In the past few days, De Standaard, Le Soir and Le Nouvel Observateur succeeded in bringing together an imposing collection of European faces and philosophers.
Even more impressively, they managed to organise a debate in which seriously different opinions were expressed. For that, the organisers and participants deserve a word of praise. However, there was only one explicitly Eurosceptic speaker present, which is the reason why each debate that I followed left me with mixed feelings.
One may be forgiven for believing that our leaders in Europe and their entourage are terrified of Euroscepticism and that they consistently fail to reach out to citizens, never mind involve them. Every political system can be positioned on a continuum between efficiency and legitimacy. In the EU, the balance has clearly tipped to an enthusiastic drive aimed at finding efficient solutions for challenges faced by the community as a whole. At the same time, the EU proudly proclaims itself the defender of democratic values, also beyond its borders. And therein lies the rub, as citizen participation and the resulting legitimacy of the political system is vital to a democracy.
Indoctrination communication strategy
Make no mistake, the institutions are concerned about how they are perceived by citizens. But my toes curl when I hear Herman Van Rompuy say that it is not easy to communicate with citizens because they will settle for no less than a united positive message.
[[It appears that EU politicians not only want people to think about the EU, they also want to decide what they think]]. That is totalitarianism with indoctrination as a communication strategy. What the quote also illustrates is that Eurosceptics are all too often regarded as a threat rather than a challenge. Why does the EU not allow a debate in which the various options are presented? Why can the EU not discuss the debate – with supporters and opponents – that is underway? Besides diversity, we also need a more accessible debate.
Mindset of the EU in-crowd
That this requires a significant change in the mindset of the EU in-crowd became all too clear during the opening debate. I was left open-mouthed when the audience, practically as one, laughed at a woman who erroneously called Van Rompuy the chairman of the European Commission, instead of the Council. If someone who takes the effort to attend a EU debating programme makes such a mistake, then I would at least hope that the participants would understand that presenting candidates for the chairmanship of the Committee will not solve anything. It will certainly not raise the interest of citizens in the European Parliamentary elections in May.
Therefore, I wish to make an appeal to all those who are involved in politics in EU institutions. Firstly, shake off your fear for alternative opinions and enter into an open debate. Secondary, pursue that debate through your local political base with a broad public that includes youths, low-skilled people and women. And thirdly, listen to voices within the institutions who recognise the challenge and have realistic and concrete proposals to resolve it. You only have seven months.