European Parliament opens doors to uncertain public

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The open day of the European Parliament and other EU institutions on Europe Day reveals the general public’s lack of interest in European issues.

BRUSSELS – Thousands streamed through the doors of the European Parliament and other EU institutions in Brussels on Saturday, a month before European elections, but most seemed happier collecting balloons than naming their MEPs.

The reason why the parliament, as well as European Commission and Council of Ministers headquarters, was open to the public was that May 9 was Europe Day – though the crowds seemed blissfully unaware of what that is.

"It is very difficult to get people interested in European issues," Belgian Euro MP Bart Staes acknowledged during a public forum in the hemisphere where the EU parliament holds its plenary sessions in Brussels.

"One of the reasons is that they are interested in their own problems," he said. "People say that Europe is too complicated".

Staes, a member of the European Free Alliance, a coalition of nationalist and regionalist parties, urged politicians and media to "shift their focus a little" so that "public opinion would follow".

Large posters around the interconnected parliament buildings declaring the upcoming elections would take place on 4 – 7 June throughout the 27-nation European Union, helped a sizeable minority of people to identify, roughly, the dates of balloting, according to an unscientific straw poll.

To identify their current MEP, beavering away on their behalf for the last five years, proved much more difficult.

Jan, a primary school teacher from the Netherlands, seemed well clued up, explaining that under the Dutch system there were no regional constituencies, but that voters could choose from national lists.

However he failed to name any current Dutch MEP.

Sarah Walker, a British IT worker in her forties, gave a flat "no" when asked if she knew the name of her MEP but had recently read a book about the workings of the European Union.

Unfortunately, that was because she saw a general "lack of engagement" with the European public and so decided to get more clued up.

"I think that general there seem to be a lack of accountability, no critical media and no effective opposition," she said.

"There seems to be a disengagement with the general public," and the European parliament "looks like it's in its own world".

In general there appeared to be no lack of enthusiasm for the European project, though sometimes that enthusiasm was very general.

"I don't know the details, but I think it's a good thing," said Belgian engineer Jean-Paul Werner, having negotiated his way past booming drums, fire jugglers and an ever-lengthening queue to get into the parliament.

The Crystal Palace-type edifice is also known as the Caprice des Dieux (Whim of the Gods) after an oval French cheese, and sometimes because it is one of two seats for the parliament, which also convenes in Strasbourg, France.

Italian political science graduate and PhD student Ilaria was one of the few visitors asked who could readily name her own MEP.

"I don't like him, he's against the European Union," she added.

Belgian MEP Said El Khadraoui – no other country was represented at the public debate – said the EU's reforming Lisbon treaty would, if introduced, create a new president post for the EU, would help improve the profile of an EU which current lacks "a figurehead".

As for Europe Day, the official EU website admits that "probably very few people in Europe know that on 9 May 1950 the first move was made towards the creation of what is now known as the European Union."

On that day in Paris, of course, against the background of the threat of a Third World War, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman read to the international press a declaration calling France, Germany and other European countries to pool together their coal and steel production as "the first concrete foundation of a European federation".

AFP / Expatica

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