9 May 2019 and our hour of responsibility

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A participant (C) of the monthly pro-European Union rally titled 'Pulse of Europe', holds a cardboard on a stick, reading the German word 'Freunde' with the stressed letters 'EU', Berlin, 6 August 2017. [Clemes Bilan/EPA/EFE]

In the face of populism, and in the run-up to the EU elections, European leaders need to explain to the citizens the many good things the European Union has achieved collectively, writes Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Dimitris Avramopoulos is a Greek politician of the New Democracy party. He is currently serving as European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship.

Today is Europe Day. Every year, on the 9th of May we commemorate and celebrate the Schuman Declaration, which created the European Coal and Steel Community together with six founding member states, and laid the foundations of the European Union as we know it today. Recently, the 9th of May has increasingly become also a day of introspection, to acknowledge not only the achievements but equally to contemplate the challenges and dangers this Union is facing. In this context, the upcoming European elections are more and more depicted as a day of reckoning, a potential moment of rupture or schism. But it does not have to be this way.

The issues that our citizens are most worried about today are the same concerns they had five years ago, and will continue to be the same concerns in the coming years: their security and safety, their jobs and livelihoods, and how to deal with the questions of migration and climate change. These are simply the issues of our times – and rightly so. The European Elections in three weeks will not change that.

The point is that Europe’s citizens do not care about mandates or legislatures, about strategic agendas or political declarations. They care about what or who will have a genuine and tangible positive impact on their lives and those of their kin.

Over the past few years, the European Union has listened to the fears and worries of its citizens, and offered very real solutions while safeguarding the fundamental values of democracy and solidarity.

Today, we have a better protected Europe, with stronger external borders thanks to the European Border and Coast Guard, with stronger information systems whose dots will soon be interconnected, and with EU-wide rules to combat and criminalise terrorism, restrict access to bomb-making ingredients or to purchase firearms.

We also have a more protective Europe, with more than 700,000 people rescued at sea thanks to joint EU operations and more than 1.5 million people having received protection inside the EU since 2015.

Today we also live in a more connected Europe, with no more roaming charges to make phone calls or send text messages across borders.

We are building a gradually greener Europe where there is no more place for single-use plastics.

More than ten years on since the start of the financial crisis, wages have increased, unemployment – and in particular youth unemployment – is declining and economic growth has increased overall. The Juncker Fund has helped support jobs for 750,000 people in Europe.

Ultimately, the impact of all these achievements will only matter if citizens know where these accomplishments came from, and who is responsible. Because the responsibility is not singular, it is collective – it is European.

This is what is at stake for the European elections at the end of May: not that European citizens vote “against Europe” or for a “different Europe” – but that they are not aware of the Europe they already have and already enjoy. And the importance to continue building on this progress, and reaping even more benefits, in our everyday lives.

European leaders need to take public and joint ownership and responsibility for what the European Union has achieved collectively, and what it is committed to do for the future, for the sake of their citizens.

Populists, nationalists and extremists will seek to scare their citizens, to distort the truth and to manipulate information and news. But reality does not lie.

If Europe’s citizens can travel freely across the EU without border checks, this is thanks to Schengen, one of the EU’s greatest achievements. If Europeans can go live, work and receive pensions in another country, this is thanks to the common European market. No nationalist or populist will be able to hide this from its citizens – or take it away. Because no European citizen will allow it. These are our fundamental freedoms and rights, hard-earned and hard-fought for. Our response to them can only be a ‘social Europe’.

Forty years since the first European Parliamentary elections, this democratic right and power should not be taken lightly. The European elections in three weeks will be the hour of responsibility, not only for political leaders, but most importantly for all the European citizens who can vote.

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