Leading article: Europe's crisis of legitimacy

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The Independent Online

The former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, is right to argue, in an interview with this newspaper today, that the European Union is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy.

In truth, it has been a slow-motion breakdown of trust, going back much further than the present convulsions of the single currency to the rejection of the European Constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands in May 2005. Turnouts in European parliamentary elections have been falling across the continent. Support for the EU has softened.

The question is: how to change things? There are some sound ideas around. Mr MacShane suggests more frequent European Parliament elections and reducing the size of the EU commissariat. But, in truth, there are no levers that can be pulled which will automatically increase the EU's legitimacy. As we have seen, crude attempts to promote common feeling such as the European Constitution end up backfiring. Building support will be a process, not an event.

National leaders need to do a much better job of communicating the achievements of the EU. They also need to refrain from the populist blame games we have seen over the Eurozone, with German leaders making inflammatory comments about the attitude to work of southern Europeans. Paradoxically, what is happening in the single currency might just be an opportunity. If a greater degree of fiscal federalism results from the emergency – as now seems likely – this could be a chance to strengthen democratic accountability, make Europe's institutions more transparent and engage European citizens more fully in questions of governance. But that will also require national and European leaders to be much more active in standing up for the EU.

The present drift is perilous. The time has come for all those who recognise the achievements of the EU and support its continued existence to put their shoulder to the wheel.