Gen. Z EU: Decarbonise, Democratise, Decolonise! #EUI2022

“Is the EU fit for the Next Generation?”. This was the question asked at the 2022 State of the Union conference (read the European Union) organised by the European University Institute (EUI). As the keynote speaker, Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis turned the occasion into a dialogue with EUI students and a conversation between her generation of baby boomers and Generation Z. The keynote was prepared jointly through a series of discussions with EUI researchers, fellows and students in the Spring of 2022.

Boomers, hear the call of Zoomers to “Decarbonise, Democratise, Decolonise!” Zoomers, hold Boomers to account!

Keynote in writing (see below)

Reference: Nicolaidis, Kalypso et al, “Youth-Chameleon EU: Decarbonise! Decarbonise! Decolonise!”, Keynote dialogue, European University Institute, 2022.




Kalypso Nicolaidis and EUI students

(On the occasion of the EUI’s State of the Union conference, May 2022)

Nota: italics spoken by students

Signore et signori, Is Europe fit for the next generation? As you just heardin the run up to our gathering, I have been discussing this year’s impossible question with our protagonist behind the screen and her fellow EUI students from around the world….because, well, they are the next generation!

Of course, I concede it outright to my social science colleagues: our students are not a representative sample of their generation, just a fascinating, and privileged, one!. They can dazzle us w brilliance…or baffle us with bullshit.  But if by next generation, we mean Generation Z born before and after the millennium… too young to be in charge but too old not to care,  wellk this is them.

And what a journey we shared!  We talked about many things but found that it’s tough to make predictions… especially about the future!!  especially when you wake bombarded by Ukraine war news every morning!

Thankfully this conference has come up with brilliant answers….Thank you participantsfor your scan of EU fitness– its muscular actions, flexibleregulations, resilient institution. Boomers, you are probably thinking as we have heard in the last 2 days: This is not a blank page!!for years, we boomers have done our best to make Europe fit for the next generation! When covid hit, we even broke all our fitness taboos to create: the ‘next generation fund’ in their name! 750 billion of it!

But hear their scepticism: Thanks for  the bazooka fund in our name, But if you borrowed it in our name too, can you really say… don’t worry foreign corporations and polluters will pay? And when you  spend it in our name, with green washing and all, shall we not have a say?

To which ladies and gentlemen you might admittedly respond: your turn will come… we were the next generation once, and you are the next ancestors.

 SO where then shall generations meet? I grant you, this is not an easy challenge.  Polling by our partner YouGov confirms what we already know: we are different species 

  • They watch movies on phones, we don’t!
    • They spotify and cryptofy, we don’t!    
    • They diss separate toilets and hum, heteronormativity. Do we?
    • … they say NO to plastic bags and jokes on any minority.
    • …So we call them snowflakes!
    • They say Meat NO! father of the bride NO!
    • …Have we reached gender equality, ethnic blindness  we say… hum kinda…they say NO!
    • Do they remember 89, NO!

But please boomers, zoomers, don’t call the whole thing off!…’ cause we’ve got the translation manual right on time for the French presidency!!

  • For égalité saycommunity
    • For liberté say noncomformity
    • For fraternité say intersectionality

Hey, we speak in the same tongues after all! So, our conversation could start! ….with a simple premise: the EU has always been predicated on learning the right lessons from the past. What if instead we set about learning lessons from the future. Not the way the EU machinery does this through forecasting in foresight units. But lessons from the futures imagined by the next generation.

Warning Ladies and gentlemen! this is not just a mindgame. For where better than in this magnificent Salone dei Cinquecento with its secrets behind walls  can we proclaim: imagination is real!proclaim that it must be the ground on which academics bring politics and policy making. How else, some of us, critical international relations scholars argue, can we prepare for futures where nuclear deterrence fails, climate loops accelerate, the global financial system implodes, and bees cease to beHow else can we sustain our democratic societies, if those who are learning to be citizens do not imagine themselves as authors of their own destiny, in an age where all other authority figures have fallen, gods, kings, nations….profs.  How else can NextGen resist the colonization of their future (by us!) …if in that future the dead have tied the hands of the living!. 

So where did these conversations take us? Like fellow profs in the room, all my life…. I have felt challenged or vindicated in equal measure by my students…on both sides of the Atlantic…from when they were my age to now when they are my children’s age….  (but still part of the rebellious not extractive elite ;-). But in these SOU conversations, I found myself more than ever in the predicament of Rorty’s liberal ironist, agnostic about the adequacy of my liberal vocabulary, but impressed by theirs and their display of the enlightenment quality so lacking in our politics, so needed by the EU: doubt!!  Doubt of the tragic kind (‘you are right …and you are right’, ah glorious ambivalence!). Or doubt as in paradoxes and blank pages. And doubt about their worthinessstop idealising us K!!

AND SO I had to promise that I would argue this in my own name: Z. Forget Russia’s recent highjack. For 2000 years the letter Z that your generation bears happens to have meant to live in Greek. It’s ok if you don’t imagine dying for Europe (even we didn’t!). You can spell our transnational promise instead with the ways you live the future in your daily present, every day of the week, not only on Fridays. So when my generation asks `Europe, fit for you?’ Why not imagine instead  what it would be like for Europe’s transformation to be powered by NextGen’s software? Ask what would Europe be like if it became you, adopted your look-and-feel, shed its old skin and became comfortable in yours? Yes youth-chameleon EU!

A journey in three acts: Hope then freedom and finally peace (VIDEO 2)

I.           HOPE? …..Decarbonise!

OK boomers… lets talk about hope! My conversations with GenZ’ future selves invariably started in a limbo between hope and hopelessness

From a 10 year vista they plead: Save our seas, save our bees, save all non-human beings!!” The future-in-the-present puts them in permanent existential angstEven existential angst about having existential angst. YouGov tell us that Gen Z is twice as frustrated, stressed, lonely, sad, as us…sad as you heard her after reading the IPCC report.  Thankfully they are also more energetic and inspired.. yeah totally whimsical!

So how do we hear their two entangled stories, one more familiar than the other?

`There’s the more familiar “cycle of life” story. Call it being young. We will be worse off than our parents. Job evictions, house evictions, precarity on our horizon. So the EU “youth strategy”  needs more universals  – universal income and services…. paid internships!!! And to eliminate same job – unequal pay at EUI too!!!

And then there is the other parallel. Cohort story … Zs’ unique “slice of life” in the stream of history, where they no longer speak as the children of their parents but as the parents of their children, the children too many of them cannot imagine wanting to bring into this world.  What’s the point, they say since these kids would hurt the planet and the planet would hurt them… and since these kids’ kids would never hear birdsong….. climate and biodiversity collapse our two-faced apocalypse… (Thankfully, they don’t indulge too long in despair – there are techno festivals to go to ….damn it!)

Seriously! truth is… … you Zs are not the weak ones!  You despair at institutions that can’t prevent self-destruction … and still you step up!  You hang on to the hope that if enough of you do the right thing, when you eat and heat, when you move and cool,this will all amount to something.

Because we know that “become NOW what you want the world to be” is not just a stupid motto.  Because we know that hope is about carrying on fighting when you have given up on naive optimism…

I don’t think my generation is truly capable of thinking, living like you do the tenuous but deep connection between your daily lives and the ripples they create across space and time, between the butterfly and the planet… Even as WE speak “knowingly” of the green premium or carbon neutral life-styles …and call YOU the narcissistic generation!

So lets bring on chameleon EU….and find proxies for BEING you: We shall make the EU’s new mantra: It is urgent to act long term!  Sure…. the EU machinery is rightly proud to have learned emergency mode in last decade’s multi-crisis. 4 years to agree (or agree to disagree) on debt, 4 months on refugees, 4 weeks on Covid, and! 4 days on Ukraine! Waouh! And yet, we failed to imagine other futures in each of these recent pasts, when at every juncture, with EU imprimatur, we could have future-proofed loud and clear  for 2, 10, 50 year horizons!!

‘ Cause lets face it… the EU can’t be a classic democracy where you can throw the rascals out – but it can be a democracy with foresight…it can pivot from the politics of space to the politics of time…… and commit to “sustainable integration”…. …where we re-join the paths not taken to these foregone futures that would have transformed yours:to finally:

  1. transform how we consume and not just where we produce,
    1. how we redistribute work, value and risk
    2. and reward the burden of sacrifice

SO …will chameleon EU:

mainstream ecosocialism by nudging and banning to help our societies and cities act more like you?!

Will it finally empower those not only in Europe but in the rest world ….those least responsible in the past, poorest in the present, most vulnerable in the future? Care about social and global justice in other words…

And with Ukraine, will it resist the temptation to re-source its lethal addictionsslow down coal elimination, give up mitigation for adaptation?!

Will it help build a cosmo-centric not an anthropocentric world?

Will  you, chameleon EU:

  • Heed the young who recycle everything
    • Even their anger
    • (Whether they’ll have these kids or not)..
  • Heed “Scientists Rebellion”
    • Who have joined them in despair
    • at their climate trackers
    • To call for a revolution.
  • EU YOU SAY: We can wait no longer
    • To institutionalise their anger????
    • Prove it! de-carbonise!  -> VIDEO 3

II.         FREEDOM?  …democratise!

OK boomers, lets talk about freedom! About what it would take to dispel Gen Z’s hopelessnes blues. See how in their EU-topia, freedom is more than having a voice, but the capacity to act… act in spaces for radical democracy!  EU…if you managed to beat Elon Musk’s mojo by twenty thirty …. Goodbye today’s youth absention…. hello political emancipation… Here are our 5 imagined makeover headlines for chameleon EU:

2030 HEADLINE ONE – Chameleon EU  defies binaries!

Forget for or against us, EU- vs national-pride …be both! And everything in between. Since for most zoomers anyway, Brussels and the member states are means to the two ends that matter most: the local and the global.

In this non-binary world, a fit Europe has its head in the cloud – hopefully a public cloud– and its feet on the ground.  We do want more EU in health, climate, security, but as what we do goes UP to the EU…  the EU does it goes DOWN, all the way down! Including to young Eurosceptics!

In this non-binary world, membership is not black or white….  when Bosnia, Albania and Ukraine come knocking at our door. Down with one size fits all, one or none!!!!For we learned w covid how Europe is made of many  circles of autonomy ….ever bigger ones powered by ever smaller ones, connected in multiple ways, with changing boundaries and horizontal links networks of cities, neighbourhoods and cloud communities…

2030 HEADLINE TWO –Chameleon EU requires enthusiastic consent.

Consent — the magic word! After future checks, Europe twenty thirty ticks the ‘consent check’ in zillions of exciting ways!   The next generation wants to consent with passion not resignation.

Not for nothing did 20-30 Sarah remember how two hundred randomly chosen citizens descended upon us in Florence as part of the world’s largest ever experiment in participatory democracy, and decided there and then that their experience should be institutionalised.

I remember too how the GenZs among them –  a third of the assembly- understood better than the politicians the old Athenian (and Machiavellian!) democratic intuition that if individually they could be anyone, collectively they represented everyone, and how they reinvent the meaning of “re-present” as to be-present again, in a space where the ruled can become the ruling…..democratic mindfulness if you will!

2030 HEADLINE THREE-Chameleon EU champions the power of watching without being watched.

It empowers the young! If in their hands, smart phones could wage a smart resistance in Ukraine, they are now mobilised to wage a smart war on corruption and nepotism in EU-kraine too!

It embraces the power of collective intelligence through an EU democratic panopticon, where distributed funds and privileges are  exposed for all to see.

It has set up a mega-platform for citizen to tell their rule of law stories – is it not after all the most precious human invention of all time?.

And it does not hold its punches to empower the footsoldiers of democracy, journalists, activists, civil society organisations.

2030 HEADLINE FOUR-Chameleon EU embraces the invisibility paradox!  

The invisibility paradox?! You know how GenZ wants both hyper visibility (pride, recognition!) and hyper invisibility (ignore my difference!)

So let  Chameleon Europe show off visibly what it does best, and still become so transparent, so confident, so indispensable that it ends up being invisible! (Just  like any good parent, right?!)

So if NextGen’s coal and steel is ‘data and trust’ (whatever disruptive technologies they try to imagine!!).Let us rejoice that Brussels’ new rules for platforms seek to entrust us as subjects again, give us digital humanism and digital sovereignty against state or corporate control. mWill they protect us against techno-authoritarianism, techno-solutionism, algorithmic-determinism? We’ll see!

But here is the promise: In 20-30 Europe’s invisible digital public space could have become a space for all where the Union nurtures trust for the Next Generation… we won’t have the GAFAs but we’ll guard the data!

Final 2030 HEADLINE– EU bursts out of its iron cage, as trans-temporal, trans-national, trans-local, trans-boundary, trans-scale, trans-lational democracy.  

Fact is, this third democratic transformation has been underway for a while —after the city states of antiquity, and the era of national parliaments, because the youth are the third democratic transformation…

Their participatory imagination starts with little victories of autonomy which connect and spread, with retooling democracy for their own purposes, with appropriating the online sphere to derive offline principles of privacy and respect, with offering local public goods through local activism, care or energy communities.  In short, they are experimenting with futures the EU could embrace.

Officialdom… it’s not easy to let go of some of that power. To let citizens take back control inside the EU. But Zs are doing it anyway.  So the EU can sit back and watch their democratic effervescence .OR it can be part of the action and make citizen power europe its new geopolitical sex-appeal!

YES?! Prove it! Democratise!

Video 4

IV.PEACE? …decolonise!

OK boomers, our time is not up yet! lets talk about Peace! .our student conversations always came back to peace in the end…

EU is on the ball right?! Macron is back and Brussels’ got a bran new “Strategic Compass”  But what if, we discussed, the EU had drank the cool aid and offered NextGen the job? : EU captain “steer the EU through these unchartered post-Ukraine war waters towards a peace worth fighting for”. Apparently, they would be reluctant to take the offer. What’s the point when you don’t trust institutions?  And lets face it, they are not consumed by Europe as we were, not inclined to swap nationalism of the old kind for Euronationalism.

….But well a job is job ….so they would cross-examine their recruiter…(air quotes) ”fight for peace”?

Why, they would ask, before the Ukraine war, did you keep repeating that Europe as a peace project is a thing of the past, that it needs a new raison d’etre because the young take peace in Europe for granted?!  …Haven’t we grown up seeing kids our age blown up to pieces from Bagdad to the Bataclan!? Aren’t you handing out to us a world of AI enabled weapons and outerspace wars?

Peace for whom anyway?!… peace for our extended neighbourhood to whom we have subcontracted the management of our borders and often exported instability? Is Europe’s not a “peace” borrowed from the rest of the world?  Our precious free movement predicated on ever higher fences against it …tainted cheap gas and clothes and a quarter of world arms exports?

And what if our refugee in chief Europa, you know foreign princess raped by Zeus – had been on one of those dinghies pushed-back off the coast of Crete in the darkest recesses of European law? The very first target of double standards?  What would our continent call itself?!!!

Hum. These questions might put the pragmatic recruiter on edge….

….NextGen just don’t get Judith Shklar’s liberal hypocrisy, the necessary distance between aspiration and reality…And they have no experience of multilateralism, our EU big thing!

Not true! hear me recruiter…. Haven’t you watched their screens!!!

Social multilateralism is in their DNA…See how they can take part in 3 4 5 threads at once with different protagonists on different registers! they are experts in the politics of recognition …as their software instructs a sort of casual tolerance (OK at their best!) …..not even about putting themselves in the shoes of others a la Ricoeur, just about creating the common ground where everyone feels comfortable in their own shoes.  (you know the difference between an introvert and a finn.. when you discuss, the introvert looks at his shoes, the Finn looks at yours!)

SO Gen Z’s ingredients for the illusive peace recipe includes nurturing relational boundaries (we call this the relational approach to IR.

They think one planet, one fate, yeah. But they don’t worship borderlessness. In fact their familiarity w boundaries is more intimate than ours as they manage theirs with extreme care, boundaries that must be affirmed or discarded on reciprocal terms.

So see, recruiter, with them on board a  “geopolitically awakened Europe” would be much more than merely awake, it would run the peace marathon on steroids!

The transformation of “world order”?!—yes but of the feminist kind, where fitness measures do not conform to Olympic league tables – my medal/gdp/missile is bigger than yours! XXX rules based

 “Strategic autonomy”? yes but where autonomies are combined to ward off a sadly fragmented, splintered world!

“Market power Europe”? yes but where we apply our internal experience with legal empathy and other-regarding habits to pir relationship with the rest of the world, strategic empathy in action … that minimises unilateral moves and  amplifies cooperative designs and investments. XXX and uses its power for the global uplift of humanity

Recruiter, are you seduced, ready to shake hands?….but they have one last ASK, and it’s not the kind you can negotiate over coffee….

Are you boomers on board with decolonise 2.0?!  IF SO:

Please don’t say… been there done that … don’t say the EU is not its member states, those that colonised in the distant past.

Don’t say we’ve atoned plenty since then…. Channelled post imperial largess and normative power their way.

Decolonise means so much more, especially NOW when the rest of the world feels the shockwaves emanating from the Eurocentric peace bubble and its ethnocentric solidarity. Heed our friends’ acute antennas for Europe’s hypocrisy and the West’s own immunity.

Decolonise means revisiting how we remember the EU’s “virgin birth” mythology as if they did not first try to unite Europe to manage the colonies together….

It means stepping out for good from the long shadow of ‘civilizing mission’, model talk, moralistic hubris, unilateral universalism…

Drop the “being humble” (air quotes) for being courageous enough to face the world without our club card.

It means to decolonise inside too! Give voice to the kids of immigrants,, de-index west to whiteness…yes talk about race!!!

It means ‘reversing the gaze by learning from how others, including indigenous people, do democracy, mediation, sustainability…

It means acknowledging that modernity is a global co-creation, all the connected local struggles of the youth around the world … victimised by the greed of strong men that Europe indulges.

It means disentangling the western transatlantic bond from the precious universal invocation of liberté, libertad, Huriya, Dziyoo.

And it means hearing the rest of the world’s  Come and join us! Embrace your decolonial moment?! You won’t know what you will misse if you don’t.

In sum,  decolonise means making Europe a true post-colonial power… retooling transnational governance to serve the global south, nurturing tech for Peace and a cosmopolitics of life embracing the kind of planetary politics called for by 2 billion young people around the world….

So ladies and gentlemen, if the youth were to become our faces to the world.their geopolitics of recognition would also be about food, music and art galore, they would erase the pain of not being seen by Europeans, and they would know when to say nothing, just be there and listen.

Video 5


  • STUDENTS  start walking towards the stage saying:
    •  The things you ignore (Voice 1)
    • Will knock at your door (Voice 1 and 2)
    • Do you hear the youth? (all)
    •  Listen to our realities (Voice 1 2 3)
    •  Even absurdities (Kalypso)
    • All Voices (w and without microphone)
      • Whatever it takes!
      • whatever it takes to decarbonise!
      • whatever it takes to democratise!
      • Whatever it takes to decolonise!

YES It will take daring new “whatever it takes!” for Europe to be fit for the next generation…. And it will take youth chameleon EU to do it!

Because the young CARRY decarbonise in their flesh, democratise at their fingertips and decolonise in their mind….  

Because they, pragmatic idealists,  know that the earth not the sky is our limit!

Because they are already fluent in the new language Europe is inventing as we speak, a language that conjures up a progressive spiral of history … the language of circles: circular economy, circular migration, circular democracy, agora circles, circles of autonomy and solidarity tattooed in a covid generation.

And because like the EU they need both tough love and tender loving care.

And so ladies and gentlemen, join me in expressing a sentiment that I believe we all share, a sentiment that overwhelms me today more than ever: gratitude, our gratitude to you, the next generation.

Thank you for bearing with us, as we err and suffocate your air.

Thank you for reclaiming with passion a future we colonise by our actions, and inactions, our decisions and indecisions.

Thank you, fit or unfit you…. with or without kids…for inspiring us to pledge our commitment to a world that will become you, weird, fantastic, exhilarating you! Thank you.

THE END – Video 6