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Op Ed: Why Does The European Union Disappoint Us?


Why Does The European Union Disappoint Us?

By PACE - The Party of the Citizens of Europe

SYNOPSIS: Europe, as a political project, is going through a difficult period. If Europe is to flourish, its legitimacy must be fully recognised by European Citizens. Recognised acccording to both meanings of the word, i.e. clearly identified and indentifiable, on the one hand, and truly valued for its utility, on the other. As regards utility, Europe needs to be perceived by its citizens as effective in dealing with key issues like youth unemployment, the fight against terrorism and effective management of migration and the refugee crisis - all issues which have a strong cross-border dimension. As regards identification, it needs a clear geographical and institutional identity, as it is apparent that European Citizens want both clear borders and understandable governance. This article sets out practical proposals to achieve these objectives.

Police watch on as the makeshift tents of refugees in the Calais Jungle burn. Image (Creative Commons) by Amirah Breen

I- Facts

The popularity of the European Union (EU) is rather low. Eurobarometer poll N° 78 - of Autumn 2012 - showed that between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of European citizens who had a positive opinion on the EU dropped from 50% to 30%, while the percentage of those with a negative view rose from 15% to 29% [1]. Positive and negative opinions were therefore very close in 2012, while in 2006 they were separated by a gap of 35 points. As to the percentage of citizens who had no opinion at all (neutral), it moved up from 32% to 39% over the same period. Standard Eurobarometer N° 83 of spring 2015 shows an improvement: positive opinions are up to 41%, negative opinions down to 19% and neutral opinions stable at 38% [2]. However, the crisis of confidence in the state of the European Union remains a serious issue, not simply for those considering exit – i.e. the Greeks and the British [3] - but for everybody in Europe [4].

II - Issue at stake: Does the lack of popularity of the EU mean the failure of the European project or can we still change the course of things?

To answer this question, let us try first to identify the causes of the current distance of the citizens vis-à-vis Europe. We have identified four causes.

1 – The citizens are disappointed by the results achieved by the European Union (EU).

The citizens do not expect the EU to represent them (this is a symbolic role reserved to the “Nation States”), nor to get involved in their daily life (a role reserved in the first place to regional and local governments). They expect Europe to protect them: to keep protecting them from war as it did since its foundation in 1950, a success that most citizens acknowledge; to keep protecting their rights, mainly through the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, also dating back to 1950, and through the European Court of Human Rights (based in Strasbourg), which is responsible for its implementation and can be accessed by any citizen [5]. These two expectations remain fundamental but new risks have appeared: global warming, economic decline (with the rise of competing giants like China and India), terrorism and massive migration. It is to protect them from these main risks that the citizens look to Europe and expect results from it. Yet, too many citizens feel that Europe is not up to these fundamental challenges, that it does not get sufficient results [6]. Meanwhile, the European Union gives the impression it is willing to get involved in every minor issue and to standardise everything (the crude milk cheese syndrome).

2 – Many citizens feel “Brussels” is an opaque world, under the influence of lobbies, cut off from the public, privileged and irresponsible.

They criticise it for being more technocratic than democratic and for leaving the more important decisions to a directorate made of some large Member States. This was humorously but rather accurately reflected some time ago in the expression “Merkozy”, a contraction of Merkel and Sarkozy.

3 – Through successive enlargements, many citizens have lost the sense of the European project.

A Six-State Europe could be easily grasped by the citizens as it was, more or less, the Europe of Charlemagne. In a Europe of 28 States - and probably growing to 30 or 35 in the medium term -, we have a Union in which many people are not at all familiar with each other, in which affective links are diluted. The European Community “family” turns into a classical international organisation, too vast, too remote, too “disembodied”, in which it is difficult to develop a sense of belonging among the citizens.

4 – Europe is often used as a scapegoat when national policies fail.

As soon as something goes wrong in the economy of a Member State, or in many other fields, it is easier for national politicians to accuse Brussels than to recognise their own responsibility. For instance when Europe, in order to strengthen the stability of the common currency, demands from the Member States that they reduce the debts they have contracted, it is Europe, not the latter, which takes the blame for austerity, together with unpopularity.

III – PACE’s stand: how to deal with this situation

Problem N° 1: The citizens are disappointed by the results achieved by the European Union (EU)

While facing motivated and determined international competitors, the European Union economic policies are not properly coordinated, are too liberal and lack political will.

As far as massive migration and the fight against terrorism are concerned, such issues are too complex and too international to be solved by individual Member States.

Regarding the fight against global warming, the EU is quite effective but this issue is not a daily concern for citizens, unlike jobs, migration and terrorism.

For Europe to be more effective in the economic field, where it is expected to lead, it should, inter alia:

  • better regulate and check banking activities to avoid being confronted again with risky investments, indecent bonuses and financing of the banks' mistakes by taxpayers;

  • be more demanding in commercial negotiations:

  • encourage the development of European economic “champions”, even if it requires the adoption of a more flexible interpretation of the principle of free competition;

  • set up a sovereign wealth fund able to take participations in strategic European industries;

  • help SMEs gain market share in European and external markets (i.e. support for translation and interpretation, participation in professional and trade fairs), encourage the creation of European producers cooperatives and “European multinational SMEs”;

  • better protect intellectual property;

  • move towards harmonised or approximated corporate taxation;

  • within the EU itself, fight unfair competition rooted in differences of wages and employers’ social security contributions and in non-compliance with environmental regulations; this is a fundamental issue that calls for progressive harmonisation of the social and environmental framework and, in the meantime, for compensatory measures in favour of the producers who suffer from unfair competition. The Single Market cannot be a jungle: it must be an even playing field.

To be effective, the fight against terrorism must be undertaken in close cooperation between European States, as shown by the capture in Brussels, on 18th March 2016, of a key actor of the 2015 Paris attacks. He was hunted down by a joint Belgian-French investigation team. It is time to go beyond bilateral cooperation and set up a European anti-terrorist unit.

As far as migration management is concerned, the EU must set up a strong Federal Border Police (including a Coastal Guard) able to act effectively at the external borders such as the Greek islands or Southern Italy. It must be complemented by a Mobile Humanitarian and Administrative Task Force able to deal with massive influxes: proper reception of migrants, identification of their motivations (economic or humanitarian) and of their level of education, orientation etc. In relation to this selection process, the package of subsidies granted by the EU to its Member States must take into account the effort made by each of them to accept refugees on its territory.

It is particularly naive and short-sighted to think that every single Member State could lock itself behind walls. The situation in Calais shows that the United Kingdom needs France to prevent large numbers of migrants from crossing the Channel. And France needs that the situation in Greece and Southern Italy be under control.

Problem N° 2: Many citizens regard Brussels as an opaque world, under the influence of lobbies, cut off from the public, privileged and irresponsible.

The European Commission, i.e. the “European Government”, does not have, as yet, enough political legitimacy and weight to impose its authority on senior European civil servants and to resist national Heads of Government and industrial lobbies. The European Commission is therefore perceived as more technocratic than democratic.

How can we overcome this difficulty and establish a real European political leadership, accountable and subject to democratic supervision? The answer is simple: since the last election of the European Parliament, in May 2014, the President of the European Commission (i.e. the Head of the European “Government”) is elected by the European Parliament, which is itself directly elected by the citizens (before 2014, the President of the Commission was appointed by the Heads of State or Government). As this democratic improvement is new, most European citizens were not aware of it in 2014: they did not understand that they could choose not only their MEPs (members of the European Parliament) but also the leader of the European “Government”. Hopefully, by next time (2019), they will be fully aware of this power which is now in their hands and they will mobilise and vote for political parties which will put forward very clearly, for the presidency of the Commission, a candidate a) known for his/her care about the European peoples' common interest (i.e. a European-minded person), b) with undisputable personal qualities, c) and with a clear agenda for Europe.

Thus Europe will have a “Head of Government” with a real and clear political legitimacy and mandate. This will give her/him more weight vis-à-vis the European Public Administration, the Member States' Governments and the various lobbies. This evolution will reduce the distance between Brussels and the European citizens.

It will be necessary, as a complement, to grant the right of legislative initiative to the European Parliament, which it currently does not have.

Problem N° 3: Through successive enlargements, many citizens have lost the meaning of the European project.

Europe's enlargements have been very positive in strengthening the continent’s political stability and anchoring the role of democracy in the East following the fall of the Iron Curtain [7]. But all the European countries are not at the same stage of political, economic and social development. Nor do they have similar views on Europe, as shown by the debates on BREXIT and the disputes on refugees. It is time to draw the consequences of this situation

To satisfy the Member States which want to move forward towards a political union, while respecting those which, like the United Kingdom, do not wish an “ever closer union”, one must create, beside a better driven and supervised European Union (see Problem No. 2), a political Federation bringing together highly motivated Member States.

In the medium and long terms, Europe would therefore be organised in 3 concentric circles:

  • The European Republic [8] (or European Commonwealth) could include the six Founding States (Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands) and the countries which came on board more recently but feel ready to enter a political federation. The European Republic would be an economically and politically strongly integrated area; beside the current competences of the Euro Area, it would have some competence in the fields of Taxation, Social rights, Energy, Migration and Borders, Foreign Affairs and Defence.

  • The European Union, made of its 28 current Member States plus countries of the Western Balkans which are not members as yet (Albania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -FYROM-, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Moldova - which could become an autonomous province of Romania) and Iceland, Norway and Switzerland if those States wish to accede. The "new" EU would keep developing various common policies and could play the role of ante-chamber of the European Republic;

  • The Grand Europe or European Confederation [9], i.e. the European Union plus Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, an intergovernmental area of deepened economic, legal and cultural co-operation. The Council of Europe, which already includes 47 States, could be the frame of this Confederation.

It is clear that some EU countries do not want a political Europe (i.e. the United Kingdom). Let us respect their position but let us not be slowed down by them.

Problem N° 4: Europe is often used by national politicians as a scapegoat when national policies fail.

We find here again a lack of European political leadership able to explain and defend European policies (see Problem No. 2).

But we cannot leave everything in the hands of the President of the European Commission and his/her team: the citizens must assume ownership of Europe which is their “supranational” area [10], get involved and support the European “Government” whilst putting pressure on it to get results.

The citizens of European countries need to get used to thinking of themselves as ‘European citizens’ and not simply as national ones, so as to be more critical vis-à-vis national political parties and their arguments about Europe. Europe is today in the hands of political parties, the majority of which think in an almost purely national way. A democratic Europe cannot move forward unless citizens get involved in European affairs through genuine European political parties like PACE, the members of which stem from all over Europe, are not the hostages of any national party and can thus reflect jointly on the European general interest and on policies to be adopted and implemented in common at European level.


The European project was launched 66 years ago, which is a very short time in historic terms to unify so many nations and states, some of which count more than 1000 years of history.

Europe still finds itself in a form of political puberty. It must mature beyond the self centered perspectives of its individual Member States.

This situation does not mark the failure of the European project. However, it invites us to analyse it with a critical eye in order to lay proper foundations for the next step and move forward again, with the citizens' support.




3. In the UK, positive and negative opinions are very close (32% and 28%, respectively) ; in Greece, negative opinions reach 37% while positive ones are at a low 25%.

4. By ‘Europe’ we mean here the European union (EU)

5. Strictly speaking, the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950 and the European Court of Human Rights in charge of its implementation are respectively a legal instrument and an institution of the Council of Europe (COE), not of the European Union. The COE is a pan-European organisation of 47 States (versus 28 for the EU) which, thanks to the adoption of legal instruments and the defence of the European values, is a key component of the European integration project.

6. See the conference of Notre Europe, 16th July 2013, on “L’UE en quête de symbols” (The EU’s quest for symbols) where was underlined the fact that ‘the EU is founded on three main forms of legitimacy out of which “results-based legitimacy” and legitimacy based upon “citizens' commitment”.

7. Who knows how countries like Bulgaria and Romania would have evolved, had they not been included in the European Union? The three other countries of the Soviet Bloc which have not taken this path have become respectively a dictatorial regime (Belarus), an authoritarian one under the cover of democracy (Russia) and a highly conflicting “democracy” (Ukraine).

8. The word “Republic” must be understood here in its etymological sense of ‘res publica’ (the public good, the "common wealth"), i.e. a political entity characterised by democracy, the Rule of Law, equality between the citizens and solidarity. From this point of view, European constitutional monarchies can be regarded as “Crowned Republics”. They would therefore have all their place in the “European Republic”.

9. A proposal made in 1989 by French President François Mitterrand.

10. Let us remember that the European Union still represents today the strongest GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in the world. Therefore Europe can, if it is united, be on equal footing in terms of power (economic, political, cultural etc..) with the big empires of the beginning of the 21st Century, i.e the United States of America, China and India.


EXPLANATORY NOTE REGARDING PUBLICATION: This article is a revised English translation of the opening chapter of the manifesto of the PACE Political Party Donne une voix à l'Europe. PACE, The Party of the Citizens of Europe, is a pan European Party committed to strengthening the European Union and maintaining peace in Europe.

Publication of an English translation of the complete PACE book is expected in May 2016. French and German editions are already available and a Spanish language version will be scheduled for publication shortly. English language online publication is taking place now in light of the UK referendum on exit from the European Union which is due to take place in June 2016.

Creative Commons (CC) - Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) - This article is freely available for republication in print or online. Please acknowledge the source and notify usage to this address: ]

Original version written in French by PACE's team.
Translated by Edward Dunkley.
Revised by Charlotte Gauteur, Philippe Mazuel and Alastair Thompson

© Scoop Media

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