Like every year, BOZAR is hosting the ‘Brussels Days’, an initiative organised by L’OBS, aimed at bringing together the major political, economic and cultural players of the European Union to debate the foremost common challenges.
Despite its best efforts to get its message through to its citizens, Europe has still not succeeded, at least for the moment, in restoring its severely tarnished public image. Seen as an institutional and technocratic construction, it faces many criticisms, often imaginary, based on stereotypes and preconceived ideas. It was not always thus. Until the early 2000s, the EU rested on a strong bedrock of favourable opinion, firmly embedded in public attitudes. How is it that 15–20 years later, the European project has not only used up its sympathy capital, but that its very purpose is now so degraded?
The causes of Europhobia
Several factors can explain this process of disenchantment between the Union and public opinion. On the one hand, the failure of the European Constitution project, rejected by a clear majority (54.68%) of French voters in a referendum in 2005, then patched up by the tinkering of the Lisbon Treaty, gave voters the impression that what they had clearly rejected was being forced in through the back door. This led to an unprecedented division: Europe was struck by a gradual loss of credibility, discredited and delegitimised from its base, which began to think that the Union was being built in the name and for the benefit of the elites. We have failed to measure the impact of this decision on public opinion, appearing as it did to confirm the most extravagant of fantasies and theories about the Union, feeding a narrative of EU hostility to the nation state.
On the other hand, the enlargements towards the East of 2003 and 2013, coming before a deeper consolation of the integration of the EU-15, considerably changed the face of the Union. More significantly still, it confirmed a sense of the inevitability of the collapse of the middle classes, caused by the repeated blows of the market economy: with labour costs significantly lower in the new member states, the fall in incomes and relocations struck hardest at the weakest economic actors, sparking an unprecedented race to the bottom. The acceleration of globalisation and the breakneck economic development of emerging countries greatly accentuated the phenomenon.
In addition, the financial crisis of 2017, which again struck at the most vulnerable populations, paradoxically led to a significant increase in the financialisation of the economy, an absurdity of history experienced very badly by the public and which further widened the gap between the increasingly difficult socio-economic reality experienced by ever more Europeans, and the virtualisation of global economic movements and players. At the same time, this growing abstraction underlined the limits of national authority, contributing to a sense of impunity for the powerful at a time when austerity policies were having an all-too-real impact on the lives and pockets of the middle classes. Moreover, the reasons given to justify such measures invoked budgetary orthodoxy, i.e. a mishmash of measures that meant very little to ordinary citizens (such as the reduction of the sovereign debt burden, the gradual reduction to 60% of GDP or compliance with the limit of 3% of GDP in the general government deficit). Added to this was that these criteria had been laid down by the Maastricht Treaty, meaning that national elected representatives found it all too easy to shirk their responsibilities by telling their voters that it was ‘all Europe’s fault’.
‘Things were better yesterday’
In a global environment that is ever more open, where it is no longer possible to live cut off from the world, so interdependent have economies and socio-demographic changes become, it is only natural to want to cling on to something familiar, something that harks back to a nostalgia for the structures and patterns of yesteryear, something that feels safer, more secure, more sustainable than the world of tomorrow. And if we leave the comfort zone of the nation state for something bigger like Europe, the nation seems all the more attractive, it speaks to us, persuades us, allows us to see ourselves in it.
These are probably the most important challenges facing us in the years ahead: we are yet to create the narrative for Europe, something that can give meaning to a collective destiny. The post-national state is ahead of us, and it is up to us to build it together through a vast network of meanings to be rooted in new synergies and new ways of living together – not just culturally, but socially, economically and institutionally.
Staring at the void that stretches out before us, it is all too easy to forget that we live in a region that has been at peace for more than 70 years. This is such a valuable achievement that it alone is almost sufficient to legitimise European integration. We are also a beacon for the exchange of cultures and learning that is particularly appreciated across the world. Consider, for example, that thanks to the Erasmus or similar programmes, our children can study wherever they want and receive the training they are looking for in 27 countries, as well as all the others who have joined the project. The mobility that allows people to travel is a formidable vector of exchange and interaction. It also makes it possible to create collaborations that would be unimaginable without Europe, or in other parts of the world that do not benefit from a similar continuous and homogeneous space. We have also succeeded in creating strong links between countries and peoples that have been suspicious of each other for centuries. Likewise, we have developed a social model that is almost unique in the world (with variations and differences of degree between member states), which makes it possible to benefit from solid protection in terms of work, healthcare, etc., even if the economic difficulties added to the worrying ageing of the population have weakened these achievements and are forcing European countries to imagine new forms of social organisation, mutualisation, training, apprenticeship, etc.
A new start?
It is all the more important therefore to face up to the challenges ahead. The social aspect of Europe remains to be invented, an aspect that would certainly improve its image and re-establish its legitimacy in the eyes of many of its detractors – more frustrated by the economic fragility of their situation than genuinely motivated by Europhobic sentiment. Brexit has left a mark and has given credence to the idea that Europe is in retreat. It is a fact that nationalist movements are multiplying across Europe. But we could also turn the argument around and say that with the British on their way out, and having never been in favour of greater European integration – they follow a Churchillian tradition that favours a ‘Europe of the Nations’ – this now leaves more room for the Franco-German axis and the other founder members of the Union to return to the spirit of the Treaties and move ahead with European integration.
Europe might be at the dawn of a ‘renaissance’, after a decade of crises. A new generation is emerging on the continent, in politics, in civil society, among intellectuals. They seem determined to rethink the European project, to reconnect it with its citizens who had turned away from Europe.
In this case, there are many solutions, particularly in the field of participatory democracy, to increase citizen involvement in the management of Europe. There is the possibility of participating in the drafting of legislative proposals, which could be drawn up by citizens and submitted to the agenda of the European Parliament. New structural interfaces for co-management between the voluntary sector and European elected representatives could also be considered. It is easy to imagine greater proximity between the major cultural institutions and European policy in this area. All these issues, and many similar others, crucial to enabling the European project to take root more deeply in civil society, will be discussed during these ‘Brussels Days’. They will be a unique opportunity to listen, debate and think together about the future of the European Union, which is so important to the future of its citizens.