Ever since we began electing our European representatives by universal suffrage in 1979, MEPs have seen their powers – both legislative and budgetary – wax as voter interest waned. Voter turnout, then 62%, dwindled to 45.4% in 2004. People keep saying Europe is a mysterious and remote entity. That is not true. Sometimes incomprehensible, to be sure, but definitely not remote. 80% of our national legislation originates in the Community matrix, produced by the Council of Ministers every bit as much as by the European Parliament. Our euro currency, interest rates, the fight against inflation and mega-deficits, studies, passport-free travel, safety standards, the environment, consumption: Europe is part and parcel of our day-to-day lives in these and plenty of other domains.
If Europe didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. It has provided a providential shelter from the storms we are now weathering – globalisation, the emergence of the colossal Chinese, Indian and Brazilian powerhouses, the current global socio-economic crisis. Admittedly, the model is not perfect, but it is an invaluable regional shock absorber for its Member States, whose national governments can no longer cope with global upheavals on their own.
And yet Europe is not understood by its people, eliciting only apathy – even outright hostility. According to the latest opinion poll by TNS Opinion, which came out just a few days ago, half the electorate (49%) will go to the polls. Assuming these forecasts hold true, the theorem of Europeans’ mounting disaffection towards a Union that neither maltreats nor ignores any of its 27 member countries will remain an insoluble enigma.
Why is Europe steadily losing popularity?
The reasons are manifold. Perhaps the most persuasive explanation is the most paradoxical as well: the postwar reconciliation, its original raison d'être, has gradually dissolved in a grandiose economic and cultural success story. Europe in our day is not only synonymous with peace throughout the continent, it fosters a culture of pacifism, which – we may note in passing – we owe almost entirely to the American taxpayers, who have always paid for its defence.
The European Union, stripped of its legitimacy as a popular and comprehensible project for all to share, has failed to provide itself with a new one. It has become a cold, technocratic, ultra-complicated machine that spits out steady streams of intrusive rules, prohibitions and controls. The European project now boils down to trade and the single currency. It does have some (semi-)successes to its credit, but no “such stuff as dreams are made on”.
The EU’s forced eastward march and the concomitant attacks of global competition and uncontrolled mass immigration have dealt the coup de grâce. Nowadays Europe appears capable of arousing only irrational and often groundless fears. The new anti-European and xenophobic parties are splashing around in these paddling pools, finding attentive ears in East and West alike by speculating on the laxism and incompetence of certain governments – which, incidentally, often use Europe as a scapegoat to sell unpopular decisions.
National governments should be the first – before their citizens – to grasp the fact that Europe is even more essential now than it was then. As long as the European elections remain a national test, Europe’s enormous potential will serve not so much to nurture Europeans as to fatten up others. And that’s a shame.