Dodging disenfranchising: Can “Europe” talk to its citizens?

Just before the COVID-19 lockdown that hit Europe, and the world, I flew to Brussels for a thematic roundtable on communication and disinformation. At dinner with some of the events’ speakers, I engaged in conversation with a prominent representative of a progressive pro-European think tank that said (I quote) “the benefits and the enjoyment of mobility in Europe are so evident that they hardly need to be communicated.”

On the spot, I was quite flabbergasted. For over a decade, the Brussels press corps had been pointing out how EU policy makers, and more in general EU communication, were too distant from “real Europeans”, warning them not to be overly disillusioned when it comes to regular Joe’s knowledge of the EU. Sitting at again another Brussels dinner hearing that citizens’ engagement is nothing to be worried about, left me quite astounded on the level of disillusion the dwellers of the heart of Europe are actually living in. Quite an alarming bell.

Are European citizens fully and consciously enjoying the wonders of the Union? 190 million Europeans have never been abroad. We are talking about 37% of all EU citizens today. Single currency, removal of border controls, Erasmus, or even the end of roaming charges. How could these people have a genuine interest in such issues? Yet, these are surprisingly the topics around which the institutions of the European Union have built a considerable part of their narrative, in an effort to come closer to their citizens.

The free movement of workers is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU. All citizens are entitled to look for a job in another EU country, work and reside there without needing a permit, enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages. But, how many EU citizens really take advantage of this right?Among the EU citizens of working age, only 3.3 % reside in an EU country other than that of their citizenship. Now, consider that this is the union of States that went the furthest in history to foster human mobility.

What this tells us is that the vast majority of Europeans are born, live and die in the country or territory of their birth. Apart from a few capital cities, the European melting pot is hardly in sight. This does not mean that the Union is dysfunctional or that mobility is unimportant. It means instead that there is an important attachment of citizens to their home territories, that these are part of their identity and that mostly people do not have the intention to live in, and apparently even visit, other countries. If this fundamental aspect of European demography will continue to be disregarded or dismissed, the risk is that the majority of European citizens could feel even more disenfranchised by the European project.

In his book Demeure, French philosopher and Member of the European Parliament Francois Xavier Bellamy explains the difference between “Somewheres” citizens, rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated – and “Anywheres” citizens, footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated. This idea was first developed in a more specific British context by David Goodhart in “The Road to Somewhere”, where he explains that Somewheres are characterised by an unease with the modern world and the strong belief that national leaders should put their interests first. Anywheres are free of nostalgia. Egalitarian and meritocratic in their attitude to race, sexuality, gender, they are light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones. They value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”.

Now, the point is: how can the Union reach Somewheres? Not an easy task, if we consider that, regardless the years of warning and analyses, the Union still preaches extensively to the choir. In fact, while there has been significant improvement over the years, the lack of specific targeted communication towards decentralized territories is a major cause for alienation of citizens towards the Union, or even more the often-debated “European way of life”.

What I feel, especially now that I left Brussels after 10 years in the business, is not only a communication gap, but also a true delegitimisation of those who do not embrace “wokeness.” The priorities of Brussels-dwellers are so divergent from the majority of Europeans, that a “new wave of disenfranchisement” is on the way. Looking at numerous campaigns, it seems that topics related to the rule of law in some Member States, gender equality and green policies trump issues such as jobs, migration, economic recovery or the demographic challenges of territories losing inhabitants. The former are certainly fundamental for the progress of liberal-democracy, but the latter are what “the people” care about today. Turning a blind eye on this is very dangerous for the future of Europe, and EU communicators may regret this soon. Euroscepticism in some countries, including founding Members such as Italy, is worryingly high. Dreamy, overly unrealistic, and far progressive narratives make things worse and drive away those who already feel estranged and (legitimately!) share alternative values.

A new narrative for Europe must start from the territories and their people. Otherwise, we risk to witness some new “-exits”, and it would be too late then, for regrets.