The British have been led to believe only they are sceptical about Europe ...
But across the Continent, people are resisting the rush towards greater integration. They worry about the erosion of local and national differences, and are angry about not being consulted by the pro-Brussels political elite. Sarah Helm reports
Thursday 12 December 1996
We are talking about European integration. "In principle it is a good thing," he says, somewhat hesitantly as we wander over to the apple-packing warehouse. "Anyway, the intentions are good."
Mr Gramm clearly knows all about the benefits of the single market. "You see, we have always been on a great trading route here," he says, recalling the powerful free-traders of the 18th century, who used to transport spices from Venice, and through the Brenner pass to Augsburg. Nearby, they are putting apples in packs containing special CO2 gas, which preserves the Golden Delicious for up to eight months.
And Mr Gramm knows all about integration. The South Tyrol was carved off from Austria and given to Italy at the end of the First World War. It is a bilingual province, with a minority of Italians and a majority German-speaking population. He knows all about the need for open borders too. Mr Gramm is about to head off to Munich (for a Tyrolean craft fair), speeding across the Austrian and German frontiers without so much as a passport check.
With a feather in his Tyrolean hat, Mr Gramm looks like the very model of a modern European citizen who would vote "Yes" to greater union every time. Or would he? As we are talking, news comes in of trouble on the Brenner pass. South Tyrolean dairy farmers are blocking the road in protest over a drop in their milk exports, which they blame on a rising lira caused by following Italy's efforts to join the single currency. "There is a lot of fear of the euro," says Mr Gramm. "And people don't like this Euro- tax at all."
We go to Mr Gramm's office to establish whether any Gramm trucks are stuck in the jam. He says the traffic on the Brenner pass is getting worse. I ask whether this might be partly due to the increased number of trucks, carrying German marmalade, which are getting stuck alongside inrceased numbers of tourist buses, carrying the Germans who will eat the marmalade. "No," laughs Mr Gramm. "It is because Europe will not pay for a tunnel under the Brenner pass."
Mr Gramm believes the rights of the farmers must be protected, if local culture and the Alpine environment is to be preserved. And Europe is not helping. The problem is that the Common Agricultural Policy has favoured Bavarian milk producers, and the South Tyrolean mountain farmers are going out of business. Above Mr Gramm is a picture of a South Tyrolean cow munching buttercups in happier times.
At the Dublin summit tomorrow, European heads of government will talk a lot about the need to listen to the concerns of such European "citizens" as Mr Gramm. A draft treaty will be presented entitled: "Adapting the European Union for the benefits of its peoples and preparing it for the future." And the leaders will try to present the treaty as "user-friendly" by congratulating the drafters on the clarity of the text. They will uphold new proposals on "transparency", which is Euro-jargon for open government.
The draft treaty will also make new proposals for enforcing "subsidiarity", which is Euro-jargon for effective decision-making at the most local level possible. But while making these concessions to the "citizen's" needs, the political elite, which is designing Europe's future, will nevertheless take little note of the real fears and doubts of ordinary people.
The British have been led to believe that it is only they who are sceptical towards Europe. In fact, shades of Euro- septicism can be found right across the continent. In other member states the debate is less confrontational - it is not about "them and us". But opinion polls show that millions of European citizens are confused and fearful about developments in Europe.
An average of just 58 per cent of all European Union citizens think membership of the union is a "good thing". In many countries the figure is far lower. In Sweden, for example, only 22 per cent of people say membership is a good thing, a far lower proportion than in Britain where the figure is about 37 per cent. Curiously, British support for EU membership suddenly went up to 43 per cent last July, in the aftermath of the "beef war".
In Germany and France opinion hovers between 50 per cent and 60 per cent; the biggest supporters of the EU are always found in Luxembourg, where 70 per cent of people like being part of the EU.
Strikes and protests in France, Belgium, Italy and Greece about austerity measures, taken by their governments ahead of monetary union, have focused attention of the growing fear of the euro. Meanwhile the noises of less specific grassroots grumblings can be heard on every European street and in every European bar. The most common complaints are that European integration is moving "too fast" and that the voice of ordinary people is "not heard".
In France people tend to rail against "les technocrats" of Brussels. "We are European but we don't know what it is," says Marcel Vilroi, a shopkeeper in Bordeaux. "Brussels is too far away," is a constant refrain. "Europe is for big business," is another regular complaint. "The utlra- liberals will break Europe," says an Aquitaine mayor. The Danes think Europe is simply interfering in too many policy areas, while a prime concern of the Germans and the Austrians is the coming of the euro. In Germany people are also fed up that their country has to pay Europe's bills.
Signs of widespread antipathy to European integration can also be measured by the increase in anti-European stories that appear in the Continental press. British newspapers are often accused of writing "Euro-myths" - such as "EU says fishermen to wear hairnets," which recently appeared in the tabloids. Now Continental papers have developed an appetite for such stories. The Finns recently accused Brussels of trying to harmonise the temperature of swimming pools, while the Swedes read a Euro-scare about cat litter regulations.
Throughout the Continent there is a growing cry for greater "regional" input into European government. Alienation from the existing European institutions is bringing calls for more "local" decision-making through a "Europe of the Regions", and a reaffirmation of local cultural identity to counter Brussels harmonisation.
Until the early Nineties the majority of Continental Europeans were largely enthusiastic about Europe. Ordinary people did not understand what their leaders got up to in Brussels. Unlike the British, however, they were ready to accept that integration was for the greater good, and was intended, above all else, to prevent further wars. The Continentals found few reasons to complain, because the political integration that was underway did not impact unduly on everyday life. But with implementation of the single market in the late Eighties, the first serious complaints were heard.
While big business seemed to benefit from new cross-border trade, ordinary people began to feel the impact of integration as multiple regulations on everything from health and safety standards to recipes for marmalade became subject to harmonisation. It was not, however, until 1992, when the Maastricht treaty was signed, that people began to question the value of a union at all.
The impenetrable text, negotiated with almost no public consultation, proved a massive turn-off. The Danish voted "No" to Maastricht in a referendum, and the French only narrowly accepted the treaty. According to Brussels surveys, public support for membership of the EU has barely recovered since Maastricht.
The bureacrats of Brussels and political leadship in member states argue that public disaffection with the union is easily exaggerated, and is a symptom of economic problems which have nothing to do with "Europe". They fail to acknowledge, however, that in many countries there is no political voice for the frustration. In Germany 60 per cent of the populace opposes the euro but both main political parties support it.
Nervousness about launching Europe-wide campaigns on either the euro or the the new EU treaty show how wary the decision-makers are of public reaction. But the need to secure wider public support for the next round of integration has been acknowledged. Horst Teltchik, who was Helmut Kohl's key adviser during the negotiation of Maastricht, concedes that public opinion was ignored during the 1992 negotiations. "It was crazy to ask people to vote for a treaty that they could not understand. We were too self-confident. We should have explained more than we did," he says today. But Europe is still proving hard to sell. The European Commission has recently launched "Europe by satellite", which allows "the citizens" to tune in to day-to-day developments in Brussels. The problem is that nobody wants to buy the dish.
A "rapid reaction" unit has been set up in the information directorate of the Commission specifically to react to and counter the Euro-myths. But the myths are being spun so fast that the staff find it hard to cope. The European parliament has this year launched a "Europe is what you make it" campaign in every member state, and the socialist group - the largest in the parliament - now puts its policy ideas on the Internet. However, the evidence suggests that knowledge of the way Europe works does not necessarily lead to affection for the union. Danes always score the highest markes when it comes to understanding the process of European government. But today only 45 per cent of Danes think membership of the EU is a good thing.
Even in Germany it is no longer taboo for political figures to attack Europe. Edmund Stoiber, the powerful president of Bavaria, increasingly attacks Brussels in his speeches. "If you criticise Europe you are condemned as a Euro-sceptic. This is unfair," he said at a recent meeting in Brussels. "It must be possible to to utter criticism without being condemned as a Euro-sceptic. Europe must be closer to the needs of the citizen."
As Europe heads for a major new round of integration and adoption of the single currency, all the signs are that Continental Europeans such as Mr Gramm in South Tyrol will continue to feel confused by Brussels decision-making.
Mr Gramm feels alienated by Brussels but also senses that he must increasingly answer to Europe's laws. In the apple- packing factory, for example, costly new machinery has been installed to stamp EU-approved sell-by dates. And Brussels now wants hotels to start a census of all tourists, which will be costly and very time-consuming. "These things are not their business," says Mr Gramm.
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