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Carlos Carnicero Urabayen Headshot

Change Europe to Save It

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Who said European politics is boring? Once solely associated with Brussels' grey weather and complex consensus-based bureaucratic procedures, the crisis has brought to Europe some real Pan-European politics. National issues have become European and European decisions have penetrated national debates. The hand of the EU is behind important decisions for your life, is a lesson widely learned.

Will this be enough to guarantee a decent turnout in May's Elections for the European Parliament? Participation has consistently decreased since the first Elections in 1979. Only 43 percent showed up in 2009. The paradox is that the strengthening of the powers of the European Parliament in recent decades -- today following the Lisbon Treaty it is a consolidated co-legislative institution -- has not convinced voters of its importance.

There is now a real opportunity to end that paradox. Bad news for the European Union is that the groups actively working against it are the ones fully exploiting this new pan European political space. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National in France, and Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, have signed an agreement to campaign together. They may claim the EU is nonsense, but they seem to be aware of the advantages of strategically acting together at a European level.

There is a human tendency to take things for granted and to believe that the worst cannot happen. The pro-Europeans seem to have lost their passion for a project they once coined as a dream. On the other side, the anti-Europeans are proving to be very skillful in connecting with citizens at an emotional level. A dangerous path lies ahead.

The threat for the European Union is real. The anti-EU forces could win the elections in France, the UK and the Netherlands, while they will also achieve good results in many other countries. May's election is only the first step on the rocky road and they don't hide their intentions. As Le Pen has confessed: "I am just waiting for one thing, which is that Europe breaks into pieces."

It would be too simple and easy to blame the crisis for this turmoil. If that was the case, Europe's recovery would bury its ghosts. However, it is the response to the crisis which has converted Europe into a very fertile land for populists.

A defeated technocrat, Former Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti, shared some concerns with his peers on his last European Council. "There is a significant time-lag between the structural reforms and the results in terms of increased economic activity and job creation... In this context, public support for the EU is dramatically declining."

From a political point of view, austerity has been inflammatory for the European project.

For too many Europeans the EU has moved far quicker to inject public money into troubled banks than to tackle urgent social issues, such as youth unemployment. Diverging priorities difficult to digest for the general public, in the only continent of the world where the number of poor people are increasing rather than decreasing and inequality keeps growing.

In the euro crisis, the opinion of the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU institution, has counted very little. The troika (European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank) has enforced austerity packages in troubled southern countries without real scrutiny. In fact, the European Parliament is now investigating the social and economic effects of those policies in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus. The reports will be approved in due time before the elections, but probably a little late for the citizens in those countries.

It is time to acknowledge that something is wrong with the European Union when so many citizens are turning their backs on it. The negligent strategy of presenting the euro-skeptics as irrational neo fascists is providing few results. Those who believe in a different Europe have the responsibility to present a credible plan ahead of the elections. Time is precious.