A few months ago I took my nine-year old daughter to see Fiorentina play Inter Milan. It was her first time going to a big match and, as we walked to the Artemio Franchi stadium in the suburbs of Florence, she asked me: “What was the first game you went to?” “Ireland against the USSR with my Dad in 1984, when I was around the same age as you,” I replied. Cue the obvious next question: “The USSR? What was that?”
I was reminded of this last weekend as I travelled to Vilnius in Lithuania where I’d been invited to speak to politicians and their advisers from parties across Eastern Europe. If you had tried to go to Lithuania back in the 1980s when it was one of the 15 Soviet Republics that made up the USSR, you would have faced a mountain of paperwork, only been allowed stay for a maximum of three days and had to take a flight via Moscow to get there. Now, you can fly from all over Europe and, thanks to the creation of the Schengen Area covering most countries in the European Union (EU), I didn’t even have to show my passport when I arrived.
Of course, not everything has been rosy in Lithuania since it became an independent state in 1991 and began its transition from authoritarian rule to democracy and from a planned economy to a free market one. The latter has not yet provided a promised land of milk and honey. Since the start of the current crisis, like many other EU members in both Eastern and Western Europe, Lithuania too has introduced austerity packages which have resulted in big public spending cuts, reduced pensions, higher taxes and emigration. However, as regards its democratic transition, like most of the recent EU members - with the notable exception of Hungary where Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have spent the last three years creating a constitution unworthy of a liberal democratic state – Lithuania seems now to be a consolidated democracy, with fair elections, peaceful alternation of different parties in power, a free press and so on.
The next elections in which Lithuanians will have the opportunity to vote will be the same as those in which most of us in Europe will be able to do so: the European Parliament elections in May 2014. I say “have the opportunity”, since the majority of citizens will probably not choose to take it. At the last European elections in 2009, just 21% of Lithuanians turned out to vote – the second lowest percentage in the EU after Slovakia. In the rest of Europe, the picture was not much better with just 43% overall bothering to participate. At every one of the seven European Parliament elections held since the first round in 1979, the total percentage turnout has fallen.
At the same time, public attitudes across Europe towards the EU have become increasingly more negative, especially in the last five years of crisis. Data based on Eurobarometer surveys published recently showed that those living in countries as diverse in their historical relationships to the EU as Spain, France, Germany, Poland and the UK now share high levels of distrust in it as an institution. This of course is to the benefit of those parties, particularly (but not only) from the populist radical right, such as the French Front National and the UK Independence Party, which dismiss European integration as a failed project which would be best abandoned as quickly as possible.
A key topic we discussed in Vilnius last weekend was how mainstream parties can defend themselves from these types of challengers, which promise to return democracy “to the people” and cast the rest of the political class as being in the hands of European and global elites. One of the ways to do this, I believe, is for pro-European centre-right and centre-left parties to recognise that “the permissive consensus” – the idea that Europe’s citizens were happy to let their national politicians push ahead with a supranational project without explaining properly what they were doing and why they were doing it - is long over. This means redressing the fact that, in the general mainstream silence about Europe’s merits, the side of the argument increasingly sympathised with by the public is the shouted one of the radical right which would have us believe that the European Union is as undemocratic and bureaucratic as the Soviet Union.
The question “what has Europe ever done for us?” always reminds me of the “what have the Romans ever done for us?” scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”. Ask someone from Lithuania or Ireland or Italy to really think about what life might have been like if their countries had not had the prospect of being part of the EU. Irrespective of the current crisis, we have all come an enormous way in recent decades and a fair share of that is thanks to the EU. There is an excellent case to be made for European integration – and its continuation - if we take a historical view on this.
But it is a case that needs to be made rather than assumed. And it needs to be made by courageous mainstream politicians across Europe who can think beyond the next opinion poll. The EU is far from perfect. It requires strong reformers who are also strong promoters. Urgently. For the solutions offered by its opponents are ruinous and we should not take for granted that political institutions which seem set in stone cannot crumble. “The EU? What was that?” is not a question I would like to find myself being asked one day.