Speak up, Brussels! It's time to emphasise the EU's virtues

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

This has been a roller-coaster year for Europe. It opened amidst widespread despondency, chiefly over Brexit but also over the rising tide of populism, then perked up when euro-enthusiast Emmanuel Macron was elected to the French presidency, and now is drifting back towards the doldrums.
The momentum for tackling outstanding issues like eurozone reform is slowing. The outcome of Germany’s Bundestag elections isn’t helping, and nor are developments in Catalonia, Austria and the four ‘Visegrad’ countries.
Missing from these ups-and-downs has been the voice of the EU itself. Yes, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker tried for an up-beat tone in his annual ‘State of the Union’ speech in September, but its echoes were scarcely heard beyond Brussels. A louder and more confident note is needed to underscore the EU’s successes.
Underscore isn’t the right word; inform and educate would be more appropriate. Far too few Europeans know in any detail what the EU contributes to their lives. In the UK, the shambles of the Brexit negotiations has begun to alert public opinion to the EU’s worth, but few people beyond Britain know or care.

The EU’s popularity has been somewhat volatile, but the overall picture is worrying

Although much of the uncertainty over Europe’s future lies outside Brussels’ powers and responsibilities, the EU needs to exert itself far more on the PR front. The national politics that have created this year’s turbulence reflect voters’ often negative perceptions of the EU.
The EU’s popularity has been somewhat volatile, but the overall picture is worrying. There was a slight lift in support in the wake of the Brexit referendum, probably because people elsewhere in continental Europe recoiled from the idea of going down the same uncertain route. Since then, pollsters have identified disquieting trends.
In a survey by Pew researchers, the proportion of people ‘unfavourable’ to the EU reached 44% in France, even higher than the UK’s 40%. In Italy it was 39%, 35% in Spain and 30% in Germany. These are no doubt the Eurosceptic voters who have been largely responsible for the rise of populist politicians. And when Pew asked people for their views of 42 mainstream political parties across Europe, an alarming total of only five parties received a positive rating – two in Germany and in the Netherlands and one in Sweden.
It’s a commonplace that the EU gets blamed by its own member governments for policies they themselves initiated. And it is also true that resentments over problems like immigration or fiscal austerity are unfairly laid at the EU’s door. All the more reason, then, for the European Commission to counter-attack loudly and often.

Brussels should be devoting its energies and resources to explaining in idiomatic language the policies that have shaped the EU

When Juncker announced in September that the EU ‘now has the wind in its sails’, he urged the idea of a single President of Europe to combine leadership of both the Commission and the Council. He also put forward ideas for reaching out to schoolchildren and journalists. But these haven’t gone down very well, and it’s clear he would have done better to play to the EU’s existing strengths.
Brussels should be devoting its energies and resources to explaining in idiomatic language the policies that have shaped the EU, and made it the envy of governments around the world. People cannot be expected to appreciate the value of, say, trade or competition policies unless these are clearly spelled out. A glance at the impenetrable Europa website or any of the Commission’s press releases makes the point.
The European Union misses a great opportunity when it refuses to discuss controversial questions like Catalonia’s future. Issues that top the news schedules offer a chance to explain the complexities and values of working together in Europe. Brussels’ failure to engage on hot topics is a serious mistake: No wonder so many European citizens are either lukewarm or downright wary of the EU

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