22nd Jan 2018

EU nervous and introspective at fifty years of age

  • The Treaty of Rome 1957 - the EU has come far since then but what will propel it forward in the coming years? (Photo: European Commission)

The EU sees itself as a force for good in the world; it practises soft power, promotes human rights and sets the global bar in environmental standards. Yet a sizeable part of the bloc's 492 million population still remain disaffected from the one-of-a-kind political experiment that has evolved over the past 50 years.

"This process of European now being called into question by many people; it is viewed as a bureaucratic affair run by a faceless, soulless Eurocracy in Brussels - at best boring, at worst dangerous," said the then German foreign minister Joschka Fischer in 2000.

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Five years later, citizens of two founding members of the European Union – France and the Netherlands – rejected the EU constitution, a document that would have led to further European integration.

And today, surveys continue to show a lack of enthusiasm. A Financial Times poll of the five biggest EU states published on Monday (19 March) show that just 25 percent of those asked feel that life in their country had improved since it joined the EU, while 44 percent feel it has become worse.

Since the seismic political shock in 2005, EU leaders have been trying to do more than just pay lip-service to getting citizens on board the "European project" while the European Commission has launched a whole series of citizen-friendly initiatives.

But crowd-pleasing moves such as ensuring lower plane fares and mobile phone charges merely gloss over the fact that people are still shocked that as much of 80 percent of national laws come from Brussels or when they hear that EU law has supremacy over national law – a principle that was established several years ago by the European Court of Justice.

And even when they can do something to affect what goes on in Brussels - namely with their vote, they are not rushing in droves to the ballot box. The last European elections in 2004, with citizens from ten spanking new member states, saw record low turnouts.

This can't-be-bothered attitude comes despite the fact that the EU affects the minutiae of people's lives down to the labelling of the food that goes on their tables and the safety standards for their children's toys through to how long their maximum weekly working hours are.

So why is Brussels so unloved?

The way things are done

Largely it has come about because of how things are done at the EU level, although this is slowly changing.

Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker once memorably summed it up like this:

"We decide on something, leave it lying around, and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don't know what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back."

And this was for a very long time the way things were done at the EU level. Ministers would come to Brussels, sign up to things, and then return home and either blame Europe or take the credit depending on the issue that had been agreed.

This sense of alienation was compounded by the fact the EU was the only legislature in the world bar one that made its laws behind closed doors. This was improved somewhat only last year, when the law-making parts of council meetings became more open to the public.

The EU also made a great deal of laws. Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso recently admitted that in past years it was perceived to be "anti-European" by officials in the commission not to be churning out legislation.

Bendy bananas

While several laws reported to have come out of Brussels were actually myth - such as bendy bananas being banned; being required to give pigs toys to play with; or chippies being forced to sell fish using their Latin names only - many are not, including an EU law on the quality and size of "rough" wood or stringent packaging laws decreeing the size and shape of products for supermarkets.

So what citizens got presented with were rafts of laws coming from Brussels and no one explaining why the laws had been made.

The EU was facing an image problem in other ways too. Farmers were seen to be getting rich on EU handouts, sometimes for literally doing nothing, while MEPs had a reputation for being on the gravy train, for several years easily able to top up their already high wages with an allowance system that was ridiculously easy to fiddle.

Meanwhile, the European Court of Auditors has for 12 years in a row refused to sign off the bloc's accounts. The impression is one of corruption throughout the system, although it is actually generally member states failing to pass muster for how they spend EU money.

Moreover, after France's president Mitterand and Germany's chancellor Kohl left the political stage in the 1990s, there were no longer important politicians outlining a European vision.

EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom once remarked that not taking responsibility for what is agreed in Brussels is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Taking Helmut Kohl as an example she said that when in Brussels for a meeting he would defend Germany to the hilt behind closed doors trying to wangle the best deal for his country but once back in Berlin he would defend whatever decision was reached even if it was not in Germany's best interests.

A change?

The EU does finally seem to have woken up to the importance of its citizens and is looking to mould the EU to how it perceives citizens want it to be, rather than the other way around, a method once summed up by Italian prime minister Romano Prodi when he remarked "once Europe is made, it will be necessary to make Europeans."

Now the commission is checking the impact of laws before proposing them and has taken to legislating where it knows it has popular support.

It is also tackling two major social concerns – globalisation and climate change.

The commission's top official, secretary general Catherine Day, last month said that globalisation was the current "narrative" for the EU and the commission and stressed it was "politically important" to succeed in tackling Europeans' fear of the trend.

On the environment, meanwhile, the bloc earlier this month agreed an ambitious set of goals to tackle global warming, including setting targets for use of renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the real challenge will continue to be to get citizens on board emotionally. It remains to be seen whether these two issues will be enough to engage people now as much as the idea of a Europe-as-a-peace-project engaged people in previous decades.

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