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Europe: Making The EU More Relevant To Its Citizens

  • Ben Partridge

London, 19 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A study of attitudes towards the EU in its 15 member countries says the union need to close the gap between itself and its citizens if it is to thrive in the next century, and to cope with enlargement and a single currency.

The six-month study -- one of the most comprehensive ever carried out -- was conducted by the British independent think-tank, "Demos". The study says the EU needs a clearer sense of direction and identity, and a new set of priorities, to help it build in the 21st century on the "astonishing success" of the first half-century.

Politicians have to offer Europeans what they want -- jobs, a safer environment, less crime -- rather than the political classes' visions of "ever closer union" into a superstate and superpower.

Mark Leonard, author of the study, says the EU needs to shed its image as a homogenizing force and end its one-size-fits-all approach to policy-making, because as it expands eastwards it will be increasingly difficult to devise policies which suit all countries.

Leonard says the only way forward for the EU is to open itself for membership for all the countries in Europe.

"The only way to do it is to have a Europe which is open to all the countries within it. Also to point out the huge benefits which all Europeans will have from having a free market which incorporates all the Eastern countries and as the Western countries and the opportunities for companies operating in the EU at the moment, and the jobs which will flow from it."

But he says the EU also needs to be more careful to respect national idiosyncrasies when devising new policies, and to project an image of Europe that encompasses the new Europeans: the Turks of Germany, Algerians of France and Pakistanis of Britain.

Leonard identifies seven priorities which he says would help EU leaders "reconnect" the project of European integration with their citizens, and give people a new sense of what the EU is "for".

These priorities include greater cooperation in tackling common European problems; improving European education and research; boosting labor mobility; and improving the quality of life in cities.

The EU's first task is to achieve common solutions to common problems: in defense, environment, crime. Polls show people want "problems without frontiers" to be dealt with at European level.

Europe needs to rediscover its role as a creator and disseminator of knowledge. It is still ahead in many knowledge-based industries (publishing five times as many books as the U.S), but it is falling behind in research and development, spending only $343 per capita a year, compared with $681 in the U.S. and $604 in Japan.

The EU needs to encourage labor mobility if the single currency is to be a success. So far the EU has concentrated on bringing money and jobs to places where people happen to live. This has encouraged labor immobility. Less than two percent of EU citizens are residents in another EU country, and half don't speak a second language.

The study calls for deregulation of air travel, and creation of an integrated transport system, as promised in the Treaty of Rome.

One priority is to improve life in Europe's cities, many hit by crime, poor air and traffic congestion. Eight out of 10 Europeans live in cities but half of the EU's budget goes on subsidies for farmers (6.5 percent of the population, producing 4 percent of GDP).

The study calls on EU leaders to encourage a sense of cross-border solidarity. But this will not be easy. Many people in countries that are net contributors to the EU are restless about the extent of their contributions, feeling that their money will simply be "wasted" on farmers and fishermen. Forty percent of Europeans fear that rich member states will have to pay more for poor ones.

There is lukewarm support for enlargement -- partly because of higher costs and fears of losing regional aid. There are only small majorities in favor of widening the EU to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary (roughly 42 percent for, 33 percent against).

The study also says the EU needs to do more to improve people's quality of life -- a priority extremely important to EU citizens.

The study says the EU is a patchwork of different cultures, languages and views. But too many of its leaders have wanted to give Europe the homogeneity of a classic nation state with a common culture, currency and constitution. But this is a mistake.

Leonard says, "The way forward is to recognize that one of the core features of the EU is its diversity. When we talk about the People's Europe, we mean peoples in the plural, rather than a single people. We need to reflect that diversity both in the policies we adopt and in the decision-making patterns we adopt. I think the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to policy has to be over now, particularly as many countries, though they might want to go in the same direction, will be able to do it only at different times and in different ways."

Leonard argues that Europe's future lies in being something very different from a "nation state writ large". It strength lies in "creating a common space in which diversity can flourish."