What matters Europe?
Guest columnist Anu Partanen on the great European illusion.
This summer it’s been a year since I moved back to Europe after a decade in the United States. I found a Europe much changed.
My home country, Finland, joined the European Union in 1995, the year I turned 20. All of a sudden, the world was wide open. I studied for a year in France, travelled across Europe with my new passport, and felt like a global citizen.
Then came the new millennium. I moved to the US, the euro crisis followed the financial crisis, everyone in Europe started arguing, and wars and terrorism exacerbated our mutual fear. Personally, I realised that my supposed global citizenship had been an illusion. The United States and the wider world beyond Europe quickly taught me how little I really understood about other countries.
By the time I moved back to Europe, the way I felt seemed to be reflected in the way Europeans had turned sour on the European Union.
For a while now, many Europeans have been thinking of the whole EU project in similar terms as many Americans see the US federal government: as a corrupt, elitist, far-away power structure that takes your money but gives nothing back.
Over the past decade, public discussion about the EU has been relentlessly negative.
Ask the youth of today what matters.
Which is why many were surprised by the results of the European Parliament election in May. The voter turnout was higher than expected, the anti-EU populist parties were less successful than predicted, and the green parties gained the most.
The results would have come as less of a surprise had we paid less attention to headlines and more attention to surveys showing what the majority of Europeans really think about the EU.
In a recent, pre-election Europe-wide survey, 80 per cent of respondents said they believe that what brings European citizens together is more important than what separates them. In another survey, two out of three European Union citizens said they believe their country has benefited from EU membership. Over half of the respondents described the EU with words such as “hope” or “confidence.”
And yet, at the same time, one-third said they have doubts. Those doubts were exemplified by yet one more survey, which showed that most EU voters believe the European project could collapse within the next ten to 20 years. More than a quarter see a war between EU member states as a realistic possibility.
To sum up: The majority of Europeans recognise the value of the European Union. They just don’t believe the EU will make it.
What to do? Ask the young.
It’s no coincidence that green parties won big in May. When people under 30 were asked pre-election what the EU’s priorities should be, more than two in three picked climate change and environmental protection.
The youth of today may not associate the EU with the exhilarating freedom that it once represented for me, but they do know they are global citizens. And saving the globe is all that matters.
Now there’s a mission for Europe.