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Unpopularity and the EU

Gavin Hewitt | 12:45 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I was at a recent dinner in Brussels. It was a gathering of insiders: commissioners, directors, ambassadors. The 150 people brought together in a Cinquantenaire museum were a fair smattering of Europe's elite.

What struck me in the speeches and interviews that interspersed our dinner courses was the vein of insecurity coursing through the comments. When the EU Commissioner Viviane Reding was pushed on the issue of the union's unpopularity she took comfort in her view that at least the EU was more popular than most national governments.

Anti-austerity march in Brussels, 29 Sep 10

It perhaps should not be surprising that beneath confident exteriors EU nerves are jangling. The former US Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum pointed out that this year the EU faced its first "existential crisis" in which the Union "saw the possibility of collapse".

I have spoken to a number of very senior officials who say that in May many did fear that the European project was in mortal danger. The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said that if the euro had collapsed so would the EU. I am not certain of that, but that was the thinking then and it still pervades the Brussels corridors.

In the midst of the crisis a poll by Eurobarometer found that in many countries the popularity of the EU was ebbing. Fewer than half of voters (49%) across Europe seemed to back the EU. The most pronounced change was in Germany, where voters forced to back the bail-out of Greece and to underwrite a larger bail-out mechanism began to lose enthusiasm for the EU project.

It is a change of mood reflected in the Netherlands. Increasingly voters are questioning whether EU spending is a good thing. Some Dutch officials feel that a line has been crossed; in the past EU projects had unswerving support. It is no longer automatic. The EU has to make a case and justify itself.

Outsiders have cast an even sharper eye on what is happening in Euroland.
Charles Kupchan, writing in the Washington Post, declared the "EU is dying".

It does not seem like that in Brussels, but Kupchan's wider observation was that "Europe is experiencing a renationalization of political life, with countries clawing back the sovereignty they once willingly sacrificed in pursuit of a collective deal". He concluded by saying that "many Europeans... wonder what the Union is delivering for them and they ask whether it is worth the trouble".

And that is the change. The idealism, the grand projects, the dreams of ever closer union have lost their appeal to a new generation. The memories of war have faded. The Cold War has been consigned to history. The great expansion of democracy to Eastern Europe is over. Increasingly Europeans approach the EU like any other institution and ask what is it delivering, what is it for?

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, says the recent crisis was "the biggest 'stress test' that Europe has faced for many decades. We have passed it."

That may be true, but a European official said to me that Brussels is struggling to find the language, the narrative to sell the Union in difficult times.

Across Europe the dominant concern is the lack of jobs and the insecurity that comes with cuts and austerity.

Recently Philip Stephens in the Financial Times said that politics was being shaped by two impulses: demand that governments shelter voters from insecurity; but also voters alienated by globalisation, who increasingly fear immigration and the changes it is bringing to their societies.

It is often the European way to focus on institutional change, on new services and committees.

But a senior diplomat said to me recently the challenge was not just to prevent another crisis with the euro, it was how to re-engage ordinary people with the European project. To a degree thus it has ever been, but this is a time when voters are focused on cuts, jobs, immigration. Institution-building may be out of step with the times.


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