Learning to talk European

Hidden in the shadowy rise of Eurosceptic parties at the European Parliament elections, an increasingly constructive debate about Europe’s future is starting to take shape. Driven by the internet and by young people who take free movement and trade for granted, the EU is increasingly being seen as a fait accompli, though pressing questions regarding the limits of integration and stimulating growth in the South remain to be answered

European nation states as we once knew them are dead.  Tourists and commuters speed past unmanned border crossings, products flow freely between regional markets, and war has become a distant memory.

But to many Europeans, these benefits aren’t enough to justify the institutions that make them possible. Eurosceptics made huge gains in the European Parliament (EP) election in May – parties whose primary purpose is to question the EU’s legitimacy. The Danish People’s Party polled 26.7 percent of the vote, while UKIP in the UK and Front National in France also secured similarly high levels of support.

And while the vast majority of Europeans support parties who want to maintain the status quo, national media and politicians only begrudgingly acknowledge the work of elected representatives sitting in the EU.

The EU is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it has to continually defend its legitimacy to those who want to dramatically scale back European cooperation, while on the other it must struggle to communicate its successes to those who want to remain in the EU.

To break into our everyday lives, the EU may need to redefine its purpose for a 21st century audience accustomed both to life without the fear of war and to the ability to work and live where they please. But because its 500 million residents still identify primarily with their nation states, starting a transnational conversation about Europe, its future and its politics, could be a utopian dream. Despite this, there are reasons to suggest this development is already well underway.

Playing the victim
Despite opting out of the Euro, Danes support the European project. According to a Eurobarometer poll from November, 71 percent of Danes feel like citizens of the EU, while 74 percent think that EU membership is necessary to face future challenges.

But not everyone is so keen, and one need look no further than the People’s Movement Against the EU to find its detractors. Campaigning under the slogan, “Should the EU decide everything?” and claiming that the European Commission (EC) directives are “attacking welfare and the labour market,” the party presents the EU as an outside force bent on undermining Denmark’s sovereignty.

“Of course there are some benefits to the EU, but at the end of the day the EU is too intrusive and far too often makes bad decisions. The victims are ordinary people who suffer from decisions made about the labour market, consumer protection and welfare. We need to collaborate only where it makes sense, for the sake of Denmark’s future,” the party’s MEP Rina Ronja Kari says.

This view has few followers among mainstream political parties. Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate commissioner and former climate minister for the Conservative party, argues that it is misguided to regard Denmark as a victim.

“We often act like the EU is something that is taking place outside of us and which is outside of our influence instead of acknowledging that we are a part of it and can work with it,” Hedegaard told Berlingske in a recent interview.

She still thinks there needs to be more effort to make the EU a topic of everyday discussion, not least because Europe lacks a common public sphere to debate decisions that affect us all. Danes still assume that political power lies in the Danish parliament, despite the fact that – by some estimates – as many as half of all Danish laws are in some way derived from European decisions.

“I have difficulty seeing how we can make a real democratic debate function without a common European public sphere. Otherwise, we need domestic and national politicians not to just leave the job of explaining the EU to EU politicians, but also ensure that it remains a part of the domestic political debate,” Hedegaard concludes.

Communicating a new European vision
But while Danes are overwhelmingly in favour of the EU, many don’t understand the most basic facts of how it operates. For example, November’s Eurobarometer poll found that only 65 percent of Danes knew that MEPs were directly elected. This lack of understanding might be explained by the lack of EU coverage by Danish media, which have fewer than a dozen journalists permanently stationed in Brussels, compared to around 200 covering the Danish parliament.

Morten Løkkegaard, former MEP for Venstre, recognises this problem and argues that it reinforces the sense that the EU is an outside force, rather than something in which Denmark is embedded.

“Traditional media doesn’t do enough, and that’s partly due to a lack of resources, but also because the press has historically been nationally structured. This presents a challenge, because the media in each country end up talking to a national audience, with a national angle, and presenting Brussels as ‘the other’. Why doesn’t the press tell stories about Brussels as something we are a part of? We are being massively manipulated saying Brussels is always fighting against us,” Løkkegaard says.

When Løkkegaard was first voted in as an MEP in 2009, he discovered a considerable gap between European decision makers and their constituents, but that there was no common space to have the conversation and broach the gap. But before this common space develops, Løkkegaard argues that Europeans need to first be able to relate to each other as a people with shared values and history. The old European narrative, based on peace through trade, is becoming increasingly obsolete as the distance from the wars of the 20th century increases. To address this issue, Løkkegaard launched the initiative ‘A New Narrative for Europe’ in April, which called upon artists and intellectuals to help define a European story centred on Europe’s culture.

“Our story is more than the fact that we have been at war with each other for the past 1500 years and now we are sick of it, which is the old story. The EU gave us a common story for Europe. We need to look further back, to the Renaissance, the development of human rights, and capitalism, which were all invented in Europe. We have 500 years of golden history with inventors, artists, creativity, and ideas in common. We share many more of our values with each other than with the rest of the world, especially compared to China and Africa,” says Løkkegaard, who failed to get reelected in May’s election.

Solidarity through crisis
Løkkegaard’s ambition to use culture as a starting point for bringing Europeans together may have a serious competitor – the financial crisis. Peter Laugesen and Elena Askløf spent 12 months travelling around the EU to document the stories of other young people they came across. They found that young people in southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, which have suffered from high youth unemployment following the financial crisis, are connecting through a shared experience.

“The European identity was particularly present in the south, where young people said they identified more with other young people across borders than they did with their parents. Greeks know that Spaniards don’t have jobs either, and are having to tackle similar problems with corruption and being regarded as a lost generation. The crisis created a common starting point for a discussion about their experiences,” says Askløf.

They attribute the phenomenon to the internet, which allows people to easily see and read about the situation in other countries. No single dominant platform has emerged to mediate this discussion, which has instead spread across blogs and websites that spontaneously pop up and disappear.

“There is no one platform for the conversation, it’s a grassroots phenomenon,” Laugesen said. “I think there is a desire to have a European conversation, because the crisis positioned Europe and European issues as a main reference point, just like after the war. Greeks and Spaniards both experienced how the Troika [the EC, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund] arrived and forced them to adopt new fiscal policies. So there is a potential for a creative and constructive debate about a future Europe and European identity, but it’s better that these conversations take place because there is a civic desire for it, rather than being mediated by top-down initiatives.”

Limits to integration?
While imperfect, complex, and difficult to understand – only 50 percent of Europeans say they know how the EU works – the EU is attempting to become more democratic. These are the first elections to follow the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that markedly increased the power of the EP. One major change is that the EP now has a say in who should be the EC’s president, a figure historically chosen by European leaders.

But neither an increase in the EU’s democratic legitimacy nor vibrant transnational debate will appease every concern about the EU’s legislative overreach. It is unlikely that nation states will cease to be the primary sources of our identities. According to Dr Mette Jolly, the lack of a single political identity will set limits on how integrated and centrally controlled Europeans will allow their national states to become.

“It is clear that, despite a strong desire for cooperation, Europeans do not see themselves a part of one democratic whole, but rather constituent units cooperating within an institutional framework called the EU, a framework which many do not consider indispensable. The consequence for integration is that the areas that demand a high degree of solidarity should not be subjected to supranational government,” Jolly wrote in her 2007 publication, ‘The European Union and the People’.

One example is welfare. The EC has petitioned Denmark to lift restrictions on welfare that were put in place to make non-Danes earn the right to claim them, arguing that it violated EU to free movement. The ruling means that EU residents can now claim a number of benefits, such as student grants and unemployment insurance, after as little as a few weeks in the country.

This decision was condemned by several political parties who warned of the enormous expense Danish taxpayers would incur. But the real issue is that it violates the welfare state’s social contract, in which Danes rest easy knowing that in exchange for relatively high income tax, there is a safety net waiting for them. The system and the social contract are undermined, however, if people may simply arrive and benefit from them without having paid in over the years.

A European discussion emerges
The discussion about opening national welfare systems to all EU citizens is not unique to Denmark, however, according to professor Peter Nedergaard, from the University of Copenhagen.

“The UK, the Netherlands, and France have all debated issues related to welfare tourism, immigration, and the level of integration. For the first time ever, this election has shown common trends and themes being discussed across the borders of member states,” Nedergaard says.

Nedergaard argued that the internet was allowing politicians and journalists to pay better attention to the debates in other countries and introduce them into their own national setting.

“We don’t necessarily have a common political arena, but we are seeing all the national political discussions becoming integrated, which shows that European people are increasingly working together. This cross-fertilisation of debates and ideas will accelerate in the coming years. We won’t end up like the US, where there is a single political arena and a single debate. But we are seeing and witnessing an acceleration in political themes being transmitted from one country to another, and that’s a positive sign. We are beginning to take the EU for granted and to recognise that it is not a state in itself, but rather the closest cooperation between states that we have ever witnessed.”


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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