Would it ever occur to young Poles or Finns to go partying wearing a Jacques Delors T-shirt? Assuming, of course, that anyone in Europe would be willing to manufacture one…

Granted, the EU is not very sexy. People like European Commission President José Manuel Barroso will never beat Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela in terms of the emotional response they elicit from the public. The EU has no face, no charisma, no army, nor even a genuine common foreign policy. And yet it remains one of the grandest and boldest political projects in the world. And, until now at least, a great success story.

Americans have their “American dream” and when holding a George Washington banknote, they feel part of that dream whatever their political sympathies, social status or birthplace. A German or Frenchman holding a five-euro coin feels nothing, also because the “European dream” was invented by the EU’s founding fathers as an elitist political project.

The European dream never became Europeans’ dream. And yet our achievements – universal healthcare, the welfare state, a socially responsible market economy and a mad (for non-Western cultures) love of freedom – should make us proud. All this binds us in Europe more closely than language, tradition, history, living standards or the work ethos divide us. The EU has its flag and anthem, but it has no European public opinion or government, nor even a genuine European newspaper.

Acute lack of interest in Europe

And it will probably never have, because the Germans, like the Poles or Spaniards, will never cease to be Germans, Spaniards or Poles, concerned primarily with the issues of Germany, Spain or Poland. So it is no time for a United States of Europe. The “federation of nation states” that Mr Barroso mentions is already largely a fact, but let us get reconciled to the thought that there is no chance in Europe for a real federation. Instead, let us try to give the EU back to its citizens – let’s turn the European Union into a union of Europeans.

The meaning of being together has to be rediscovered. Long-known arguments that the EU ensures peace and prosperity in Europe, true in themselves, are no longer enough. Another treaty and another institutional reform will not save the Union. Integration must not be a goal unto itself. It has to serve people. Europeans today need social security, work and a contract on how solidarity is to look like – for instance in the EU budget. This is what the debate on the future Union should focus on.

That is why slogans like “more Europe”, repeated ad nauseam by European politicians, have to translate into real things: more work (unemployment among young EU citizens is dramatically high), more equal opportunities, more control over banks and financial institutions or, in the end, over governments, whose irresponsible policies have contributed to the debt crisis.

Thus appeals for “more Europe” must not obscure the question whether the present crisis really has to bury the European welfare state model forever. “We’ve already seen the best of it”, its opponents are saying with malicious satisfaction, but we still do not know what will replace it. Or, rather, what we want to create in Europe instead. What instead of a system that for several decades provided prosperity and social peace to the European West that Poles so longed for?

Answers to such questions must not be hammered out exclusively in behind-closed-doors bargaining or, worse, arise as a random function of the eurocrats and leaders’ wrangling at one “euro-saving summit” after another. The fact that there is no debate on the future union of Europeans is not only the politicians’ fault but is due also, in some countries, to an acute lack of interest in Europe.

The best place in the world

There are countries in Europe, like Germany, where the constitutional court can stand up firmly for democratic debate about Europe. But in countries where European issues seem less urgent, for instance because, like Poland, those countries do not contribute billions to saving the euro, there is a growing risk that the deficit of debate will make the EU seem increasingly distant and strange.

Political, fiscal, banking union… Translating these slogans into everyday language and showing citizens how such reforms will affect the job market, opportunities for young people or the way taxpayers’ money is spent requires a lot of hard work. But doing it is the politicians’ duty.

It is European citizens who have to endorse the reforms and assume the risk of potential failures. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has just asked the twenty seven member state governments specific questions about the recommended course of the EU’s institutional reforms.

The greatest threat the EU faces is not the debt crisis or anti-European populism, as evidenced by the recent Dutch elections where pragmatism prevailed over Geert Wilders’s anti-EU rhetoric. The EU will cease making sense when people stop believing in it. Each one of us should ask themselves fundamental questions – what the EU means for me and why I want it to survive.

We are a community of half a billion people living in what well may be the best place in the world. Perhaps the 2014 European Parliament elections are a good time for asking Europeans whether they want to continue together or prefer going their own ways. We think we should not worry about the outcome of such a referendum.