Stuck between apathy for Europe and hatred for Europe: how did we end up here?

If you’re planning to vote in the upcoming European elections, you could be in a tiny minority. With less than two weeks before polling stations open, an opinion poll reported by Reuters has found that only 35 per cent of EU citizens plan to vote, with most claiming they’re simply not that interested in taking part in the electoral process. This even falls below the woefully low bar set at the last election, when the average turnout was only 43 per cent.


Millions of people across the continent watched – and indeed voted in – the Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday, how many knew it had been Europe Day the day before. And how many bothered to find a TV channel on which to watch the second EU presidential debate (not that the debate itself was particularly engaging). Support for the EU is, shamefully, at a particularly low ebb. So how did we get to the point at which an inspired and beautiful project to ensure peace and prosperity across the country was thought so little of? And who’s to blame?


The fact is that the ‘European project’ is too obscure or too abstract for many to grasp, and the way in which it is often presented or explained is too dense and uninspiring to invoke much in the way of interest. In the very best case scenario, those who defend the European project rely on stock sound bites and limp arguments around peace, unity, economic growth or diversity – ignoring that they make little sense and are of little interest to a public wanting to know how it relates to their lives. In contrast, those in opposition to Europe, often with a nationalist and populist message, cross the divide by speaking directly, passionately and relevantly to the public. If you want an example of these contrasting approaches, you need look no further than the Clegg versus Farage debate – although effective populist messaging can be found across Europe, including in France (the National Front) or the Netherlands (PVV).


The situation is compounded by mainstream political parties borrowing populist and anti-European arguments for short-term political capital, rather than countering the populism and explaining effectively the benefits of the EU. David Cameron’s insistence on an in/out referendum for the UK is a typical example, and there is a tendency across Members States for mainstream parties to vilify the EU as either responsible for or a distraction to domestic troubles. The result is that sensible debate on the merits of the EU is ignored, relationships between the EU and national governments break down, and nationalist arguments are strengthened.


Even the strongest Europhiles recognise the EU is not a utopia, but there has been too much criticism and vilification of the EU. What is needed now are courageous leaders capable of clearly articulating what is right with the EU and can be improved – but in a way that engages voters rather than switching off their interest like turning off a light.


Without a positive and constructive debate, Europe faces a continual decline. The onus must be on mainstream political parties across Europe to engage in responsible debate, work constructively with the EU, take forward the idea of collaboration for mutual benefit and hold themselves responsible for engaging their electorates in the right way. This is what will improve the EU, ensure there is no democratic deficit, and provide an EU presidential debate that can be broadcast without fear of sending viewers to sleep.