Winning over the people of Europe to Europe
“We Europeans are united in peace, to pursue happiness and prosperity for ourselves and for the whole world.”
“Not only asserting this but winning the people of Europe over to it and venturing to seek a new start –in my view, that will be the order of business in the coming years,” Cardinal Marx President of COMECE, declared in his speech at the COMECE evening debate in Brussels last November.
Communication about Europe is more important than ever!
The European Union has always been trying to bring its citizens closer to Europe, through information offices in the Member States and countless booklets (even comics), and also by means of special support programmes, for example Europe for Citizens, to make it possible for them to participate in the process of building Europe. This year, the European Year of Citizens, is devoted to the citizens of the Union (cf. Europeinfos No 157). Sadly, in spite of all these initiatives, it remains clear that, for many citizens, Europe, and indeed Brussels, seem remote, and not just geographically.
To give an example: this impression is underpinned by the level of participation in the last elections to the European Parliament. In June 2009, right across Europe, only about 161 million voters (i.e. 43.24% of all EU citizens entitled to vote) turned out to vote. In some Member States, the turnout was even as low as 20%. This reveals a drop in turnout since the first European elections were held in 1979.
On top of this comes the fact that Europe is currently facing its biggest test yet. For several years, the debt crisis has held the EU firmly in its grip and has dictated the European policy-making agenda. In large parts of Europe, the crisis has reached the wallets of ‘ordinary’ citizens. Disgruntlement about Europe is noticeable: in some places the European flag has even been burned in desperation, and there has been a revival of supposedly 'long-forgotten' national stereotypes. Instead of growing together, there is a danger of falling apart. Never before has communication about Europe been so important!
Could political union provide a way out of the crisis?
In moments such as these, right now, the calls for more Europe and more integration are getting louder. A readjustment of powers between national and European levels seems to be the right action to take and that soon. A political union could provide one of the ways out of the crisis. But what prospects are there for any political union, especially one where citizens should be involved?
A lot is being published these days on the future of Europe. There is also a great deal of debate (cf. Europeinfos No 155). One interesting report by the Forschungs-Initiative NRW in Europa (FINE), commissioned by the Europe Minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Dr Angelica Schwall-Düren, was recently presented in Brussels. In this report, entitled Politische Union – Demokratische Mitgestaltung und soziale Sicherheit [“Political union – democratic decision-making and social security”], besides analysing the current situation, the researchers propose possible short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions for a “political union”. In addition, they also venture to think in the direction of a “social union” – a debate which, at present, is still being conducted very unobtrusively.
FINE comes to the conclusion that, alongside the economic and financial policy crises, the EU is confronted with a crisis of legitimacy. Basic approval of the European idea is intact, and European policy-making has essentially retained its democratic nature. Nevertheless, the EU sees itself facing a serious political crisis of confidence: for the first time EU membership itself is being queried and there are hints of a return to national policy-making. In recent years, against precisely this backdrop, the bishops of COMECE have repeatedly called for collective responsibility to be taken for finding solutions to overcome the crisis (see, for example, press release dated 28 October 2011).
An opportunity: the European Parliament elections in 2014
The academics from FINE see the politicisation of the European policy debate as a way out of the crisis. All Europe’s citizens should be able to take decisions on weighty political alternatives in European policy and thereby become involved in the basic content of policy choices. According to the researchers, this would at the same time increase media interest in European policy. They see next year’s European elections as an opportunity for politicised debate and, not least, for mobilising citizens to support the European project. This would require not only an institutional reassessment of the European Parliament, but also a new approach to the players in European politics, (e.g. by nomination of a top candidate for the office of President of the Commission) and putting clear political alternatives to a vote.
Social union as a substantive alternative to current European policy
A second area of the report by FINE puts the spotlight on the concept of a social union. Today, social policy still lies to a great extent within the domain of the individual Member States. The EU supports and supplements their activities. The project of a European social union is thought through as a political alternative to current policy. Such a social union would not aim to bring together all European social systems into a standardised model, but rather to set up a common European framework for social policy and its implementation at European, national and regional levels in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.
In addition, the authors of the report argue that protection against basic risks (e.g. health insurance and nursing care insurance), safeguarding of the standard of living (e.g. unemployment benefit and pension schemes) and the social services on offer should be appropriate to economic performance and should be guaranteed at a minimum level. In the authors’ view, such a social union should be controlled not only by political-institutional means but also by both sides of industry and the social support organisations.
The report points out that economic recession can also mean cuts in social services. At their meeting with the Irish EU Presidency recently, representatives of the Churches issued a similar warning about the social impact of the crisis.
The report on political union by Forschungs-Initiative NRW in Europa discussed in this article contains many interesting viewpoints and provides material for further discussion. One thing should be clear, though: when we promote “more Europe”, either in Brussels or locally in the Member States, we should take the COMECE President’s appeal to heart and not overlook the task of taking Europe’s people with us to Europe. At the end of the day, it is our citizens who will decide on further steps towards integration – when they vote, either in elections or in referendums.
Translated from the original text in German