Mary Dejevsky: My generation has failed to promote vision of Europe

We knew the EU was a good thing, but did not realise we had to 'sell' it

Two weeks on Thursday a disgracefully small number of Britons will go to vote. The low turnout will be partly because this is not the contest the country has an appetite for just now. If your council is not up for election this year, your only vote will be for the European Parliament and – to be realistic – this will be no substitute for what many people feel like doing with their MP.

Which is a pity, because the way many European countries conduct elections and run their politics – and we don't have to restrict ourselves to Scandinavia – offers lessons we could learn; lessons in representative democracy, transparency and, not least, civic engagement. The turnout in the last general elections in Germany, France and Italy came in at or near 80 per cent.

It will be lower for the European Parliament, because it always is. But in most EU countries the turn-out will still exceed ours, because voters are less cynical there, not only about the democratic process, but also about what has come to be termed the European project. They see benefits where we see mostly liabilities. And this reflects a huge political failure, for which my generation – the first European generation – bears a heavy responsibility.

If you frequent foreign policy discussions anywhere in Britain, you will quickly appreciate how stratified foreign policy concerns are by age. If the theme is defence or the cold war, the audience will be male, grey-haired and rooted in war memories. If the theme is development or global warming, scarcely a soul will be over 40; the dress code will be jeans and T-shirts, and there will be plenty of young women with impressive records of charity work in difficult places, and informed views about how aid could be done better.

And if the discussion is about Europe, well, there are the pros and the antis and never the twain do meet. If the gathering is largely hostile to Europe, there will be a mix of ages and genders, you will hear many impassioned views, and a lot about accountability, red-tape and referendums.

But if the crowd is sympathetic to Europe, you will meet my, "sandwich", generation. The audience will be more male than female, greying, if not yet grey and dominated by white professionals, with a smattering of Continentals. It will be earnest and convinced, but rarely outgoing, excited or, indeed, messianic in the way of the others. We presumed that the European Union was a good thing, in the way that peace is self-evidently better than war. We did not realise we had to "sell" it.

The result is that we have lost the argument before one has even really taken place. For the post-war generation, there was an ideological and strategic battle to be won, which many are psychologically still fighting. You can see this in how the defence establishment clings to Nato, long after its purpose has been served. They have shifted ground, but they still have a coherent cause to represent.

You can see it in the younger generation's concerns with poverty and the future of the planet. They are intent on bringing change, and they believe it can be done, if they put the work in and campaign. They are confident and they do their homework; they don't take No for an answer. There are internal debates about how things should be done, but not whether.

We have arguments on our side, too. But we rarely marshall them to convince. We know that the EU has improved life across Europe in almost every sphere; it is so obvious we almost hesitate to put it into words. But we should try.

The EU is a new form of organisation, in which a little sovereignty is sacrificed, by consent, to the greater good. We Europeans can live, work and travel with a freedom not experienced except by the rich in the days of the Grand Tour. Most internal EU borders have melted away, while a common sense of security has given each individual nation the security to be itself.

Our regulatory standards are becoming a model for the world. The euro has survived its first, exacting test, while the economic crisis will cause less damage to most European families because of the social safety-net. This displeases many Euro-sceptics, who argue that the price of more security and greater job protection is low growth. But which, I wonder, would your family choose?

The EU is in desperate need of the manifesto my contemporaries and I failed even to formulate, let alone get across. We can only hope that the next generation of today's aspiring EU citizens will do it for us, along with those further afield who repeatedly beg the EU to be less sparing with its collective diplomatic might. They all know why the European Union is valuable and what it is for. Did we not understand that even the best ideas need defending?