Why Europe needs more believers

Opinion: A recent survey showed scarcely 50 per cent of Europeans know they directly elect their MEPs

Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 00:01

Europe’s big problem is Ireland, with its corporate tax rate of 12.5 per cent, which is half the average rate in the European Union and a good example of the kind of internal fiscal competition member states have been prone to engage in.

Europe’s big problem is Germany, which has destabilised the euro zone with its – to say the least – tardy response to the crisis and which is destabilising it still with its €200 billion positive trade balance.

Europe’s big problem is France, which continues to believe that Europe, even with 28 members, should, and could, be like a sort of France writ large.

Europe’s big problem is its tendency to repeat at will the idea that the problem is Ireland, or Germany, or France, or someone else. The endless search for scapegoats is a sign of a nervous withdrawal into ourselves. It is a sign of a weakening of the notion of a general European interest and of national interests which are becoming more peremptory. Does it not add up to a sad posthumous victory for Mrs Thatcher when the Union is reduced to being a matter of the size of everyone’s net budgetary contribution?

But let’s look at it another way.

Europe’s big problem is its opacity. Its institutions are complex – and not just because they are not modelled on our national political institutions. The European Parliament? A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that scarcely 50 per cent of Europeans know that they directly elect their MEPs. The Commission? Not only is it too dogmatic and too technocratic, it has also become bland and uniform – it would require an archaeologist to uncover its last ambitious initiative. The European Council? It decides in the half-light, or in the dark. “Trialogue”? No one, or next to no one, knows even of its existence, even though it is the process through which most of the compromises between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament are stitched together, far away from the light, and even sometimes from the eyes of the politicians. “Comitology”? No one, or practically no one, knows what this barbarism means – yet it’s the process by which sometimes quite important texts are adopted.

Europe’s big problem is the indifference which it increasingly provokes. The indifference of the electorate: the more powers the Parliament has the fewer people vote – participation has gone from 62 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 2009 and no one knows what figure we will manage in May. The lack of engagement of the citizens is such that for the past four years the predominant view of the Union has been neither a passionate for nor a passionate against but a weak neutrality.

May’s European elections could provide the opportunity to combat this opacity and this indifference. But for that to happen there would need to be some evidence of an ability to explain what it is that the Union can do and what it can’t do. It would also be necessary to rediscover politics – which on this continent means returning to the debate between left and right. It would be an illusion to think that we have a magic wand that can make the Union swing to the right or to the left. In the future, as in the past, there will be governments of the left and of the right, commissioners of the left and of the right and in Parliament, as elsewhere, the need to work out compromises between the left and the right. But it is quite legitimate to work towards creating circumstances in which voters can better judge the people and policies that are put before them. In this context it is a good thing that the European parties have designated what Martin Schulz has called the Spitzenkandidat , that is to say the candidate who will top each of the party’s lists during the campaign and who could, if the votes stack up, become president of the Commission.

All the big parties have already made this choice, most recently, and only after much grumbling, the EPP at its Dublin conference recently. Politicising Europe can help, but it is not enough on its ownBudgetary rigour on its own does not constitute a programme. Europe’s big problem goes deeper: it has no project. A decade ago the Union was being run on a “both/and” basis – on the one hand opening to the states of central and eastern Europe, on the other deepening integration through the single currency. Today it is a case of “neither/nor” – neither any further enlargement to create a bigger space, which could in the future include Turkey and Ukraine, thus matching the already existing “continental” states, nor any deepening to construct a genuinely federal zone around the euro. In fact we need to do both.

Europe’s big problem is that it has a specific model of society which is in fact the best in the world – political democracy, a regulated market economy, social solidarity, cultural freedom – but it doesn’t seem to know this or defend it.

Europe’s big problem is that we keep harping on about its problems – when it actually has so many successes to its credit.

Europe’s big problem is that it is like a church that, amazingly, still has a large congregation – but scarcely any believers.

Europe’s big solution is for more Europeans to get behind the project.

Gilles Finchelstein is director general of the Fondation Jean Jaurès , a think tank close to the French Socialist Party.

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