One of the places in Europe that really breathes history is Berlin: a city of many paradoxes. It has been the mighty capital of Prussia and imperial Germany; it was burned to the ground in the Second World War and was the symbol of the Cold War, with the Berlin Wall as physical divide between East and West. Nowadays, Berlin is a multi-cultural, innovative and artistic city with many visible extremes: wealthy businessmen and countless homeless people gathering empty bottles; trendy entrepreneurs and drug addicts; artists and street workers. In Berlin, we discussed innovative ideas with NGOs and the problems of youth unemployment in Europe. These discussions provided some great insights into the troubles of the contemporary economy: creating great opportunities and at the same time great difficulties for young people.
Berlin of the future: entrepreneurship and the new democracy
During our stay in Berlin, we visited four different NGOs: Citizens of Europe, Democracy International, Europe and Me and Liquid Democracy. All these organizations perfectly reflect the innovative, creative and entrepreneurial character of Berlin. They envision a Europe in which citizens participate actively in shaping its future; a democratic Europe in which the people decide what the institutions should be about; a Europe with pan-European media that foster the public debate; and a Europe in which decisions are made according to dynamic democratic procedures.
Our visit to Democracy International perfectly reflects the character of the engaged, entrepreneurial innovation that is happening right now in Berlin. We visited them in their office, which is actually a shared working environment in a renovated historical building. The atmosphere in the building is amazing and everybody working there has a mission: from creating a new beer brewing experience or developing the web design of the future to building the new European democracy. Just as most of the other organizations in the building, Democracy International brings together a (political) visionary idea, IT innovations and an entrepreneurial attitude; going beyond the past division between rigid political organizations and corporate businesses. The typical young entrepreneur in Berlin is politically engaged, is on a mission to change the world and knows how to use innovative technologies.
One of the aims of Democracy International is to have a European convention that is not shaped by means of intergovernmental procedures (as is the case today) but by means of real democratic involvement: a convention of the people, for the people, by the people. Their campaign consists of online presence (you can sign a petition on their website) and an online mapping of all EP candidates according to their support for a democratic convention. They hope that by involving as many people and politicians as possible, a democratic convention could be possible and the next European treaties could be decided upon by a European wide referendum instead of political deals behind closed doors.
Berlin’s dark side: unemployment and diminishing workers’ rights
Although Berlin on the one hand seems to be a source of entrepreneurship and innovation, it is at the same time a city with a high level of unemployment and poverty. How to understand this paradox? Together with AEGEE-Berlin, we had a session in the Humbold University about youth employment. We discussed the sources of unemployment and the growing problems that migrant workers face today in Europe.
Almost everybody; including politicians, scholars, students and activists, seems to agree that unemployment is a problem (we need more jobs!) but disagrees on the solutions to the problem. What is important is to try to understand the sources of the unemployment. We discussed two significant trends. The first one concerns the economical globalization, the concentration of capital and the rise of inequality. The thesis is that global capital has increasingly been concentrated during the last three decades into the hands of a smaller group of people. The wealthy few have acquired an increasingly large portion of the total amount of capital. This has created a declining significance of labour with respect to the ownership of capital and a consequent rise of inequality, poverty and unemployment.
The second trend we discussed concerns the rise of technology, the increasing substitution of labour by mechanized and digitalized processes. Some studies explore the idea that the probability exists that a large portion of jobs (up to 47%) is likely to be substituted by mechanized processes. A nice illustration of this point is the increasing significance of high-tech companies with a small amount of employees. While the big industries of the past employed thousands of people, current high-tech companies that dominate the economy only employ a fraction of that amount. For this reason, the question arises: will technological development eventually make us unemployed?
The discussion showed that there was no common agreement on these points. Some argued that the world market is not yet as globalized as depicted and that poverty and unemployment are actually the result of trade barriers and protective trade policies. Moreover, it was argued that the rise of technology would not affect the job market, while the first technological revolutions (like the industrial revolution) actually provided for more jobs instead of less.
Finally, we discussed a very troubling issue concerning the rights of unemployed migrants in Germany. We were confronted with a draft of a law that has been made by the German government, stating that Germany can expel citizens from other EU countries if they are unemployed. The participants were very shocked to hear about these plans. Although a lot of them agreed that it made no sense to have differences in rights for social benefits between citizens of the country and migrant workers, the idea of making people move back to their country triggered an emotional opposition. If we would allow these kinds of laws in Europe, then we would defy one of the principles of the EU itself: that European citizens are allowed to move and work freely within the union. Perhaps it is the time that organizations like AEGEE take an active stance in this matter, that we clearly show that these kinds of laws should not be part of our European community.
Bearing these lessons in mind, we left Berlin and took the train to Prague. In Prague, we will discuss the topic of Europtimism. Very interesting in this respect will be to see why the Czech people are one of the most Eurosceptic people in Europe.