Natalie Nougayrède is a French journalist. She works as editorial board member and columnist at ‘The Guardian’. She was previously the executive editor of ‘Le Monde’, after being its diplomatic correspondent and Moscow bureau chief.
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A few weeks ahead of the European Parliament elections, a group of historians, civil society activists, and students from across the continent and beyond met in Oxford to debate: “What stories does Europe tell?” Much of the discussion revolved around the question of whether and how “polyphony” could yet emerge from the current “cacophony” over identity, democracy, borders, economics, and geopolitics. It's hardly surprising that no clear conclusion could be reached.
One participant, who happened to be an EU practitioner (someone involved in policy-making, not purely academic work) later told me: “This is all very interesting, but when government representatives meet they never think of ‘what stories Europe tells’, they just try to get on with the problems at hand”.
Perhaps that’s precisely the trouble. Perhaps the problem is to be found in the lack of a common narrative, itself the result of the many bubbles that institutions, governments and people live in today. A lot of thinking is deployed within separate silos, whether professional, national or algorithmic, but common threads are hard to find.
The good news is that, contrary to what populists and extremists say, studies show that the European project remains popular among the EU’s citizenry. Europeans are generally aware that being part of a common endeavor serves their interests better than breaking away and trying to go it alone (Brexit has surely served as a cautionary tale). Far-right parties such as the National Rally in France have all in all given up on promoting “Frexit” or other exits. That is no small turnaround, after more than a decade of watching the EU go from one crisis to the next, and its responses being disparaged as either too weak or too “dictating”.
Still, the disconnect between thinkers, EU policymakers, and citizens makes little doubt.
People are confused, and not just because of the craziness on social media. It’s often hard, even for those who think they’re well versed in current affairs, to disentangle complex issues: what can EU institutions be held responsible for? And what are national governments alone accountable for? In a hyper-connected world, there is hyper-puzzlement and hyper-uncertainty. It’s by now widely assumed that we are faced with common problems (climate change, inequality, migration, the clout of digital giants, terrorism, Trump, an array of external threats), but we still tend to discuss them within the confines of national politics, or through essentially national lenses.
Citizens know little of the fact the EU parliament has been given more powers since the Lisbon Treaty. This is only one part of the picture. Opportunities to create a genuine pan-European debate were lost, not least when the idea of creating multinational lists was buried early on. Sticking geographical labels on fellow Europeans (North-South, East-West), or thinking in terms of national stereotypes, has become commonplace. Even if one accepts that the Franco-German “engine” is now insufficient to power the Union, the fact that Merkel and Macron found themselves on competing sides of the EU-wide vote surely will not have helped create momentum. It’s been tempting to wag fingers at “easterners” and their populist postures, but let’s not forget Italy, a founding member of the European club, is in effect run by a far-right leader who likes to quote Mussolini. Nor are other “western” realities, such as the conspiracy theories seeping out of the French gilets jaunes movement, or the presence in Austria’s governing coalition of a party with roots in neo-Nazist groups, easy to overlook.
EU institutional muddling through may well be the ultimate outcome of the May elections (a more fragmented parliament, with larger extremes, but no far-right takeover of the assembly). Yet subsequent efforts at damage-limitation will not in themselves guarantee that we get any closer to weaving a common story, a common purpose, for our tense, challenged Union of peoples.
Turnout in European Parliament elections has dropped consistently since the first vote was held 40 years ago.
This year, for all the hopes of a continent-wide debate, much of the campaigning has been nation-centric. Legacy media coverage has also, by and large, kept to the national framework. Meanwhile, social media continued to produce thought-bubbles and confirmation bias: rational discourse has become something of a rare commodity.
These May 2019 elections will have taken stock of where public opinion has gone in the face of fractious politics, power games and talk of “civilisational” dangers. But will they have helped build the common European public space we need? Europe tells many stories, but they’re told in separate, often isolated bubbles, and most worryingly, they’re rarely based on a jointly accepted set of established facts. Fixing that is one of the big challenges that lie ahead.
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