After the hype of the European elections in May, many expected that interest in the eurosceptic and anti establishment parties would die back down. But four months on parties such as UKIP, the French Front National and Germany’s AfD party are continuing to make their presence felt both in the European Parliament and in their home countries. These parties all thrive because of a lack of citizens awareness of what the EU does. The Brussels’ bureaucracy is seen as too distant and unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary citizens, and this leaves charges by these extreme parties of the EU forcing austerity on us, upholding an unwanted common currency or preventing countries from taking back control of their national borders, too often unchallenged.
It is perhaps not surprising then that the most commonly heard word in Brussels at the moment is reform. The new European Commission President Juncker has committed to ambitious proposals to kick-start growth and jobs, for example by breaking down barriers in the digital sector and creating a European energy union. These kind of reforms are vital if the EU is to rebuild the support of its citizens and show that it is improving prosperity, not reducing it.
But there is no point in focusing on reform if you do not also inform. Euroscepticism thrives off anger, but also from the lack of awareness about the many valuable things the EU is doing, from tackling cross-border crime, protecting the environment, and allowing people to live, work and trade freely in a market of 500 million. The trouble is that while we are reminded of the faults of the EU on a daily basis, we often take the benefits it brings us for granted. In the UK media especially, but also across Europe, many people do not realise the many challenges that can only be overcome through international action.
Take human trafficking, an issue that I have campaigned on for many years.This month, the EU’s biggest-ever coordinated crackdown on organised crime resulted in 30 children being saved and 170 people being arrested for trafficking in human beings. This shows just what can be achieved when national police forces work closely together through EU institutions like Europol.
Air pollution, which causes over 400,000 Europeans to die prematurely each year, is another area where the EU has a major role to play. This is an issue which cannot be solved by one country alone, but EU intervention can ensure that all countries take coordinated action to reduce levels of harmful emissions. Just last week wind blowing over pollution from the continent caused dangerous levels of air pollution in Southern England. Nigel Farage can huff and puff as much as he wants, but he wouldn’t be able to address this problem if Britain were to abandon the EU.
Most importantly, we need to remember that in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, European countries are safer and more secure sticking together than going it alone. Despite the constant stream of euromyths being peddled by the tabloid press, most recently deriding the regulation of vacuum cleaners, the EU is not as big a threat to our sovereignty and way of life as that posed by ISIS or Putin’s Russia. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the EU is that of the London tube. It’s sometimes hot and unpleasant to travel on and people love to complain about it. But deep down, we know that life in London would be a whole lot more unpleasant and difficult without it, just as Europe would be without the EU.