Healthy Euro-skepticism?

25 05 2009

020_19_Merritt

Photo: Giles Merritt (center) speaking at the Public Opinion and Europe symposium. Photo Credit: Matthias Wurz

“Reporting on EU Affairs is boring, and it’s not the journalists’ fault,” exclaimed Giles Merritt, Editor of the Brussels-based bi-lingual journal Europe’s World and Secretary General of the think-tank Friends of Europe, and paused. And while the audience of academics, diplomats, politicians, the occasional journalist and those interested in European affairs caught their breath, he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I used to be a journalist reporting on European Affairs.”

Merritt’s provocative remarks were part of an international symposium on ‘Public Opinion and Europe’ held at the Diplomatic Academy on May 6 – 7. Co-organized by the Austrian-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe and the French Institut Français des Relations Internationales, the conference was chaired by the Centre’s director and former Austrian Foreign Minister Peter Jankowitsch.

In six panel sessions, high-ranking diplomats, civil servants and academics from Austria and a number of EU member states, sought answers to questions on how the public views the European institutions and what could be done about Euro-skepticism. Speakers included French Senator Hubert Haenel, who chairs the senatorial committee on European Affairs; former Director General of Austrian National Bank Heinz Kienzl or Christian Leffler from Sweden, currently Head of Cabinet for EU Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communications Strategy, Margot Wallström.

The conference concluded at the palatial French Embassy, prominently located at the picturesque Schwarzenbergplatz, in eyesight of the Memorial of the Soviet Army across the large square with its spectacular fountain. As the some 100 participants enjoyed the delicious cuisine française – charmingly hosted by His Eminence Ambassador Phillippe Carré – Giles Merritt, former Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times and regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune, offered and in-depth view on Europe over a glass of exquisite French red wine.

Not less, but more Euro-skepticism is needed, he already indicated in public. But how can one assure that openly voiced skepticism helps rather than combats the ideas of European Integration? “You can’t,” Merritt openly admitted, “but you won’t avoid it by not having a skeptical debate.” Otherwise, one is in danger of insulting the people’s intelligence.

The essence of Merritt’s argument lies within the answers the European Institutions – a-la-langue the European Commission as governing body – provides to its citizens. In Merritt’s view, the European Commission, particularly at the time of Jacques Delors as its President (from 1985 to 1995) once the greatest think tank in the world, today just balances the national interests of the member countries to formulate and negotiate a new consensus. The collective of “high-priests of the EU congratulating themselves,” has become something like an intellectual ivory tower with little idea of the concerns European citizens face.

But it is not a matter of lack of information – the website of the European Commission (http://ec.europa.eu/) is one of the most extensive ones with plenty of information in 23 European languages – but the information is not easy to digest. Although simple in its design, the documents provided are often legal texts or speech transcripts; and even the so-called ‘Easy Reading Corner’ provides free booklets on European Affairs, the viewpoint is that of the European Union, not the of its citizens. So maybe dummy-guides to Europe are needed?

Merritt smiled. “We laboured the idea for a long time that the EU has to improvise its communications,” Merritt recited and his disappointment swings in his voice; it was always an illusion to hope for that, as the European institutions did not see communication as a priority. As for reasons, the Brussels bureaucracy is made up primarily of lawyers – as any other national civil service – who know little about communication.

The communication failure on a European and national level about Europe also draws onto the current campaign for the upcoming elections for the European Parliament on June 7. Although for the first time, the European Parliament together with the European Commission and the member states run a unified campaign for active participation at the European parliamentary elections. What are Merritt’s predictions on the outcome?

“A shock,” he firmly stated and paused, and his serious look indicates the dramatic situation. The expectation is still of an extremely low turn-out and this requires, in Merritt’s words, a serious answer from the EU Commission, particularly of its President José Emanuel Barroso. “What is he going to say about the alarm bell of the European elections?” Merritt posed a rhetorical question. Europe’s fate depends on his answer.

This is a draft, the full article was published in June 2009 in The Vienna Review.

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