EU Fear At Fault

New Nationalism threatens to hinder Union’s progress

Poster ÖVP

Posters from Austria’s center-right party for the EU elections: “Vote Europe, Strenghen Austria” | Photo:Christian Cummins

The following is an excerpt from an address by Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, “A compromise is nobodies darling,” at an International Symposium on ‘Public Opinion and Europe’  on May 5.

Possibly the most frequent explanation for EU skepticism is that people apparently are under the impression (which journalists exploit) that Europe does not have the answers to all the questions that people are asking. They believe that Europe is setting the wrong priorities. This is primarily because Europe evolved as a business community of fairly well-off countries, and so concentrated at the beginning on questions of the market. What concerns the people of Europe however, are things like employment, the health system, education, pensions, social security and taxes.

But these are matters that the member states will never let out of their immediate sphere of control. They do not fall within the competence of Europe, because, after all, the social state, more important than ever since the advent of the economic crisis, is actually the twin brother of the nation state.

There is no and never will be a European social state, and nobody has ever tried to introduce such a thing, because the socio-economic conditions in the member states differ far too much. Any attempt at harmonization has been feared, and yet at the same time Europe is criticized precisely because it has no such powers. This is a case of false expectations.

Now in Austria this is especially true, because people here thought they were getting something like a political ÖAMTC – an automobile club with a breakdown service. And now people are asking, “How good is the breakdown service in this economic crisis?”

But here too we have to remember that in Austria – very differently than in France, for example – we did not experience the postwar economic miracle as evolving parallel to the EU. Here we are under the mistaken impression that the economic miracle was tied to our neutrality. This is a question of the chronology, but that is how it is.

The next point is that wealth in Austria did not develop according to some neo-liberal economics textbook, but as a result of quite different mechanisms. As a result, people come to the conclusion, falsely, that globalization, which occurred unfortunately more or less at the same time as our membership in the EU, is thus linked to the EU, and that the expansion of the EU is something like a fifth column of globalization.

Out of this mix of wrong ideas we have ended up with a situation in which the EU is blamed for many things for which it cannot be held responsible. The EU, in fact, is actually a kind of protection against globalization, and not the problem.

However, there is another criticism, which I want to mention, even as a confirmed European. Many people feel that there is a lack of what we might call “emotional intelligence” in the European Institutions. And I can understand that because I worked for a long time in Brussels and it is very difficult for the European Commission to fulfill all the mandates that it should according to the Treaty, to understand fully everything about the 27 member states and then to present proposals that are really neutral and well-balanced. This is extremely difficult to do, and they don’t always succeed. Because of the size of the Union and how far they are away from practical issues, the proposals are at times not ideally formulated, and the closer we come to an election the worse they get.

In addition, people aren’t really interested in the Institutions of the EU, just as no-one is interested in the electrical plan of their washing machine. They just want it to work. But the EU has been negotiating for years about its own electrical plan, over and over again with all the attendant difficulties, and that lets people fish out a few crazy details and point out how bad they are. And most people believe it, because they have no idea how things really stand.

Beyond that the EU is simply very large, and this is a problem in many ways. But there wasn’t really any alternative to EU expansion after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which had been longed for in Europe for decades.

However, the fact is that the hugeness of the EU and the heterogeneity that has ensued from the size have created a feeling of helplessness in its citizens. It is a feeling of anonymity they find it hard to come to terms with. This is why “subsidiary” (although no-one really knows what that is or how it works) is actually very popular – a real buzz word.

People ask, “How can we, as new member states, make it clear to Brussels that our country is special and has something important to contribute to the EU?” I read with great amusement how an Icelandic politician is supposed to have said, “Iceland is something very special because we gave Europe its sagas.” Everyone has an argument for their special status, and why they feel they are not being honored enough in Brussels. The ordinary citizen has the impression his or her voice is not being heard in Europe and is deeply frustrated, both in private and in public life.

Is the basic mood in Europe skeptical? I would like to leave that question open. But there are certainly many things to be frustrated about, such as the subject of a European foreign policy. Isn’t it about time we had one? Why is there no uniform voice in Europe? Don’t we often say solidarity but mean the others should show solidarity, not we ourselves?

Then there are the political scientists who say everything was a lot easier in the Cold War because we had a common enemy. And now we haven’t got one any more. Well, thank God! But it is true it makes it more difficult to come to agreement among ourselves, and finally see that the big challenges are common challenges, irrespective of whether they are the neighboring countries of Russia or China, or the problems with the WTO or whatever.

Europe skepticism is healthy, because when you are skeptical at least you won’t get any unpleasant surprises. But there is an old Irish joke about a man driving along a road with nothing but fields and countryside all around. He is lost and stops to ask the way of an Irish farmer, who, when hearing where the man wants to go, shakes his head and says, “If that’s where you want to go, I wouldn’t start from here!”

But it is just that that is sometimes the problem with the Europe skeptics. We are where we are in a Europe which is by no means perfect, which has many flaws, where a whole number of things annoy us. But it’s where we have to start from for the future.

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