As support sinks, the EU is getting what it deserves

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Whether or not the UK votes to stay in the EU, its Brexit referendum is damaging the EU project and perceptions of its worth around the world. And this is to a large extent the fault not so much of the British but of the EU itself and its Brussels-based institutions.

Faith in the value and achievements of the European Union is evaporating fast. The latest opinion survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC – which several years ago branded the EU as ‘the new sick man of Europe’ – showed a vertiginous slide in its popularity. Almost half the 10,000-plus people questioned around the EU this Spring are now broadly eurosceptic.

Pew’s pulse-taking of support for the EU has won widespread recognition as fair and unbiased – not an accolade awarded to all of the surveys conducted by the EU’s in-house Eurobarometer that collates national poll findings. So the latest finding by Pew that on average 47% of Europeans have an unfavourable view of the EU is not to be taken lightly.

The EU’s failure is one of presentation and communication, a weakness that eurocrats have been shrugging off for years

The big surprise is that in France a remarkable 6% of opinion has turned against the European project which the French once did so much to create. Negative opinion in Germany is also on the rise, standing at 48%, which (also surprisingly) is broadly the same as in the UK.

What’s the reason for this accelerating discontent? Although the widely-publicised Brexit debate within Britain is probably inflaming euroscepticism elsewhere, why should the EU be seen increasingly as a scapegoat for problems over which it has little or no control? The migrant crisis and the belt-tightening austerity measures of recent years may reflect the difficulties the EU has in resolving problems, but no one could say that Brussels caused them.

The failure is one of presentation and communication, and it’s a weakness that the eurocrats have been shrugging off for years. The officials of the European Commission are the EU project’s chief spokespersons, and it is painfully clear that they have failed to speak out convincingly in favour of European integration and its achievements.

If this failure were only with regard to the Brexit debate, that might be understandable. There’s a case to be made for not becoming embroiled in any of the national political squabbles of member states. But a majority Brexit vote in the UK on 23 June would shake the Union to its foundations.

The eurocracy has watched as the once fringe populist parties have gnawed away at the support given to once-dominant mainstream parties

Using the excuse of remaining above the political fray in the member countries, the eurocracy has watched silently from the sidelines as the previously fringe populist parties have gnawed away at the support given to once-dominant mainstream parties.

Rabid euroscepticism is often the common denominator of the populists on both the far Right and Left. Yet the Commission hasn’t confronted their misleading ‘facts’ about the costs and disadvantages of EU membership. Several years ago, it mounted a half-hearted effort to address persistent euro-myths about straight bananas and the sizing of condoms, but by and large Brussels contented itself with its own knowledge of the absurdity of false charges.

The Brexit debate could have been a good deal less silly and ill-informed had the Commission stirred itself to produce fact sheets addressing matters ranging from members’ budgetary contributions and benefits to the EU’s decision-making structures, and that need not have contravened the EU’s “neutrality”. Looking to the future, whichever way the UK votes, the need now is for Brussels to wake up to the gravity of the EU information gap for which it is primarily responsible.

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