By Tasio Ayensa, Head of 89 Spain
The European Union is a project based on diversity. Diversity of cultures, idioms, economies and perceptions. Hence the EU´s motto In Veritate Concordia (unity in diversity), which not only reflects the common destinies of its members, but also their biggest challenge: to reach, maintain and go foward all together in this unity.
Along the past few years we have witnessed several critical epidodes for the EU: the failure of the EU Constitution, the 2008 financial crisis (with the first stability measures in the Euro area) or, more recently, the Brexit political mismatch. It can be said that all of them reflect the loss of trust and citiziens’ disenchantmet with the Union, from the referendum in the UK to the protests over the Brussels’ budget measures. But the truth is that, according to the surveys carried out by the Eurobarometer, citizien support for European integration – and towards the EU itself – grows every year.
This statement requires some nuance, though. According to these surveys, European citizens show greater support for the European project but, especially since 2015, they have also been more critical with the European institutions. Although it may seem incongruous, this might reflect the clash between the perceptions of European citiziens and the pace followed by the EU institutions, since disenchantment is not necessarily vis-a-vis the political idea of the EU (which has not lost its charm and that in fact becomes more stable over time), but more with its apparent institutional blockage, already perceived as inherent by many of them.
Let´s back up this idea with some data: according to the last opinion survey of the Eurobarometer, 72% of European citiziens – a considerable figure – believe that what binds European nationals is much more important compared to what separates them. In addition, there is a steady flow of improvement in judgement towards migration between European countries. Together, these data show the existence and the evolution of a common European political culture, which is the basis of any solid common project.
One could ask then, if European citiziens are showing pro-Eurpean sentiments, why are they increasingly critical with their institutions?
To answer this question, we can refer to the data provided by the Eurobarometer. According to the question “which of the following policies should be a priority to the European Parliament?”, a majority of Europeans responded in the following order: fighting poverty and social exclusion, fighting terrorism in accordance with rights and individual freedoms, migration policies and common security and defense policy.
Even with the effects of the migrant crisis and the terror attacks in European soil, whose impact clearly reflected in the answers, it seems clear that European citiziens expect their institutions to develop further common competences, especially with regard to welfare, internal and external security. The divergence between citizen expectations and the political reality of the EU is thus evident. It may be added that economic and budgetary coordination policies, the current of EU´s core activity, are in last place.
These data outline a two-speed kind of European integration: on the one hand, European citizens expect the EU to advance on its competences and take position on the welfare and security issues, agreeing on a common migration policy, and not a Union dealing only with macroeconomic policies. This reflects the evolution of a common European political culture, which demands an institutional reality which is in line with its beliefs. Beliefs shaped by realities such as the Schengen zone which, once settled in the social imaginary, cannot be rationally conceived without a common migration policy.
On the other hand, the activity of governments in the European Commission shows how jealously they guard their competences, reaching agreements merely through the formula of the lowest common denominator.
This model can never result in ambitious policies on European integration and possibly for this reason, the gap between the citizens and the EU is widening. To understand the core of the issue, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the EU has reached a critical point in its integration process, in which governments must start ceding traditional powers and make the leap to federal policy. Maybe they are afraid of ceding these powers to institutions they do not fully control. However, they should not stop at this crossroad more than strictly necessary, because every day that passes, the distance between citizens and institutions widens, prompting a two-speed Europe. Taken to the extreme, this will lead us to a divided Europe, because no political project has ever been able to sustain itself on differents political cultures. A reform of the EU institutions is likely to be necessary, as well as an internal democratisation process allowing the transfer of powers demanded by its citizens, viable and capable of stopping the governments’ perception of it being problematic. It’s time for a change in our political culture and mindset, but also in the government actions. Leaving this crossroad depends on it and it has never been more important to European politics.