The Brussels Eurobubble is… well, bubbling up with pre-election excitement, as 2014 approaches. For the first time a European Parliament election will determine the Commission’s President, Mr. Barroso’s successor. So, understandably, all parties feel they have a lot riding on this next May.
But the attention is also elsewhere: Eurosceptic parties -an all-encompassing term consisting of everything from nationalist to xenophobic, islamophobic or simply populist parties- is perceived to be on the rise. Hardly a week goes by without some mention in the press of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen and the prospects of a pan-European alliance. Increasingly, the European populous seems to be divided into pro-EU and anti-EU camps, setting dividing lines that go beyond the traditional right-left dichotomy.
But this is the wrong kind of framing and one that will only serve the Eurosceptic/Europhobe ideas. It is crucial that these elections are not perceived as a referendum on Europe. Because, it is only natural that, when someone identifies themselves as being “pro-Europe”, the impression is immediately created that they are “anti-something else”. And that is often taken to mean “Anti-national interest”.
Let’s face it, the European project is far from perfect. And it is impossible to convince even the most ardent EU supporter that all is well and things can go on as they are. So, instead of asking the question “are you pro- or -anti-Europe”, what candidates should be asking the electorate is “what kind of Europe do you want?”. It is of utmost importance that electoral campaigns are framed in that context. And it could be the only way to effectively counter the Eurosceptic message. That way, you are forcing populists to articulate a vision, you force them to talk about Europe, rather than simply painting themselves as an opposing force. There is even the remote possibility that you could drag them into drafting blueprints for building the house that stay outside throwing rocks at it. After all, a little scepticism on any issue is always welcome and should perhaps be encouraged.
If the so-called “mainstream parties” want to maintain the initiative and avoid playing into the hands of their opponents, they have to clearly define their differences and come up with their vision for Europe. They should counter the perception that “they are all the same”. They have to be open and frank about the difficulties and have the courage to present their views to the electorate, without resorting to simplistic and fundamentally false black-and-white dichotomies.
And, most of all, they should not accept replying to the question “So, are you a pro-European?”