, , , , ,

As the European Union gears up for its 60th anniversary next March, there’s good news and bad news.

Let’s celebrate the renewed interest in the EU, both at home and abroad. But let’s also be prepared for a long and difficult struggle with those working against Europe.

The surge in interest in Europe is encouraging. Demands for change and new ideas to build a more dynamic, vibrant and relevant EU are not in short supply.

Interesting ideas – some big, some small – came fast and furious at Friends of Europe’s annual State of Europe brainstorm and conference last week.

The voices of those who have thought about, talked about and worked for Europe for many years are valuable. They should be listened to.

But importantly, others across Europe are beginning to speak up too. They include young people, women and minority groups whose engagement in EU affairs has been minimal. Business leaders, trade unionists, civil society representatives, academics and journalists are making their voices heard. They should be encouraged to say and do more.

Ironically, the shock of Brexit has enlivened the conversation. The Brexiteers may have damaged Britain’s economy (and much more) but they have, unintentionally, also sparked heightened awareness of and popular interest in the EU.

Such renewed curiosity is an opportunity to start a new conversation about Europe. It should be one which looks at the EU’s past, present and future.  It must look at the achievements but also at the failures and weaknesses of the Union.

The confrontation between different visions of Europe is already part of daily life. This contest was evident in the run-up to the 23 June referendum in Britain and will be an essential part of the negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

There are Euro-enthusiasts and Euro-doubters in national capitals and parliaments, and in all EU institutions.

And then there are the populists, both in and out of government, who are not just against the EU but also fighting actively to undermine liberal democratic values. In uneasy and uncertain times, their message of intolerance, xenophobia and “Little Europe” is already attracting voters.

With elections scheduled in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year, the fight for the hearts and minds of Europeans is going to get even fiercer.

France’s National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his friends in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have no scruples about publicising their dark vision of Fortress Europe. Their voices will get louder.

But those who believe in an open and compassionate Europe should be equally passionate about voicing their beliefs. Contrary to what the populists want us to believe, a majority of Europeans do not share their nightmare version. They also need to be seen and heard.

In a new world where truth and facts appear to matter less than lies, perceptions and fiction, the confrontation between the two visions of Europe is going to be dirty and ruthless.

The naysayers’ simplistic anti-EU diatribes must be countered by equally simple but clever slogans.

Those in favour of Europe should be proud of what has worked, and what makes the EU relevant and important – for example, contrary to conventional wisdom, the EU “peace project” still makes sense in a world where violence and war still rage just a few kilometres from Europe’s borders.

But enthusiasts must also be frank enough to say what has not worked.

Gentle speeches in comfortable settings just won’t do the trick. Those who believe in the EU will have to take their arguments to the people, not wait for people to fill the conference halls.

Those who favour Europe must be as charismatic, eloquent and single-minded as those who oppose it.

Next March’s anniversary of the EU should trigger a discussion on repairing and renewing the EU, but must also be a moment for reflection on what it means to be European in a complex and challenging world.

As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told the Friends of Europe conference, Europeans must ‘buck up and not talk yourselves into a funk’.

More than ever, Europe is a vibrant mix of people, cultures and religions. The EU is an important part of peoples’ lives, often taken for granted, often criticised and much too often under-estimated and under-sold by self-seeking politicians.

French statesman Georges Clemenceau famously said that ‘War is too important to be left to the generals’.  Today, Europe is too serious and too important to be left to politicians.