By Giorgos Koulouris
With the advent of the 2008 financial crisis – and particularly in the last few years – the EU has been dealing with the spectre of populism. Imposed austerity measures and an increase in youth unemployment have served only to intensify the threat. Isolated and socially excluded, the continent’s young people have become more vulnerable to the promises of populist politicians. For this reason, I believe the EU should focus its attention more on tailoring policies to address problems facing its youth population to engage them more in politics and stop populism in its tracks.
Populism and poverty are two issues that are inextricably intertwined, given that the latter facilitates the rise of the former. Populism has always been a major threat for democracy, but after the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, the threat has increased significantly. Populist movements - both leftwing and rightwing - have strengthened their influence in several countries, such as Hungary, Spain, Italy, Greece, France and the UK.
The rise of populism is a major concern for the European order as it could undermine stability, not only in EU institutions but also across the European countries. The most vulnerable group seems to be the EU’s young population, mainly in southern Mediterranean countries. With five months to go until the European Parliament elections in May, Europe has to face the re-emerging threat of populism.
For this reason, the EU should invest more in the improvement of living conditions for young people as they have been significantly affected by austerity measures, the increase of unemployment and low wages. One significant repercussion of these issues is mistrust in political systems and politicians which arguably makes them more vulnerable to populists.
Is the EU's young population more vulnerable to populism?
After the financial crisis of 2008, three major youth groups warmed to populist rhetoric because of their scant engagement with politics and their concerns about way the EU works: the working poor, young unemployed and the NEETs (people who are ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’). These people are disappointed with political parties, they do not have trust in institutions and they show a lack of interest in politics.
Poverty facilitates the rise of populists as more people feel isolated and excluded from society. Specifically, 28% of young people in Europe aged between 15-29 - around 21.8 million - are at risk of falling into poverty. The most affected is the youth population is the 15-29 age group in southern European countries. In Greece in 2017, for instance, 45.9% were at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In Italy, the number was 35% and in Spain 34.8%.
The poverty rate is linked to unemployment, low wages and the number of people not in education, employment or training. The unemployment rate in the EU among young people in July 2018 sat at 14.8%, while the highest rates were recorded in Greece at 39.7%, Spain at 33.4% and Italy at 30.8%. Unemployment is of major concern among the youth population as they tend to feel more frustrated about the politics and politicians due to limited opportunities in the early stages of their careers, creating a vicious cycle for the future.
In regards to low wages, the working poor are living in poverty despite having a job. In 2015, the rate of young workers living in poverty in EU was 12.5%. This issue is more worrying in southern countries, such as Greece and Spain, where the number of young workers living at risk of poverty is approximately 20%.
NEETs continue to be the most social vulnerable group in Europe. They are more likely to be socially excluded, often facing a bleak future as they do not participate in employment, education or training. In 2015, 12% of all young people were NEETs but in Italy and Greece, the percentage of NEETs exceeded 23%. Within this context, NEETs experience disengagement from society, with only 28% of them interested in politics. Most of them are not keen to vote, having less trust in EU institutions.
These aforementioned issues make young people feel more isolated and disappointed about the current situation, as well as not trusting politicians and institutions in general. It is worth noting that the greatest abstainers in the previous European elections were young people aged between 18 and 24, of whom 72.2% did not vote. The reasons for not voting were the lack of trust in politics, the fact that they are not interested in politics and that they believed their vote had no influence. Deepening inequality in EU, therefore, could further increase the influence of populists.
A more inclusive economy is needed
The significant increase in scope of the EU’s oversight and the financial crisis of 2008 have eroded the confidence of people, especially the young, in the EU. The EU has veered towards a more technocratic approach to governing rather than identifying real problems.
Against this backdrop, EU citizens - again, mainly in southern countries – continue to feel alienated and are increasingly mistrustful of the EU institutions and their government, in part because the EU failed to address promptly and effectively the problems of the previous years.
The limited prospects for young people may not only lead to political apathy but also could be a tool in the hands of various populist movements in Europe, as we saw in the recent outbreak of protests in France by the Gilets Jaunes (or ‘Yellow vests’) who were demanding better opportunities and living conditions.
For this reason, the EU should invest in creating economic growth with benefits that are more inclusive, creating decent jobs in order to engage more the youth population in society and eliminate the rise of populism. A drastic improvement in living conditions with better opportunities for all is required, given the alarming issues facing NEETs, working poor and the youth unemployed. The EU and its member states should strive to improve their policies which directly affect young people, tailoring them to their needs as they are the future of our European society and a crucial part of the EU’s stability.
In this critical period in the lead-up to the next European elections, young people should be a key target of the EU’s policy for the future. Reforms based on the European Social Rights Pillar could help build a fairer and more socially inclusive EU. The three key concerns of young people that need addressing are equal opportunities and access to employment, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion. To this end, clearer and more direct references should have been included in the European Social Rights Pillar about helping the young population, in particular the working poor and NEETs. In the same way, the Europe Strategy 2020 should have pay more attention to these vulnerable groups.
Furthermore, other initiatives like the Youth Guarantee Programme should be strengthened, which could help further contribute to more inclusive economic growth. This programme helps young people to find faster a good job, to ameliorate their skills and to eliminate social exclusion. Αt the same time, education, employment and training should be extended to a larger part of the youth population - especially in NEETs – which could consequently mean more tailor-made policies are included in the Youth on the Move initiative in future.
In sum, there is a need to move toward a more inclusive, resilient, and supportive society in order to prevent the continent’s young people falling prey to populism. By improving the living conditions of the youth, the dealing with the issues that concern them and creating better opportunities for them, not only populism will be fought in this group, but also the confidence in the European project which has been lost will be regained.
Giorgos Koulouris is is a political scientist and a consultant in a Management and Consulting firm in Greece
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.