On Thursday the British and Dutch voted. On Friday voters go to the polls in Ireland and the Czech Republic, on Saturday in Latvia, Malta and Slovakia. On Sunday the rest of the EU will vote. In the 28 member states, 400 million citizens are eligible to vote for 751 members of the European Parliament, who will, in turn, elect the new president of the European Commission. This is the eighth such vote since 1979. But this time there is a sense that the Union is in decline, that it is losing in economic and strategic significance. Even so, the electoral debate in each country focused on domestic issues. Very often those issues stemmed from EU membership, but the elections remained stuck on local problems, not on EU-wide solutions.
Throughout the EU people worry about where we are headed. The years of crisis showed up weaknesses in the bloc’s construction. This created the need and the opportunity for solutions through the adoption of new mechanisms and institutions. Precious time was lost, as was the even more precious sense that Europe was the home in which we could all feel safe. However much the Greeks may have been to blame for their problems, they were not the only culprits in the EU. For the good of all, Europe should have shown that its grand construction was not in danger because one of its rooms had caught fire. “Personifying” the crisis, presenting Greece as a scapegoat and a “unique case,” renewed old enmities and ethnic stereotypes. It sowed division. In the markets, Europe appeared as weak as its weakest member. It abdicated the power and the responsibility that it would have had if it functioned as a single force, with the world’s largest economy (with a combined GDP of 13 trillion euros in 2012), with 500 million citizens constituting the wealthiest and best-educated group of people the world has known. Instead, the EU found itself on the brink of losing its common currency. Many people felt threatened by strangers – either immigrants or citizens of other countries who needed their support. Some were angered because they were asked to help, others because they lost benefits and security.
The debt crisis is one of many important issues. How can developed countries continue to provide their citizens with everything to which they are accustomed when the global economy has made them uncompetitive? How can each country gain the most from being in the EU when the EU does not project its power because each member acts according to its own narrow interests? When voters reject austerity and reforms because they consider them unjust, how do economies become more competitive? Is the solution to be found in reducing social security in Europe or should we demand that competitor countries take equal care of their own citizens?
The problems remain unsolved and can be dealt with only at the EU level. Europe will be saved only if the serious debate begins within the next European Parliament – the one that will represent powerful centrifugal forces.