25th Mar 2019


Good evening, Brussels. May we have your votes please?

"Good evening, Brussels. May we have your votes please…?" Who would have thought that the European Union would last as long as the Eurovision Song Contest?

You may laugh, but a comparison is not as ridiculous as it may first appear. The first Grand Prix de l'Eurovision was held in 1956 and of course the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. Both emerged out of the ruins of war. Both have the ultimate goal of peace and understanding. Both have embraced the so-called "new Europe" and passed the test of time. Well, kind of.

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If only as many people would turn up at the ballot box in the European elections as pick up the telephone on Eurovision night to vote for their favourite song. If we can push aside our patriotic leanings for one night of camp pop, it begs the question why can't we co-operate on other matters?

It is clear the annual celebration of everything that is weird and wonderful about Europe is enjoying a massive success across the continent. Sadly, the same cannot be said for our political and economic union. Our leaders have lost their direction. As a result, the European Union is failing dramatically to get its message across because nobody's really sure what the message is any more. The EU is dangerously losing its purpose. It's left its citizens, the electorate, bemused and hostile. It certainly doesn't deserve douze points.

EU: nul points

The anniversary this week should be a cause to celebrate for every European, but who cares about it or even realises? There are far more interesting 50th birthdays this year anyway: Sputnik, the first Soviet satellite, for example, or the childrens' car racing toy, Scalectrix, to name just two.

The EU has the world's third largest population after China and India, but how many of Europe's citizens would notice if the EU simply evaporated? How many recognise what the Union has done for the rights of the worker, the consumer, or traveller?

We have become so disconnected from the idea of union, mainly because most of us fail to understand what it is, what it actually means and represents. For that we can perhaps be forgiven though. Even our leaders appear to be lost in some kind of European quagmire.

If Brussels had an overriding message that it could spread to its people, then maybe everyone would know what the past fifty years have all been about. More importantly, we'd have an idea about the next fifty. Instead, Brussels does not. It is ineffective at communicating to its citizens. We, the people, have to rely on our national governments to convey the message and who knows how distorted that becomes?

It works two ways though. How do we, the electorate, give feedback to Brussels? We are represented by the European Parliament, but most of us don't even bother to vote and many of us have no idea what MEPs do all day.

That is not meant to be disparaging, but we cannot escape the fact that however worthy and significant the work of the Parliament may be, the message is not getting out there and it's nobody's fault but their own. Like Brussels, the communication from Strasbourg is ineffective.

We have to face it. European politics is dull. In the words of one MEP recently "we really are a boring lot and need to sex it up a bit. Our debates would make even your grandmother cry."

There is no doubt Europe has a communication problem and without a pan-European media, it's hard to resolve this. Yet the problem is much more complicated. Europe is currently a continent in search of a purpose and without that, it clearly has no message to communicate.

It appears we're all lost and nobody's sure where we're heading. We must save ourselves, but first we have to know what it is we're saving.

Let's resolve the midlife crisis and grow old gracefully

Europe has no choice but to reinvent itself. There are high hopes for the Berlin declaration this weekend and there is cause to be optimistic. The EU is bigger than ever and has some significant achievements under its belt, but as is typical of a midlife crisis, it's also insecure and uncertain. It simply needs fresh direction, a leader with a vision; some guidance.

Europe must explain that it does have continued relevance. It must convince us of it's necessity, that without it, as individual states, we just wouldn't survive in this globalised world. Today's politicians need to put forward a new raison d'etre for Europe - for a generation of Europeans who have never experienced war first-hand.

There is, of course, still deadlock over the Constitution. The EU has been in a state of shock ever since the rejection of France and the Netherlands. It plunged the Union into an existential crisis from which it has not yet recovered, but Europe must listen to its citizens. Let's wipe the slate clean and not pin all of our hopes on the beleaguered text. Now is the time to move on. Now is the time to win us over.

The coming years are bound to present us with a fundamental clash between those states which want more integration and those that want less. We need to be ready for this. The only way forward, the only way to protect the Union is going to be a radically more flexible structure.

Instead of fireworks and birthday cake, the EU needs to take note of its current health and create a framework which is capable of adapting to the 21st Century, a framework which is acceptable to its people. Let's hope the Berlin declaration reflects that.

If the Eurovision Song Contest can alter its format to incorporate new entries, if the Eurovision Song Contest can make the competition run more smoothly, if the Eurovision Song Contest can continue to appeal to both young and old, then so can the European Union. After all, it's the same audience.

In the words of the European Union's founding father, Jean Monnet:

People only accept change when they are forced with necessity, and only recognise necessity when a crisis is upon them.

If ever the EU had a crisis, it's now.

The author is BBC Television News Correspondent in London

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