Europe’s Lost Generation Finds Its Voice

Le résultat des élections italiennes témoigne d’un profond malaise des jeunes générations partout en Europe.

For years, Europe’s young have grown increasingly furious as the euro crisis has robbed them of a future. The emergence of Beppe Grillo’s party in Italy is one of the results — and is just the latest indication that disgust towards European politics is widespread.

Only a few weeks ago, they hardly would have thought it was possible. But now here they are ; their first public appearance following their surprise success in the Italian general election. In a hotel in Rome, not far from the Piazza San Giovanni, eight of the 162 newly elected parliamentary representatives of Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement, or M5S) are squinting into the spotlights and speaking softly — and what they are saying actually sounds reasonable.

They are talking about empowering Italians and giving people more of a say in political decisions — and they want to know how their tax money is being spent. Grassroots politics is the goal. Their efforts remain somewhat clumsy, but they are sincere.

This group includes a male nurse, an IT specialist and a single mother — all in their 30s or 40s with good educations and no previous political experience. Soon, they will enter the newly constituted parliament, which will be younger, have more women and, on the whole, be best less politically experienced than any other in Italian history. M5S emerged as the strongest single party in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and the second strongest party in the upper house, the Senate. The party garnered nearly one-third of its votes in Sicily. The "Grillini," as the followers of former comedian Beppe Grillo are called, are the true miracle of this otherwise so chaotic election.

They are not clowns, but rather sincere young people who see themselves as a mouthpiece for everyday Italian citizens. These fledgling politicians do not rant and rave like Grillo, the founder of their movement.

In fact, it was just over a week ago that Grillo gave one of his loud and passionate speeches to half a million fans only a few hundred meters from here. He is their whip, their firebrand, "our megaphone," as his people call him — and many of them can hardly stand him anymore. Grillo, who looks like he leapt straight out of a Baroque fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and whose voice has grown hoarse from screaming, only offered the usual populist slogans : "Politicians are parasites — we should send them all home !"

’Let Them Do Their Work !’

Grillo himself did not run for office because it would have violated his own party’s rules. He has had a criminal record ever since he was convicted of manslaughter for causing a car crash in 1980 in which three people died. Now, it’s up to his candidates to take the lead. "Now that they are in parliament," someone wrote in his blog, which is the most widely read in Italy, "let them do their work, take a backseat !"

Grillo is an Italian phenomenon, but his party’s election results are an expression of the mounting rage and anxiety that is spreading throughout crisis-stricken Southern Europe. A new citizens’ movement is taking shape, one that shares a mistrust of the established political system and a desire for more grassroots democracy. Only in Italy has it been democratically legitimized thus far.

These irate citizens are also united in anger against their own elite : politicians who have been tainted by party scandals and corruption, yet still remain in power or leaders who are seen as being the mere lackeys of Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Despite its name, Movimento 5 Stelle has long since ceased to be a movement. It has become a political party that is expected to take responsibility and make proposals for the formation of a government. During the campaign, it relied on a thin, 15-page platform.

The Grillini now have to prove that their country is not merely corrupt, indifferent and infiltrated by the Mafia. Ultimately, they could save Italy’s image around the globe. They are the latest example of an uprising of the lost generation, that mass of people on Europe’s periphery who are under the age of 40, desperate, unemployed and who have very little left to lose. The public outrage in Europe came to a boil in tent camps in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. It inspired the Occupy Wall Street activists. And it continued in Greece, where youth unemployment has reached 59.4 percent, and where there are no jobs and no economic recovery.

In the eyes of many, the power of the politicians only serves their own interests. "We have failed because we have not managed to change this," says Greek documentary filmmaker Aris Chatzistefanou.

A New Political Class

Yet whereas the Greeks have not yet stirred up the old political system, the Grillini have found unexpected success. They were long underestimated in Italy, yet they long ago started having an effect. They have, for example, fundamentally shaken up the old party system, with its irreconcilable right-wing and left-wing factions. A new political class has emerged with them. Since the advent of the Grillini, Italians are debating Europe more than ever before, including their country’s possible exit from the euro zone.

What’s more, an increasing number of women are rising through the ranks of Italy’s political parties. In the recent election, 40 percent of the party-list spots for Italy’s center-left Democratic Party were reserved for women candidates, most of them political novices.

The Five Star Movement has only existed as a party for three and a half years. Ignored by the press and, not surprisingly, completely shunned by Silvio Berlusconi’s TV stations, the movement has relied on its own efforts to fuel its meteoric growth, primarily based on its savvy use of the Internet, and refused to accept government money available to help finance its campaign.

Silvana de Nicolò is one of the Grillini who is introducing herself at the hotel in Rome. She is in her mid-40s and was elected in the Lazio region, whose governor recently had to resign from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party after fellow members allegedly used taxpayers’ money to throw a bawdy Roman toga party. Given such examples, it is perhaps astounding that there are still those with enough idealism to pursue politics in today’s Italy.

SPIEGEL met de Nicolò in a café near parliament. In the wake of the election, the government district was immediately overwhelmed with a hectic energy as politicians struggled to position themselves for the coming change. De Nicolò sips her espresso while she calmly and rather naively explains her political platform. It calls for reducing the number of parliamentarians from today’s roughly 1,000 to half that amount, and slashing their monthly salaries to a maximum of €2,500 ($3,255) in net income. Reimbursement of election campaign costs will simply be abolished, she says, and the money saved by this measure will be used to finance micro-loans for social projects and people who can no longer acquire bank credit.

Nevertheless, she and her fellow party members usually avoid proposing concrete ideas for resolving the crisis. The party is often criticized for its "grilloeconomics," and rightly so. How do they intend to finance their guaranteed minimum monthly income of €1,000 ? Their proposal is to reduce pensions and public-sector salaries — an adventurous proposal.

A Mistrust of Politicians

De Nicolò would rather talk about her voters. As a statistician and an opinion pollster, she is familiar with these 8.7 million Italians, most of whom are under the age of 40. When these people started working, the national debt was 102 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Now, it has climbed to 127 percent. Today, Italians pay nearly 50 percent more taxes than the previous generation, yet their wages are shrinking. And if they ever do get a pension, it will only be roughly half as large as what their parents receive.

Grillo voters, says de Nicolò, are not leftists as Berlusconi likes to claim. They come from both political camps, she argues, and many of them previously voted for Berlusconi’s PdL or the right-wing Lega Nord. They include public-sector employees, and one-quarter of them are unemployed. More than two-thirds of Grillo supporters are dissatisfied with the state of Italy’s democracy. Less than one-quarter of them trust the European Union, and only 2 percent believe the promises of the government in Rome.

Spain’s grassroots young protesters, dubbed Los Indignados (the outraged), have a similar mistrust of politicians — the main difference being that they have remained an extra-parliamentary movement, at least for the time being. They are up in arms about foreclosures and evictions, the power of the banks, and the country’s youth unemployment rate, which is running at 55.5 percent. During the last parliamentary election, the political establishment felt their wrath, in the form of blank election ballots, invalid votes or votes for fringe parties — plus an increasing number of votes for Basque and Catalonian separatists.

What’s more, all of Southern Europe appears haunted by a specter, which played a key role in the Italian election : the austerità. This term is shorthand for the belief that the rigid austerity measures are a diktat from Germany, and that Chancellor Merkel is to blame for the recession in Europe.

Such opinions can also be heard in France : The "German dream" is a "European nightmare" the French newspaper Le Monde wrote in a vehement commentary last week. According to the newspaper, Germany doesn’t give a damn about the euro, is selfish, acts as if it has all the answers and has decreed that Italy and Greece shall be ruled by technocratic governments. After the election defeat of Mario Monti, such governments have no future, the commentary concludes.

The True Loser

The Grillini like to point out that they too intend to cut spending. What that means can be seen in the city of Parma, saddled with €800 million in debts. For the past three-quarters of a year, Parma has been governed by Mayor Federico Pizzarotti, 39, a member of the movement who has been busy trimming the fat from the municipal budget. He rides a bicycle to work and has exchanged two official sedans for an Opel natural gas vehicle. He adheres to the rules of the movement and doesn’t spend more than what he collects in taxes, but he’s still not seen as the Germans’ cost-cutting commissioner.

Chancellor Merkel is the "true loser of our election," says Lucia Annunziata, editor in chief of the Italian edition of the Huffington Post, and one of the country’s most influential journalists. It is Wednesday, and she’s sitting in an editorial meeting and discussing the front-page headline for a piece on the clowns comment made by German Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück — and on Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s response. The headline reads "Napolitano Saves Italy’s Honor." Annunziata says that the Italians have "voted against the German crisis policy."

Indeed, what the Germans somewhat euphemistically refer to as "reform policy" translates throughout Southern Europe as cost-cutting, reducing and foregoing, concepts that have an ugly ring to them. While many German policymakers and economists assume that Italy, Greece and Spain will be able to emerge from the current crisis as strong and competitive nations after a few hard years, it is primarily Anglo-Saxon economic experts who are convinced of the opposite : They see the austerity policies as a vicious circle that is dragging these countries deeper and deeper into recession.

For the time being, however, all of Europe is anxiously waiting to see what type of government will be formed in Rome. The politicians who have consistently ignored Beppe Grillo are now wooing him. Yet many of his young parliamentarians still lack a long-term political outlook and strategy. The future member of parliament Silvana de Nicolò says that after only two years she will be a non-politician again, and someone else will take her place. What’s more, she insists that she is not interested in governing, but only in waving through individual laws that appeal to her. It sounds as if she were giving up before she even started.

’The Right Approach’

In reality, the Grillini protests are not likely to fade away overnight. But will they actually pursue long-term political goals, instead of merely fleeing abroad for work, like so many of their fellow Southern Europeans who see no future for themselves in the region ? Or will they end up throwing stones like many young Greeks ?

The experiment that has just begun in Italy already appears to be over in Athens. During last year’s two parliamentary elections, many voters supported Alexis Tsipras, head of the Coalition of the Radical Left, Syriza. He was the Greek politician who drew large crowds to campaign rallies with speeches about "ending the financial occupation" and "liberating the country from Merkel’s yoke." Syriza has much in common with Grillo’s movement, despite being much further left on the political spectrum. Still, it is just as radical in its criticism of the European austerity drive — and just as popular.

Like Grillo, Tsipras has no effective concepts for combating the crisis. He says he intends to keep the euro, but no longer serve the debts. The EU is the only thing that has prevented Syriza from becoming the strongest political force in Greece. In contrast to the recent election in Italy, the Greeks were literally intimidated. Brussels gave them an ultimatum : Either you elect parties that will continue to pursue the course of austerity, or you will be out of the euro zone. Tsipras narrowly lost to the leader of the conservative New Democracy, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

For many young Greeks, the election in Italy now provides a model. If the population of the third-largest economy in the euro zone so openly opposes the austerity measures, then the exit of individual countries from the euro zone is no longer taboo. "That then," says Aris Chatzistefanou, the Greek documentary maker, "is perhaps exactly the right approach."