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Europe: EU's Problems Are Rooted In History

  • Ben Partridge

London, 19 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Four decades after it was founded, the EU's very right to existence is being debated in European countries. It is less popular than it has been for years. Fewer than half of voters think their country's membership of the EU is a good thing, or that it benefits from EU membership.

These are the findings of an independent British think-tank, Demos, which studied attitudes across the 15 EU nations. It found that voters regard the EU as detached from their own concerns.

Why the disillusionment? The report suggests that the EU has "legitimacy problems" that are rooted in its own history.

European integration was a response to a historic challenge: the need to bring peace and prosperity to a continent ravaged by war, and to establish democracy in countries torn apart by dictatorships. In a sense, it was about saving Europe from itself.

The EU was born in an era when public approval mattered relatively little and when the geo-political agenda was dominated by the Cold War. Its original concerns were technocratic and so were its means -- the more depoliticized it could be, the better.

With the memory and fear of war so strong, and while economic recovery dominated popular concerns, the European project became an "elite enterprise", or what the report calls "a benign technocratic conspiracy designed to bring about irreversible integration."

A 'permissive consensus' allowed national governments to take decisions about European integration without any real popular mandate. Even today, throughout the EU, the public sees European integration as "inevitable" -- even when they disagree with it.

This model of "benign technocratic integration" worked quite well when the EU was concerned only with providing common standards for food production or environmental safeguards,.

But, with the end of the Cold War, and the rise of an EU that is responsible for half of all domestic legislation, and 80 percent of economic and social legislation, the situation has changed radically. Mark Leonard, the author of the report, says the EU is now taking more and more decisions that impact on people's lives and welfare:

"Nowadays the EU is no longer just dealing with common standards for tomato paste or lawn mower sound emissions. It's actually dealing with issues that impact on people's lives, in the convergence criteria for economic and monetary union, in policies on working conditions. But they've carried on operating in the same way as they did before, and not changed the way they operate, so they do not actually reflect people's priorities and values."

The Demos survey shows that while many citizens identify increasingly with Europe, while retaining their national loyalties, they do not identify positively with the EU. People don't feel part of the EU as they have not been part of its construction. The report says the union was "brought about behind closed doors in chancelleries and conference centers by European policy elites."

Moreover, the EU has not based its plans for European integration on the concerns of voters. EU policy-makers spend most of their time talking about agricultural policy and the single European currency, while polls show that voters are most concerned about jobs, crime and the environment. A gulf has opened up between EU decision-makers and citizens.

Says Leonard, "That's the really worrying thing. With European Monetary Union (EMU) and with enlargement, the EU's going to change even more dramatically. It's already responsible for half of legislation in all of the member countries. It's now going to be responsible for far more, and far more important areas. Unless we start closing the gap between what people want, and what they are getting, the EU could find it is incredibly unpopular, and its very existence might be in danger."

But the most serious problem is that EU leaders have failed to develop a convincing vision for the future of Europe, one that deals with the strategic challenges that lie ahead and offers a compelling 'narrative' of what further integration is actually "for".

Peace, prosperity and democracy -- the original clarion calls -- have lost much their resonance. They are still the key reasons why the East and Central Europeans want to join, but within the EU they have lost their purchase because a younger generation takes them for granted. Mark Leonard says that EU leaders need to wake up to the preoccupations of their voters:

"Unless people have a sense that the EU is being run in their interests, and it's keying into their core priorities like peace and prosperity, the environment and international crime and terrorism, and job creation, unless these issues are tackled very visibly, then people will start losing their faith in the EU and might actually reject it, at a time when support is more crucial than ever before."