A more humane EU would boost its popularity


Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

The EU is struggling to regain its lost popularity. There’s a sense of foreboding in Brussels that the radical and generally eurosceptic parties like Spain’s Podemos, Germany’s AfD, the Front National in France and even Britain’s UKIP and Greece’s Syriza are not the fleeting flash-in-the-pan phenomena they were first thought to be. Unless the EU can raise its game on communications and outreach, these ‘fringe radicals’ may soon be Europe’s game changers.

Anyone familiar with Brussels would probably agree that the institutions of the European Union generally prefer the detail of dossiers to the ‘big picture’. That’s understandable, given the sheer complexity of the technocratic issues that are the daily business of the EU. But it is also regrettable, and increasingly a problem.

Public opinion across Europe is rarely concerned with the minutiae of economic policies or even social measures. What the voters register are the things ‘Europe’ is or isn’t doing to confront the major challenges that feature so prominently in TV news bulletins.

There are times when such threats are indeed headed-off and defused by the EU; bird flu or the menace of jihadist terrorism are readily understandable examples of how Europe’s cross-border cooperation is invaluable. Most people also see the single market for goods and services as hugely beneficial.

Whether they see the underpinnings of the European economy as necessary trade-offs for what the EU’s critics call Brussels’ “high-handed interference” is less certain. The years of austerity have taken a heavy toll of people’s unquestioning support for the European project.

But the EU still has opportunities to demonstrate its value, not just within Europe but to the wider world. It should tackle the problem of refugees displaced by conflict in the Middle East and by poverty in Africa. Their plight has so far highlighted Europe’s impotence in the face of the huge humanitarian crisis on its doorstep, and the selfishness of the many European governments refusing to offer help. But it’s a chance for the EU to show its worth.

The drama of boatloads of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, along with TV reports of teeming but flimsy refugee camps, is striking a chord with Europeans that’s more than a passing moment of sympathy. They feel their governments should be doing more, even though they themselves may want to resist immigration and a more multi-cultural Europe.

Jean-Claude Juncker and his fellow EU commissioners have been trying to rally member states to act, with little real results. The EU, they say, doesn’t itself have the instruments and funds to make a difference. But it does have a voice.

The refugee problem is just a symptom of the EU’s failure to grasp the dangers that follow the Arab Spring. Brussels should launch a truly ambitious long-term strategy for addressing the economic and security weaknesses of the countries that these refugees are fleeing from. It couldn’t resolve this crisis overnight, but it could show that Europe is about people, and not just red tape.

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