Youths, Immigrants, and Outsiders are Southern Europe’s Best Hopes

LISBON—After recent visits to Spain and Greece, it was Portugal’s turn to receive German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week. Her brief half-day visit was not accompanied by the sort of violent protests that took place in Athens. But in a country brought to its knees by rising unemployment — up to 15% from 12.7% last year — and deep-reaching IMF- and EU-imposed spending cuts, the public’s response was still noticeable. Befitting a society that has produced the mournful Fado music style, some Portuguese wore black on the day of Merkel’s visit, as if the occasion was a mourning ceremony.

The state of affairs is even gloomier because Portugal is not alone in feeling the pain. Despite Merkel’s more conciliatory tones as of late, and some progress in Brussels toward a new agenda focused on growth, people across Mediterranean Europe seem as unconvinced about the German and EU plans as ever. On November 14, an all-Iberian general strike is set to paralyze Portugal and Spain. Strikes will also extend to Italy and Greece to create a Southern European bloc of sorts.

What is different about the dissent now spreading across the region is its level of organization. The European Trade Union Confederation calls for borderless resistance against austerity measures, which they say will “only serve to worsen imbalances and foster injustice.” As an alternative to current policies, it has proposed a Social Compact for Europe, a list of pro-welfare and pro-growth proposals focused on the need to protect workers’ rights and to uphold guarantees enshrined in documents such as the European Social Charter that have come “to define Europe.” Reading this and other proclamations, and listening to statements from leaders protesting the so-called dictates of Berlin and Brussels, however, give the impression that the well-meaning unions are fighting for a vision of Southern Europe that is backward-looking at best.

Three constituencies risk remaining on the fringes of these organized labor protests in Southern Europe despite some current involvement: unemployed and disenchanted youth, immigrants, and societies that are either outside the EU or on the verge of joining (such as much of the Western Balkans). These groups should instead be at the front and center of a strategy for Southern Europe’s renaissance as they are the three groups with the motivation to innovate and create new opportunities for growth in Southern Europe

If the generations of Southern Europeans who benefited from the generosity of welfare states are unable to accept the transfer of some of their wealth to new groups, prosperity may not happen for anyone. The youth will not only remain unemployed, they will effectively be denied a rightful place in society. So much for the social compact cited by labor organizations. In a similar fashion, if immigrants keep losing jobs in higher numbers than established citizens, they will not be fully included in the emerging social contracts. Consequently, the hardest working segments of Southern European societies may not be part of the workforce of tomorrow.

And if Southern Europe remains confined to those already in the EU, as opposed to those aiming to get in, it will remain defined by its past, not its future, losing yet another potential engine for growth and renewal. While immigrants may be the most European-minded of all EU citizens — having often worked in different countries and approaching Europe as a single space for opportunity — newcomers and wannabe EU members still nurture the same sort of hope in the European project that used to inspire older members. These are societies, from Croatia to Serbia, that have only recently emancipated themselves from non-democratic politics, have not yet experienced the “good life” on par with the rest of Southern Europe, and appreciate the relevance of European integration as a peace project.                                                  

One has to hope, therefore, that as Southern Europe enters a season of tense political strife, those working for real change know where to start, or rather restart. Many imbalances, misdeeds, and injustices will have to be redressed to overcome the present crisis. But, additionally, a constructive discourse needs to begin focusing on how to redistribute from within while making space for those excluded. In other words, the only way to truly protect the standards that have come to define European societies is to make them achievable to those, from the youth to immigrants to new EU members, who can be the dynamic Europe of tomorrow. As paradoxical as it may seem, for insiders to retain their quality-of-life standards, outsiders will have to be brought in.

Emiliano Alessandri is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.