Last updated: March 22, 2007 7:54 pm

Europe’s child may look sickly at 50 but it lives and prospers

Europe’s leaders will gather dutifully in Berlin this weekend to celebrate 50 years of “ever closer union”. There will be formal declarations, cultural events, a cake festival and officially organised all-night raves. But do not expect the European Union’s 480m ordinary citizens to be hanging out the flags.

Half a century on from the founding Treaty of Rome, the remarkable successes of the EU have never translated into popular appeal. The Union may be widely credited with cementing postwar peace and prosperity and providing the framework for the reunification of the continent, but do people care? Not, it seems, very much.

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The gap between the official festivities in the German capital and the lack of popular celebrations elsewhere in Europe is a symptom of the fact that the EU remains at heart an elitist project, just as it was when Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and the other founding fathers conceived it in the 1950s.

Until the 1990s that did not seem to matter much, as the European Economic Community, the European Community and later the European Union were built on “permissive consent”: people seemed content for the elite to get on with it. “The voters were neither a motor nor a brake,” wrote François Duchêne, Monnet’s biographer.

For many European leaders, that will no longer do: they talk of a crisis of legitimacy. When they finally got around to asking people to deliver their verdict through a series of referendums on EU issues, voters in Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden said No.

A European constitution supposed to inspire and reconnect the EU to its citizens was dead on arrival after the French and Dutch No votes in 2005. The Union has become a scapegoat for national politicians. Turnout in European elections is on a steady downward path. Behind the smiles in Berlin there is a sense of profound gloom.

What is behind this malaise and is the EU condemned to decline as it enters its second half-century? To seek the answer and to test the theory in Brussels that Europe can become more popular by delivering concrete “results” that benefit ordinary citizens, where better to start than the low rolling hills of south-western France near the medieval city of Carcassonne? French farmers have, after all, been perhaps the single biggest beneficiaries of the EU, which was founded on a deal which saw Germany gain a bigger market for its industrial goods while France got a protected outlet for its farm products, notably its grain and sugar beet surpluses.

In spite of cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy in recent years, European subsidies account for 45 per cent of French farm revenues, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Yet in spite of having the pockets of their blue overalls stuffed with public money for 50 years, French farmers voted resolutely No to the constitution in 2005. How come?

Daniel Pujol, who sells vegetable seeds around the world from his enterprise in the village of La Force, says it is rare to find a neighbour who supported the constitution. “Agriculture has become very bureaucratic and that is attributed to Brussels,” he says. New rules on health and safety have made life complicated. “A farmer’s job is in the fields, not in the office,” he adds.

In the dusty village square, Leon Brunel, a retired farmer, says: “For me the European Union isn’t a good thing. It has become too bureaucratic, too grandiose.” This is to become a common theme. The benefits of the EU have already been banked – in the case of French farmers, literally – and people see Brussels as a faraway irritant.

Pierre Hugonnet, an 81-year-old retired vineyard owner, is a rare European enthusiast in La Force. “Without the EU we would be all alone,” he says. “What would be the use of that?” For Mr Hugonnet’s generation, the Union has an emotional appeal as a peace project, but for younger generations peace is taken for granted.

Just then Kate Gallagher, a British mother of two, arrives to load her children into the family car. She is travelling through Europe, staying with compatriots who have made their home in La Force, and enjoying the hassle-free borderless travel that the EU helped to create. “I think we need the EU but it should be economic, not political,” she says. “I think we should keep our identity. We don’t want to become a grey mess.”

The idea that federalist forces want to create a homogenised European citizen, erasing national differences, is widespread, if faintly absurd. A trip down the road to Anne Dinnage’s Best of British shop in Carcassonne confirms the problems that Brussels might have in achieving this aim, even if it wanted to do so. On the shelves are British culinary icons such as Bovril, Bird’s Custard and Angel Delight, catering to the nostalgia of thousands of UK expatriates who have made their home here. It is unlikely that Angel Delight, a sticky and lurid pudding, would otherwise feature on the menu in a part of France where foie gras reigns supreme.

To find out more about the EU’s problems, a Ryanair flight is on offer from Carcassonne’s tiny airport to Dublin, a route (and fare) that would have been inconceivable before the EU forced open protected national aviation markets in the 1990s.

Ireland is a country that should love the EU, and its people still strongly support it. Almost eight out of 10 Irish people see EU membership as “a good thing”, the highest proportion of any member state. When it joined the bloc in 1973 the nation was impoverished and defined by its complex relationship with Britain; today it is a confident European country with the Union’s second highest gross domestic product per head after Luxembourg.

“They should like it – they got enough money from us,” says a female German student walking through Dublin’s cosmopolitan Temple Bar party zone, declining to give her name. She, like many German citizens, resents the way the EU has doled out billions of euros to countries such as Ireland and Spain, which are now outperforming their own economy.

What is not widely acknowledged by the European public is that these redistributive payments, like US federal transfers, are not a zero-sum game. One only has to look at Dublin’s streets, clogged with Audis, BMWs and Mercedes, to see that some of that German money is finding its way back to factory workers in Munich and Stuttgart.

Talking to Dubliners reveals how the gloss is coming off the European ideal. Like the French farmers, they have pocketed the benefits of European membership and now talk about bureaucracy, creeping federalism and large-scale immigration from Poland and other new EU members. Gavin Phelan, a busker in Temple Bar for 14 years, says the EU brought prosperity but changed the country. “It’s a completely different place now,” he says. “It used to be a pint of Guinness and a ham sandwich down here, now it’s mochachino and panini.” He is emigrating to Amsterdam. Heading back out to the airport, taxi driver William Crabtree sums up the mood of many. “The EU has been good to us, no question. But I get the feeling they’re trying to build a new Rome, an empire.”

That empire, if such it is, had its most dramatic expansion in 2004 when 10 countries joined, eight of them from the former east bloc. For nations such as Latvia, entry marked the final break from Russian domination and put it in line to receive hundreds of millions of euros in EU support. Surely the Latvians must love Europe?

In fact, a recent poll found that only 28 per cent of them thought membership was “a good thing”, making Latvians one of the EU’s most eurosceptic peoples. Dace Akule of Providus, a think-tank based in the capital Riga, says she was shocked at a recent European seminar by the number of people who compared the EU with Soviet-style central planning and bureaucracy – a theme recently endorsed by Mirek Topolanek, prime minister of the Czech Republic, another 2004 entrant. “On every table there was someone saying it was like the Soviet Union,” Ms Akule says. “That is not a minority opinion.”

Latvians blame the rising living costs (linked to rising prosperity) on Brussels and somehow do not associate the regional aid coming into the country with the largesse of taxpayers elsewhere in the EU, she adds.

Some of this is generational. Younger Latvians encountered in Riga seem much more enthusiastic, seeing Europe as a chance to study and travel widely for the first time. Martins Zvejnieks, a 16-year-old student at Riga’s Gynasium Number 1, says the EU is bringing prosperity, making it more likely that people like him will not join what has been a wave of recent emigration. “There are much better prospects here now,” he says.

But for Peteris Zvaigzne, a 63-year-old retired decorator, the picture appears much bleaker. He compares Europe to the Soviet empire, condemns Brussels for cutting support to sugar beet producers and offers a widely held view that “old member states have more rights than new ones”.

Back in Brussels, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Green member of the European parliament, says of European sentiment: “The real world can be a strange place.”

It is a place where people enjoy the benefits of a whole series of concrete EU “results” – whether peace, cash, national self-esteem, border-free travel or cheap air fares – but seem resolutely unwilling to give the credit to the project that made these possible. The EU remains a remote and vast bureaucratic blank screen on to which people and their political leaders can project everything they hate most about the modern world.

Globalisation? The EU is a conveyor belt for it, championing open borders and free trade. Politicians? Brussels has hundreds of them, some unelected, most of them unknown. Foreigners? Europe is run by them. Enlargement? Even the Turks want to come in. Bankers? The European Central Bank is ruining the economy by presiding over a strong euro.

After France and the Netherlands said No to the EU constitution in 2005, all of this resentment was brought sharply into focus. The consensus in Brussels was that Europe was officially “in crisis”.

It is easy to map out the worst-case scenario if public discontent with Europe builds: national protectionism could come to the fore, the strictures of the “referee” in Brussels simply ignored by national capitals; rancour could infect the Union’s decision-making, leading to a breakdown of the system; a populist party, of a more extreme kind than the ones seen in Poland or the Czech Republic, could lead a campaign for secession from the Union.

But there is a more boring – perhaps cynical – scenario in which the EU keeps moving forward, in spite of the hostility or lack of interest of the people in Carcassonne, Dublin and Riga.

The people who talk up the idea that Europe is in crisis – what Mr José Manuel Barroso, Commission president, calls the crisophiles – tend to be those who believe the answer is always deeper integration. They follow Monnet’s maxim: “I’ve always believed that Europe will be established through ­crises.”

Duchêne described the EU’s tendency towards the “rhetoric of alarm”, in which a pause in integration is viewed as a prelude to retreat. He argued that this was wrong. After national governments exhausted the possibilities of action on a domestic level, they inevitably turned to “European options”.

In any case, Europe is not in a crisis as the word is understood by most people. It has just taken in 12 new members, including another two this year, and only this month agreed a hugely ambitious agenda to tackle climate change and to develop an EU energy policy – a policy area, incidentally, that does not even have a legal treaty base.

Neither is it the sort of crisis that the EU endured for almost 20 years following the 1960s “empty chair” protest against its workings by Charles De Gaulle, which saw a comatose period of “euro-sclerosis”.

Given a chance, Europeans will vote No to an ambitious new treaty such as the constitution, but the EU already has plenty of treaties. Although many would argue Europe needs to update its rules and institutions, the Centre for European Policy Studies found recently that decision-making in an enlarged Union of 27 was taking place pretty much as normal.

As for the grudging nature of public opinion, perhaps it was always like that – just that Europe’s elite never bothered to ask. The number of people thinking their country’s membership of the EU is “a good thing” may appear low, at 53 per cent per cent according to a 2006 Eurobarometer poll, but it is actually higher than the comparable figure of 10 years ago.

The truth is that Europe’s small and intimately entwined nations are condemned to work closely together. By operating as a rules-based economic bloc of 480m people – the richest in the world – the EU can exert considerable influence in trade, foreign policy, development aid and the environment. The logic and even the institutions of the EU are being replicated in South-East Asia, Africa and South America. Countries are queuing up to join the EU and nobody wants to leave.

The task of Europe’s leaders gathered in Berlin on Sunday is to remind their citizens what has been achieved in the past 50 years and why the European project is as relevant today as it was in Rome on March 25 1957.

With new “citizen-friendly” policy challenges in areas such as the environment, immigration, terrorism, organised crime, development aid and international peacekeeping, there is plenty for them to be getting on with. Through better regulation and better communication, the EU might even persuade some sceptical citizens that it is on their side.

Through such a programme the Union’s leaders might earn some grudging respect, but they should forget the idea that the grateful citizenry will break into spontaneous street parties. After 50 years, the EU may be as necessary as ever, but nobody has yet found a way to make people love it.

BRUSSELS IS ACCORDED A RELUCTANT EMBRACE

Michael O’Leary puts his feet up on his desk in his Dublin airport office and delivers his considered verdict on the job done by the European Union: “It has been the role of bureaucrats through the centuries to mess up markets,” he says.

The Ryanair chief executive embodies the ambivalence shown by Europeans towards the EU. On the one hand they regard it as an infuriating bureaucracy; on the other hand they admit grudgingly that they do not want their country to leave.

If anyone should love the EU, it is Mr O’Leary. Brussels made possible his company’s astonishing rise by breaking open cosy national aviation markets in the 1990s. Ryanair now challenges British Airways’ claim to be the “world’s favourite airline”.

He admits that exposing national carriers to competition was a big achievement. “If the EU didn’t exist, people would still be paying €600 [$800, £405] for a one-hour flight, all across Europe.” Such is the extent of this revolution that the combined cost to the Financial Times of Ryanair flights for researching this page – from Brussels to Carcassonne to Dublin to Brussels and from London to Riga return – came to €296.58, taxes included.

Mr O’Leary has benefited personally from the liberalisation of air travel, lavishly extending his Gigginstown Georgian manor house and building stables for his horses. So what is his problem? “Now they’re trying to re-regulate – they haven’t followed through on the principles of deregulation,” he maintains.

He says Brussels wants to regulate airports – reducing competition – and that EU passenger compensation rules are “lunatic”. He has described as “evil” attempts by the authorities to crack down on state aid to local airports, including the support given to lure Ryanair to the run-down Belgian steel town of Charleroi.

The European Commission of José Manuel Barroso is “hopeless” and he says he would vote No to a revival of the EU constitution, which he regards as “bloody nonsense”.

Nevertheless, he adds: “I would be one of the strongest advocates of Ireland not leaving the EU.” Membership gave Ireland new-found self-respect and allowed it to escape a history dominated by its troubled relations with Britain.

He sees the EU having the same effect in the former Soviet satellites in central and eastern Europe, a group of mainly liberal countries that he expects will play a vital role in putting the bureaucrats to work in helping business succeed.

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