It is time for European citizens to take ownership of the European Union

Elmar Brok

Elmar Brok

Since its creation, a unified Europe has been an anchor of hope to millions in Europe and beyond. For these achievements to be preserved today and in the future, the EU needs an active civil society that promotes a feeling of responsibility for the fate of a unified Europe. Cultural institutions, especially in Europe’s cities, are important venues in which citizens can have cross-cultural exchanges that foster a European identity.

The EU — a project of peace, freedom and democracy

Since its very start, the ambitious project of European unification was one that was realized through the common efforts of Europe’s citizens. From the catastrophe of two world wars to the uprising of Eastern Europe’s citizens, locked behind an iron curtain, the European unification has been a beacon light of hope for millions of people longing for peace, democracy and freedom. Even today, for good or bad, the European Union is the land of dreams for millions of people living beyond the EU’s borders.

European identity trailing behind

Millions have sought European integration as a source for freedom, democracy, prosperity and the rule of law. At the same time, European integration has been a result of these principles. However, these achievements cannot be taken for granted and have to be fought for every day. The rise populist nationalism and recent developments in member states such as Poland and Hungary, threatening the rule of law and the independence of the media, are the most recent proof of the necessary efforts we have to make. We also must stop national politicians from exploiting their people’s distrust of the EU and them abusing its institutions as a scapegoat, rather than owning up to the reality that today’s great challenges can often only be tackled within the framework of a unified Europe.

While the political and economic union was established by the European member states, the development of an active European civil society with a common European identity — which should normally underpin the existence of such a union — has been trailing behind. Recent developments such as the Brexit have shown that especially in challenging times a fall-back to nationalist and anti-European sentiments is all too easy for parts of a society.

It is time for Europe’s citizens to step up

Especially in these challenging times, citizens, cities and cultural institutions have to step up in order to establish a shared sense of a European identity and a responsibility for Europe. The establishment of shared spaces for civil society discussions and pan-European cooperation go a long way to foster a European identity among its citizens.

The development of movements such as the “Pulse of Europe” are proof of the citizen’s increased feeling of responsibility for the EU. As well, the results of recent elections — in France, Austria and the Netherlands — underpin the fact that the broad majority of European citizens want to preserve the EU and strengthen European integration. This especially holds true for Europe’s younger generations. Still, more needs to be done. Cultural institutions — political and apolitical — have to establish programmes that more actively promote an understanding for our European identity and our shared values in fields like history, arts or sports. Exchange programmes such as ERASMUS have proven to be a highly successful way of forging a common European identity. Cultural and civil society institutions outside the field of education should also take the initiative to promote exchange programmes with partner institutions from other EU member states.

We must address especially Europe’s young generation in our efforts. While their support for a unified Europe is strong, we have thus far failed to mobilize large parts of Europe’s youth to get more involved in the political process and to take over responsibility for Europe. The Brexit referendum has been the most recent proof of this failure. Increased efforts will have to entail giving larger parts of the young generation the possibility to publicly express their views on European politics and to participate in the political decision making process, especially on the EU level.

Cities for Europe

At the same time, cities also have to take over more responsibility for the European project. The Brexit referendum showed that the strongest support for remaining in the EU came from the urban areas in the United Kingdom. Accordingly, cities should use their potential and commit greater efforts to shaping a European identity, by increasing opportunities for societal, cultural and political exchanges with other European partner cities. European cities can also strengthen their cooperation through the sharing of best practices concerning common challenges in areas such as infrastructure or security. Through such initiatives, Europe’s cities can take over more responsibility for the future of a unified Europe.

Europe’s fate is in our hands

Since its creation, the European Union has never faced such profound challenges as in these days. It now is up to us citizens of Europe to recognize that the fate of a unified Europe lies in our hands. It is up to us to take over responsibility for the future of a peaceful, democratic, and free Europe. If we all face this responsibility and meet these challenges as unified Europeans, I am confident we will even make it through the most perilous of times.

Elmar Brok, born in 1946 in Verl, North Rhine-Westfalia, is Member of the European Parliament and one of its sherpas in the Brexit negotiations. He is member of the EP’s Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Constitutional Affairs. As MEP since 1980, he is the parliament’s longest serving member. Brok has held many leadership positions in German and European politics.