Stressing out

  • November 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

Stressing out

Young people, modern work, and mental health


Source: Pixabay


It is the international stress awareness week, which may come as a particular surprise to those of us sufficiently aware of our internal pressure cooker also the other 51 weeks of each year. To mark the occasion, I decided to share a few thoughts on young Europeans, mental health, and work.


First things first, according to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is a response to unmanageable pressures from situations which make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. Although useful in short bursts, a prolonged stress response inhibits the body from returning to its normal state and harms both our physical and mental well-being. Long-term stress negatively impacts our attention span, memory, and ability to manage emotions, as well as the structure of the brain physically by affecting both nerve cells and their connections. These changes can increase the risk of developing a mental illness or worsen existing conditions, which can quickly lead to difficulties with completing daily activities, managing interpersonal relationships and maintaining work efficiency.


Stress is also subjective and differs from person to person depending on genetics and external variables such as economic and social circumstances. And in an environment of unforgiving assessments and performance testing it can certainly be difficult to be kind to one’s own mistakes. On the response of young people in particular, psychologists Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt have suggested that the constant presence of stress-inducing pressures have increased the tendency towards perfectionism. In brief, perfectionism means an irrational desire for flawlessness mixed with punitive self-criticism and an obsessive need to correct one’s own imperfections. It is associated with severe mental health problems, such as anorexia nervosa, depression, and suicide ideation, in the long-term. Furthermore, professors Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill provide support for the claim in their 2017 study showing that the levels of perfectionism among young people have indeed risen significantly since 1989. The ideal of the perfect self is one of the many unhealthy responses we have developed to the pressures of life both online and offline.


One of the most significant factors affecting both our economic and social circumstances is work (or the lack of it). In fact, when it comes to work-related health problems, stress is the second most frequently reported issue in Europe. And we have no relief valve in sight: the ongoing transformation of work through automation and a trend towards gig economy (a labour market built on temporary and flexible jobs, where companies prefer to hire independent contractors and freelancers) competition have increased job uncertainty, income insecurity, and decreased the feeling of control people have over their own work. These have all been associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease in the workforce.


Competing harder for worse real term pay-offs than the generation before in many parts of Europe, young people are frontline cannon fodder in the changing job market. First, at around 15%, youth unemployment in Europe is at the moment more than double the overall unemployment rate and shows no sign of being significantly reduced anytime soon without active and coordinated European policy response. Second, as job automation is set to eliminate many entry-level routine roles in the near future, a growing number of young people will find it difficult to enter the labour market and build a career. And although the risk of automation is mitigated in the general population by educational attainment, this is not the case with young people, as many highly-skilled graduates still begin their careers in positions that do not require complex cognitive or social skills. Third, under 30-year-olds are the largest age cohort within gig economy workers, experiencing high levels of wage fluctuation and job insecurity with limited protections Adding to the mix are unpaid internships, effectively devaluing the contributions of young people at work. Even though there are benefits to the flexibility of these jobs, young people in short-term contracts and freelancing often struggle to acquire the necessary skills and experience to build a career on, while the insecurity associated with these roles is a risk to their mental well-being. Yet gaining good quality employment at the start of our careers is important both for our long-term economic prosperity and for the protection of our mental health.


So not only is the next generation’s structural inability to build a career and generate wealth economically unsustainable in the long run, but the situation is also damaging to our health. To alleviate the situation, the EU needs to provide leadership and find policy solutions to support young people struggling to establish themselves in the job market and land good quality employment. Youth unemployment in Europe needs to be elevated to more than just a talking point. The Commission’s current proposal of €4.3 billion in the 2021-27 Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) spent on tackling youth unemployment is a far cry from the €45 billion annual investment that the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates is needed for the purpose. More funding must be on offer to support training opportunities and schemes that incentivise hiring young people both on the public and private sectors. Equally, the EU needs to provide a platform for the Member States to come up with innovative education solutions ensuring that young people enter the workforce with the appropriate digital skills as well as the creativity and social skills needed to adapt to the rapidly changing world of work.


Importantly, the EU must work to ensure that the Member States provide sufficient support to young Europeans struggling with the intense pressures of modern work. There is an urgent need for better to funding to make sure that professional help is available for young people at universities and on the local level across European regions. Without this investment in prevention and mitigation the situation will end up costing the European society significantly more in the years to come. ‘Workers have the right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work’, says the European Pillar of Social Rights – and this key principle should apply also to mental health at work.

No last goodbye

  • October 2018
  • Ágnes Szűcs

No last goodbye

Conspiracy theory meets Merkel


Source of the photo: Politico


No one was truly surprised when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she wouldn’t run again for the chairmanship of her party. Speculations about her possible exit started right after the disastrous federal election results were declared last September. Columnists and opinion leaders have also discussed profoundly whether Europe can survive without her or not, as well as whether she will manage to secure a dignified leave or not.


But these topics are slightly too mainstream. I want to address a much more entertaining issue, strongly grounded in the field of conspiracy theories: what if Merkel upgrades to European politics?


The first hints revealing her secret plan came to light after she openly endorsed Manfred Weber as a Spitzenkandidat for the European People’s party in early September. Well-informed or pretending-to-be-well-informed sources from the Bundestag and their similarly well-informed acquaintances in Brussels explained that in fact the great strategist Chancellor hadn’t endorsed him officially; she had just called some people on the phone who later said she had indeed approved the head of the EPP group. Merkel only meant to please Bavarian voters ahead of state elections without any real intention to actually nominate a politician without significant experience in domestic politics to be the leader of the European Commission.


She has an obviously better candidate for that position in mind. Herself. Or at least, this is what is being said.


If you are wondering what she will do next week at the EPP conference meant to choose between Weber and his challenger Alexander Stubb, then first read my colleague brilliant piece on this issue and listen to a bunch of possibly-well-informed but certainly-creative-minded theorists. Merkel will of course vote Weber. He will quite probably lead the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat campaign. Or, if by any chance, Stubb comes first, then he’ll be the top candidate. For Merkel’s plan, it really doesn’t matter.


Because one shouldn’t forget about another important player in European politics whose friendship is so very crucial for Merkel. Yes, you guessed right, it is the French President Emmanuel Macron, who happens to be against the entire Spitzenkandidat procedure. Despite all the whispers about her immediate leave, Merkel will stick to the chancellorship until next April. But after the elections, she and Macron will realise their gorgeous vision about reforming Europe. She will admit that she needed to find a common ground with her French counterpart about not bending over backwards to the European Parliament’s will on the lead candidate. But in order to ensure smooth implementation of their grand plans, she will make another sacrifice. She will be the next president of the European Commission… and maybe the European Council as well, realising the long-awaited merger of the top positions.


But perhaps it is time to stop the flow of conspiracy now. Merkel might just return gardening and cooking marmalade once she is able to finally get rid of the burdens of so many years of governing. Who knows.


In the name of European values

  • October 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

In the name of European values

EPP’s Spitzenkandidat vote on 8 November

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a week’s time, on 8 November, delegates from the European Parliament’s centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will choose their lead candidate for the Commission presidency during the group’s party congress in Helsinki – a vote that is likely to decide the whole Parliament’s nominee for the most influential position in the EU for the next five years.

And the contenders could hardly be more different. “He brings almost nothing to mind“, said an unnamed German journalist when asked to describe the centre-right EPP group’s frontrunner Manfred Weber for a profile published by the Finnish Helsingin Sanomat  newspaper last week. The EPP group leader and a former member of the Bavarian Landstag, whose website emphasises his Christian values as a basis for political action, has aligned himself with the group’s law-and-order wing supported by the likes of the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Italian Bunga Bunga party organiser Silvio Berlusconi. This platform, like his public profile (described as “grey in a good way”), stands in stark contrast to his Spitzenkandidat opponent, the liberal cosmopolite Alexander Stubb.

Mr Stubb, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the former Prime Minister of Finland, has so far been the more principled voice in his unequivocal support for the EU’s core values during a campaign tour of the continent, saying he has “zero-tolerance” for the illiberal agenda and calling for Fidesz to be expelled from the EPP if the party fails to commit to the EU’s core values and principles. Representing the group’s left-flank, the “Nordic pragmatist” would also be better positioned for pro-integration “grand coalition” support consisting of centre-left socialists, liberal centrists (much depends on Macron’s plans), and perhaps even the greens alongside the centre-right.

Nonetheless, Stubb is fighting an uphill battle. In addition to competing against a candidate who has already secured the support of all of the member state leaders belonging to the EPP (eight) and the EP President Antonio Tajani, the campaign process has effectively been turned into one of backroom politics due to Team Weber’s refusals to take part in debates between the two candidates. This has successfully eliminated an element of Stubb’s campaign, which relies heavily on his charisma and willingness to stand in the spotlight to gain visibility and rally support. In this light it comes as no surprise that Stubb, who has so far managed to formally secure support only from the Nordic and Baltic centre-right leaders, has repeatedly (but in vain) tried to press for the pair to engage in as many public debates as possible over the past month. Banking on home ground advantage in next week’s secret ballot, Stubb nevertheless hopes his open campaign will be enough to steal a majority of the 758 voting delegates, despite Weber’s status as the EPP establishment’s favourite.

Beyond the EPP’s political direction, the vote has the potential to shift the political compass also within the wider EU machinery. For his winning coalition, Weber’s platform aligns him for a possible conservative-nationalist alliance to select him as the Parliament’s candidate for the Commission presidency. Despite the strategy’s usefulness in short-term politicking, however, his ambivalence about Hungary – voting to initiate disciplinary process under Article 7 but supporting Fidesz’s EPP membership – and conciliatory attitude towards political figures such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini risk encouraging European politics further down a trajectory where illiberalism and extreme right nationalists are further legitimised at the centre-right’s expense. It is a well-calculated election tactic considering that the EP’s traditional balance of power is expected to weaken in the face of increased fragmentation after the European elections and because the other pro-integration centrist groups (S&D and ALDE) are increasingly unenthusiastic about the process which essentially grants the EPP the ability to dictate the Parliament’s lead candidate, but begs the question how valuable are the values set out in Article 2 TEU when put against securing positions of political power.

And with European democracy in desperate need of open and clear political debate, the next Commission will have to be actively in charge of the EU’s defence of its liberal core values. Ending rule of law backsliding within the Union is of particular importance, which cannot be done without stronger enforcement of common principles as set out by the treaties. In this light, assuming that the informal and unstable Spitzenkandidat system disliked by many national governments holds beyond May, the EPP must now decide whether the nomination of the next leader of the “Guardian of the Treaties” should rely on those who regularly test its limits.

Shout the truth louder

  • October 2018
  • Ágnes Szűcs

Shout the truth louder

A week of weird comparisons


Source of the photo: Yahoo Finance

“You don’t like the truth, do you?” asked MEP Syed Kamall, leader of the ECR group in the European Parliament, after associating Nazism with modern social democrats. In fact, he was referring to social policy when he addressed the leader of the S&D, Udo Bullmann, the following way: “It’s a left-wing ideology, they wanted the same things as you, let’s be clear.” But it left a very bad taste in the mouth.


Well, I don’t think that most of us have any doubts which MEP is the one who doesn’t like the truth. No matter how ironic Kamall’s remark about the truth is, I just don’t want to make the mistake most of anti-populist actors make: entering into long explanations why the distorted reality of these politicians is wrong. I don’t even want to be as harsh as some EP members, who immediately shouted “rubbish”. There isn’t any need to over-interpret Kamall’s speech.


Still, it is worth to address the root causes. Right after this incident, I asked myself what he must have had in mind when he opened his mouth? At first place, I would have replied that Kamall wanted to please his voters, bruise his political enemies and come up with a catchy line, as many politicians do during heated debates. But his reactions convinced me that he really meant what he said.


Kamall stated how much he was annoyed by the people misunderstanding Nazism as a right-wing ideology. Then, feeling the outrage from the plenary and beyond, he half-heartedly apologized on Twitter, saying that he didn’t mean to be personally offending and he respects those who fought against Nazis, Communists and other extremists. The expression of “nothing personal” is certainly the cherry on the top of the cake. But he still gives the impression that he truly believes the S&D wants the same things as the Nazis. Regarding social policy, of course. But he only mentioned this in the beginning. The overall message is a weird comparison. And this is what makes him and his entire type extremely dangerous.


He and a great bunch of his comrades in the Tory party indeed believed that Great Britain’s EU membership was harmful for the country and they needed to regain power, which they echoed over and over again.  The voice of experts, who lengthily explained the idea of regaining national sovereignty was nonsense, projected that the UK would have to continue obeying the same rules of the EU and paying nearly the same membership fee without having a say after Brexit, couldn’t be heard because of those oversimplified messages. And what will quite possibly happen in March 2019? Exactly what the experts said.


Something very similar is taking place in Hungary as well. This week, the country celebrated the anniversary of the 1956 revolution against the Soviet rule, which gave a wonderful opportunity for leading figures of the governing party Fidesz to voice their similarly stubborn and dangerous comparisons. “Hungarian sovereignty was threatened by Russian boots back then and Brussels-style stilted speech and elegant suits by now”, stated Ministerial Commissionaire István Grezsa. MP Lajos Kósa compared the Hungarian government to the heroes of 1956. “They needed to face Soviet tanks, while we need to face reports from the European Parliament.”


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