It’s raining resistance

Article published on May 8, 2006
Article published on May 8, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Although Europe may claim many successes, today it is at crisis point. Europeans are scared of unemployment, Islamic extremism and Turkish accession. They are starting to understand that Europe is a reality

The media is for once in total agreement: Europe has never been as bad as it is today. Such a mood is at odds with the recent European expansion. In the mid nineties a number of states relaxed their border controls under the Schengen agreement, in 2002 another 12 countries joined the Euro, and two years ago the EU made the historic expansion eastwards. It is these expansions that have provoked the current European crisis.

And somewhere in between these expansions and today, the celebratory mood disappeared. France’s definitive rejection of the EU Constitution last year has shown that many citizens of Western Europe no longer see the EU as an opportunity. Rather, they see it as the cause of their troubles. Trouble No. 1: unemployment. Young people in particular are discovering that they cannot find work once they have finished their education. The youth unemployment statistics for 2005 saw a rate of 15% in Germany, and more than 20% in France and Italy. Others had to keep themselves in pocket with further training or badly-paid jobs.

Our precarious future

“It is almost impossible today to find decent work”, says Fanny, a 23-year-old French woman. “Many companies take on interns to do full-time jobs. They just don’t want to pay them full wages.”

Because of this uncertainty, once Fanny had finished her studies she decided to become a member of Generation Precarity. This movement encourages trainees to relate their experiences on the movement’s website and is collecting signatures for a petition promoting interns’ rights, that should shortly be presented to the European Parliament.

Fanny's commitment is not limited to action within her own country. “We have noticed that there are various organisations in Germany which share similar goals,” she says. It is the movement towards a single European labour policy that has created precarious labour markets.

To this end, Generation Precarity met in February with representatives of German union Fair Work. They created a motion called Generation P, where the P stands for both Precaire and Praktikant (precarity in French and German). It is a loose alliance, albeit one that organised its first demonstrations on the first of April in Berlin, Paris and Vienna. Young people marched through the streets wearing white masks, representing the statement, “I am entirely expendable – the marketplace does not need me”; a feeling shared by many young people in Western Europe.

The fear of the other

It is however not merely future employment prospects that has Europeans worried. A report from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) stated in March 2005 that there has been an “increase in mistrust and hostility” towards the EU’s minority Muslim population. The chief cause of this mistrust has been attacks from Islamic extremists. Even countries whose immigration policy is particularly effective are troubled by them. In November 2004 the murder of film director Theo van Gogh shook the Netherlands. The man responsible – Mohammed Bouyeri – was an Islamic extremist with a Moroccan-Dutch passport. After this, a “Zero Tolerance” approach has been introduced in Holland – indeed in Rotterdam a “Citizen’s Law” has been passed which requires residents to speak Dutch “in schools, at work and on the street.”

The immigration minister Rita Verdonk, who is known for her hard line approach, wants this code to be used nationwide. Similar ideas were expressed in the UK after the bombing of the London Underground. Currently under discussion is the idea of a Citizenship Test in which immigrants must prove their knowledge of British culture if they wish to become British citizens – an idea which has already spread into Germany and Austria.

A Turkish welcome?

The discussion concerning Muslim integration is something which has long been debated in European political forums. The focus, however, is on the question of whether Turkey should join the European Union. According to a survey by Eurobarometer from December 2005, only 31% of those questioned were in favour of Turkish accession. More than half professed themselves against it. Turkey as a potential candidate came last in a list of preferred countries, behind Serbia-Montenegro and Albania. Not long ago it was simply populists who were actively against accession; now there are more and more Conservative leaders in political society who are making it known they are against Turkish accession, be it Nicolas Sarkozy in France or Angela Merkel in Germany.

It’s also raining resistance in civil society, and the Czech union “European Values” is a good example. “Europe must sort out its own identity before taking on Turkey,” says 27 year old Anna Matuskowa, a prominent activist with the union. European Values, with the help of the CDU-sympathetic German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is organising discussions about European identity. If you ask Matuskowa what European identity is, she speaks in terms of “enlightenment, rationality and human rights” – and there seems to be no place for Turkey in this exclusive European club.

Ahmet Evin, professor at the University of Istanbul-Sabanci, has often heard this type of argument. Political Scientists cannot persuade him either. “Many Europeans see Turkey as an Islamic State. What many do not know is that in modern Turkey, church and state are seperated,“ he says. Evin sees the rejection of Turkey’s accession to the European Union as a ramification of the crisisin which Europe finds itself. Politicians are trying to use the fear of Islam in order to come to a quick agreement on the topic of Turkish accession. Meanwhile, the European Parliament has voiced scepticism over its plans for Turkey. It has recommended that an institutional reform be completed before the next expansion.

Is Europe really in the worst crisis of its history? It may well be. The discussions surrounding this crisis have demonstrated to the Union that the clouds are gathering over Europe. Many criticise the European Union for its policies, and they do so because they feel that they are Europeans. But they don’t just want to criticise. Even if Fanny voted against the European constitution one year ago, she says: “I want to change something, not just say no.” She finishes by stating: “to sum up, I am an out and out European.”