Europe's Doldrums Show On European Union Day
France celebrates, but elsewhere the mood is decidedly downbeat
PARIS — WHEN Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterrand cut the ribbon Friday to open the Channel Tunnel linking their two countries, bands played ``God Save the Queen,'' ``The Marseillaise'' - and Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy.''
Ode to Joy? Unbeknownst to most Europeans, that piece of the composer's Ninth Symphony is also the hymn of the European Union. So the stirring music, suitable to mark an important step in European integration, should also be heard across the 12-country EU today - the Union's official commemoration day.
Yet, symptomatic of a Union that is still struggling to win its citizens' hearts, Europe Day remains largely unheralded by the 340 million people who make up the EU.
``It may be Europe Day, but I don't know it, and no one else does either,'' says Udo Cremer, a banker in Frankfurt, Germany. May 9 was chosen because, on that day in 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed a Franco-German coal and steel association, the forerunner of the Union.
The widespread ignorance of the official day also reflects the EU's controversial nature almost 40 years after the initially six-member union was founded in 1957.
In Greece, for example, plans to celebrate the day in a big way this year were abruptly canceled when Greece-EU differences over the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia turned nasty.
But the controversy could have come from French farmers protesting EU farm policy last year, or Danish anti-Euro-bureaucracy forces before that.
Matters are not helped by the particularly tough times the EU is having as it struggles to pull out of Europe's worst recession since World War II and faces widespread criticism for failing to stop a war in ex-Yugoslavia.
``There's a great disappointment in Europe over Yugoslavia; it showed us the wide gulf between intentions and acts,'' says Pascal Reber, a plant manager for a pharmaceuticals company outside Paris. ``There should have been a common [EU] position from the beginning, but the disheartening truth is that it is completely nonexistent.''
Reflecting this disappointment in Europe, polls run biannually by the EU's executive Commission show public support for European integration continuing to sink since the highs of 1991, in the euphoric aftermath of the Berlin Wall's fall.
In France, a recent poll in the weekly L'Express shows to what extent ``Euroskepticism'' has won the public. A slightly higher percentage of the French - 38 to 39 percent - think the Union has had a globally negative effect on their family, while 51 percent think the EU is going in the wrong direction. Less than a third judge the Union's direction positively.
To counteract the trend, French Euro-enthusiasts are hoping this year to give Europe Day a visible and positive presence in their country for the first time since the day was declared by European leaders in 1985.
Posters announcing the day in the EU's familiar blue and yellow colors adorn Paris subway stations, public buildings are to fly the EU flag along with the French tricolor banner, and more than 300 cities and towns will offer receptions in honor of their residents who are non-French EU citizens. In Paris, a concert will be offered featuring musicians from all the ex-Yugoslav republics.
``For much of the public Europe remains cold, distant, and without sentiment, but we are convinced Europeanists want to show that there are good reasons, including accomplishments simply taken for granted, to believe in Europe,'' says Dominique Bocquet, general secretary of the French chapter of the pro-Europe European Movement.
France has always been ``coquettish'' toward Europe, Mr. Bocquet says, taking when Europe has had something it wanted but standing aloof when it did not agree. The French have to be reminded that the economic clout the EU has given them and the voice it has enabled France to preserve on the world stage ``are worth fighting for.''
One step to giving Europe a ``real presence'' among its citizens is initiatives that can be both instructive and satisfy the human need for symbolism, says Bocquet - thus the French relaunching of Europe Day. But the effort should be Europe-wide, he concedes - and the reality is different.
In Germany, pro-Europeanists have launched a multimedia campaign to develop interest in the June European Parliament elections, but nothing is planned for Europe Day. ``Right now the public hears Europe and thinks bitterly of bananas,'' says Hurst Brauner, the European Movement's director in Germany. His reference is to a controversial EU decision that will force banana-loving Germans to give up the Central American fruit for its more expensive counterpart from French tropical territories.
Even in Brussels, where the day has become known as the ``Saint Schuman'' in memory of the French official who proposed the Franco-German deal, nothing is planned this year. ``We transferred what funds we had for it for the ceremonies opening the Channel Tunnel,'' says a Commission official.
Mr. Reber says with a smile that the only way to make the day meaningful is to make it a day off. ``Even if it took the place of one of the war holidays, at least it would be future-oriented,'' he says. But Germany's Mr. Cremer is skeptical. ``People would treat it like any other holiday,'' he says, ``I doubt it would put Europe in their hearts.''