Arranging the European symphony

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Brendan Simms
Brendan Simms

Most university seminars on the European Union begin with a seemingly simple, yet in truth remarkably complex exercise: defining Europe. Some answers can be quite creative, ranging from definitions based on who partakes in the Eurovision Song Contest to geographic, cultural, as well as political definitions. Very clearly, Europe means different things to different people.

Even the political entity that is Europe needs an expert to distinguish between the European Union, the eurozone, the Schengen area, as well as a variety of judicial and defence arrangements in which only some EU member states engage. The confusion is worsened by a large-scale lack of everyday “Europe” in public consciousness. While Europeans have probably never heard as much about the EU as over the past few years, the news has only been about the debt crisis, the refugee crisis or the Ukraine crisis. The European Union would appear to function in a constant state of emergency.

When one combines the difficulty of understanding how the EU influences everyday life with this perpetual nature of European crises, it is hardly surprising that public support for the European idea is faltering. Bridging this divide is crucial to ensuring the Union’s survival, and is a herculean task that requires a multitude of responses. Just like the European Union’s motto, “unity in diversity”, there needs to be diversity in the messages that point citizens to the added value Europe can bring to them as individuals.

Today’s 28-member European Union is considerably larger than it was little more than a decade ago, and is home to more than 500m people. With this size and scope come very different realities for different Europeans.

When asking an average German, Spanish or Greek citizen about Europe ten years ago, their answer may have included something about the facility to travel, the common currency or the country’s economic success – with the added twist for Spain being Europe’s role in the country’s democratisation. Today, a German would probably cite a feeling of the EU being a lame duck that’s unable to come to an agreement. Today’s radically-different Spanish response would see the European Union blamed for the country’s disastrous economic and labour market outlook. The Greek assessment would be even worse, since political contests in the country now appear a mere movement of pawns in a big game of European chess.

Looking to a country like Latvia, on the other hand, the answer would probably be based much more on security concerns, and the European Union’s apparent disregard for the country’s difficult situation vis-à-vis its gigantic neighbour Russia. When asking a Briton, meanwhile, many of the commonplace answers about borderless travel or the common currency would not even be present, as the UK does not partake in either.

The way in which Europe’s elites communicate on the European Union has not helped bridge the gaps. After important sessions of the European Council, all heads of state and government disappear into different rooms and hold separate press conferences tailored to their national audiences. The established discourse is one of securing gains for national benefit, or the defence of crucial positions against a strong tide. The one thing these national messages have in common is that they are completely incompatible. The on-going debate on the refugee crisis offers perfect examples of such communication strategies.

On the other side of the aisle stands a grand message on the benefit of Europe at the largest possible scale. Not a single week will pass without a senior politician pointing to the well-established fact that the EU has brought peace to the continent for longer than it has ever known. The problem, though, is that neither of these two kinds of messages matches the reality of individual Europeans. With instant access to all kinds of information, it is all too easy to see that an alleged national success or a supposed common European interest is a lie compared to the actual inactivity of Europe’s political apparatus.

Europeans have to be able to connect messages on the merits of Europe to their daily realities. Looking at the history of our neighbour across the Atlantic could help us realise this. When the founding figures of the United States tried to rally their population around the idea of full political union, rather than remaining a confederation of separate states, the situation was equally diverse. New Englanders worried about the British threat from Canada; those living on the seaboard feared a loss of trade to pirates now that ships were no longer protected by the Royal Navy; residents in the Carolinas were worried by the Spanish presence on the continent; and those living on the internal frontier were afraid of native Americans. While their reasons for signing on to the project of the United States were broad, they were nevertheless convinced by tailored messages that it was the only insurance policy to effectively alleviate their fears. European leaders now too have to tailor the right messages on the European Union to the different concerns across the continent.

When looking to Europe’s south, which has been hit hard by the economic crisis, one can observe an increasing concern about the state of democracy. When political contest has to bow to economic necessities dictated by abstract Europe, one need not wonder about the current lack of EU support. The late British historian Alan Milward posited that the very reason why European states signed onto the European project in the 1950s was a “European rescue of the nation state”. Europe’s economies were in such a disastrous shape and found themselves suddenly sandwiched between two superpowers; the only way to guard some sovereignty was to give other, less crucial aspects of it up. Today, one similarly needs to communicate to citizens in the EU’s south that to best preserve their right to democratic contest, their voice needs to count at European level more than at an increasingly-irrelevant national level, hence the need to pursue fully-empowered representative European institutions.

For those to the east, it is important to consider citizens’ increasing security concerns about the unpredictability of Russia. No contemporary European nation can uphold even the semblance of being capable of defending its own territory alone; only a reformed and deepened European Union with NATO can compensate for the diminished U.S. interest in our continent’s security.

Lastly, when looking at the current influx of refugees into Europe, a similar message can be tailored to citizens in all affected countries. Europe is currently a strange space of concurrently semi-open and semi-closed internal and external borders, with small outlying countries easily being overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. So again, no European country can cope on its own.

All in all, Europe needs more messages of this kind, tailored and actively communicated to Europeans in different parts of the Union. The task ahead is not easy, but if we do this right, we can create a symphony of reasons as to why Europeans should support the continuation of the European project towards an ever-closer, yet diverse union.

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