By Shada Islam
Elections to the European Parliament used to be yawn-inducing. Leadership changes at EU institutions didn’t really matter and while discussions on the ‘Future of Europe’ were numerous, they didn’t get pulses racing.
This time it’s different.
Europe and Europeans have a spring in their step. Brexit, Donald Trump and Eurosceptics were supposed to destroy the EU. Instead, they have energised it.
Yes, there’s much to fret about: the world is in bad shape, populist forces are on the rise in Europe and everyone is vulnerable to manipulation by fake news and toxic disinformation campaigns.
But there’s also an explosion of stimulating, contrasting, different and colourful visions, initiatives and ideas – some sober, some crazy - for re-creating and reviving Europe.
Big and small ‘townhall’ gatherings, noisy national and pan-European pro-EU civic movements and passionate one-man and/or one-woman shows are all demanding a better and more relevant Europe.
Campaigning by the Spitzenkanditaten and their recent televised debates have added substance and a sense of fun to the EU landscape as have new and emerging political alliances (and rivalries) such as the one between the ALDE group in the European Parliament and candidates on French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Renaissance” list.
It’s time to learn from the people. With elections to the European Parliament only days away, EU leaders et al. must catch up with the changed and changing public mood and become just as noisy, loud and passionate about Europe.
For too long, EU summits have focused on technical details and the small print of the European enterprise. Building the EU is a painstakingly slow, difficult and technical exercise. And Brexit has taken up too much time and energy.
Now’s the moment for a change in pace and content. Here are some easy ways in which EU leaders can help to get more voters out to cast their ballot on election day.
First, use the upcoming EU summit in Sibiu to send a strong collective message of hope. Talk about a new EU work programme if you must but make it a fun and forward-looking exercise. Steer clear of painful details, the nuts and bolts of European policymaking.
The technical back story of Europe’s construction, divisions in the house and endless bickering over national priorities can come later. For the moment, focus on the bigger picture. And really, if you do use that wider lens, Europe doesn’t look that bad.
Second, try and build a more interesting, inclusive and positive European narrative. Stop moaning about the Far Right and their expanding influence. That just gives them additional visibility and the publicity they crave. Also, don’t allow the racists and illiberal to put you on the defensive. Instead, build a heroic European story which negates the populists’ erratic, hate-filled rhetoric.
Yes, Europe needs migrants and yes, their arrival and inclusion into mainstream Europe must be carefully managed. European Muslims and Jews are just that: European. And if Viktor Orban and his friends protest, engage in some vigorous pushback.
Third, stop talking like European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker about building a “protective Europe”. Protection from what, exactly. Migrants? Terrorists? America, Russia, China? Technology? Fear makes people stay home, not go out and vote. How about, talking instead about building a Europe that empowers.
An EU that is self-confident enough – and technologically savvy enough - to navigate a changing, more unpredictable world and is not afraid of standing up for its interests and values - in the face of resistance and opposition from friends and rivals.
Fourth, bet on women and young people. Just like Democrats in America did very successfully last year and Spanish Socialists managed just a few days ago, try and make a real connection with women and young people who are vividly interested in and passionate about Europe.
This means making sure that issues such as climate change, the economy, gender equality, social justice, education and health are given top billing.
Finally, embrace change and accept and adjust to the emerging new world order. Some in America and Europe may enjoy talking down the EU, but many across the world are working hard to engage with the world’s largest market and trading bloc. For the last 70 years, Europe has looked westwards to the US for strength and support. It must now widen its gaze to include new global economic giants even while working on its own strategic autonomy, economic and political.
Juncker is wrong about Europeans losing their libido and “not loving each other anymore”. There’s plenty of love and affection among Europeans. There’s plenty of public enthusiasm about Europe. It is now up to EU leaders, politicians and policymakers to rediscover their lost passion for Europe.
*First published in friendsofeurope.org