'Whether you believe it or not, in Europe we live much better now than before,' declares Jan Kulakowski, Polish MEP and Christian Democrat. 'Without European integration, our lives cannot get better, only worse.' The 'Schuman Declaration' of 9 May 1950 sowed the European seed. The Treaty of Rome was signed on 25 March 1957, the blossoming of which is now known as today's European Union (EU).
50 years have passed and the EU has reaped social and economic advantages for its 27 member countries. 'From the social viewpoint, the dream of a united Europe, free from war, has become reality,' says Kulakowski.
From the economic perspective, the internal market and introduction of the single currency (the Euro was launched in 2002), represent a different side to the EU. Countries in the Eurozone have increased their wealth and exchanges with other EU countries, and reinforced the transparency of prices. Slovenia is a prime example – the most recent Euro zone member (1 January 2007) has recorded an improvement in its economy, including a considerable drop in inflation.
Lacking public awareness of Europe
But it is not all celebrations. According to European Commission findings from the December 2006 Eurobarometer, an average 40% of Europeans do not trust Europe's institutions. The participation of citizens in European elections was also worryingly low: in the United Kingdom it reached just 38%, whilst in Holland the figure was 39.1%. The feeling that things are on the right track is tending to fade.
'Europe is a marketing idea that lacks any social reality. It is all about brainwashing,' says Spaniard Jordi Sellarés, an international public law lecturer at the Esade School of Business in Barcelona. 'It's the dream of bureaucratic genii, disconnected from reality, who believe in a united Europe.' The EU's failure is, according to Sellarés, the 'democratic deficit' that European institutions are suffering. It is also the lack of communication between the EU and its citizens, who associate Europe with a 'virtual reality' that they don't understand, and to which only the 'chosen' have access. One of the reasons for Euroscepticism is that 'bad news always travels faster than good,' believes Cristina Colom, press secretary of the Catalan regional organisation Patronat Català Pro Europa.
Winds of change
'We need to revive the European spirit. We are emerging from a situation of pessimism and the ruin of the European integration process following the French and Dutch rejection of the Constitution in 2005,' declares Polish MEP Bronislaw Geremek (http://www.cafebabel.com/en/article.asp?T=T&Id=10821). Within the EU, there are songs being sung to different tunes. As far as German chancellor and current EU president head Angela Merkel is concerned, she wants the Brussels Council of June 2007 to serve as a basis for the new revised treaty and, following on from this, would like to see the greater political integration of the EU.
But the Eurosceptics are of a different opinion. 'Europe is its states, and they are not in crisis, but rather embroiled in the common mess due to the situation and lie of its invention,' states Sellarés. In addition, the Franco-German European engine is starting to run out of fuel, with the recent Airbus problem and the failure of the constitutional referendum having led to the weakening of relations between the two countries.
Could it be that the result of the second round of French presidential elections on 6 May between Ségolène Royal and Nicola Sarkozy will change the strained atmosphere? According to an article in the Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps, conservative Merkel's vision of Europe would be more in line with that of Nicolas Sarkozy, the right wing UMP party's candidate. What will happen remains to be seen.
Today's reality reveals Europe as an economic giant and a political 'dwarf', and that there are also definite divisions in its joint identity. A Europe that speaks with one voice is needed now more than ever, with new challenges for the future including international terrorism and climate change.
It seems that the EU is beginning to wake up, as exemplified by the member states' commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 30% and increasing renewable energy by 20% for 2020. But further challenges lie ahead. Between now and the future, the EU should be able to celebrate its centenary with the well-deserved gift of having transformed itself into a worthy model.
In the words of Spanish former MP Julio Añoveros, a Europe 'neither of merchants nor regions - but rather a Europe of citizens.'