful also means a frank acknowledgement of the costs mobility can bring to others in the society than those benefitting immediately from the mobility. To do it properly, there are costs involved in hospitality and welcoming. Those costs should be greatly outweighed by the benefits for everyone of mobility, but only if those who are mobile are encouraged to contribute, and if we explain the social meaning of mobility to show these wide benefits.
The demographic imbalance on either side of the Mediterranean today provides an urgency to develop collaborations and common understandings between young people across the region. If we are to avoid the dangerous alternative of either economic precarity characterising young people throughout the region, or one side providing a cheap labour force to support the living conditions of the other side, then we need to have a common approach to making a more just economic and social relationship between the two shores. The three messages I have quickly outlined all have in common that in fighting for this, young people and institutions need to constantly make clear that they are building new society on behalf of everyone, and not on behalf of a minority. This is another way of saying we need to assume our responsibility as the future.