Fiddling while Gothenburg burns. A grossly unfair way to sum up the latest European Summit, but the average European - and there are quite a few of us - would be forgiven for thinking that the EU has now drifted for far too long without clear direction and leadership. Things have come to a pretty pass when the rioters also start to target these kinds of gatherings as well as Davos and Seattle.
It is as if the unexpected snub by the Irish to the Nice Treaty - a low-key protest with potentially dramatic consequence across Europe needed to be followed up by a more dramatic, violent outburst a few days later to ensure we do not sweep that awkward result under the carpet. Of course, the rioters are not really protesting about the carve up of votes in an enlarged Europe, or the continued opaqueness of much EU activity. But if the European Heads of government feel remotely chastened by their first-hand experience of 'direct action', then something good might come of it. Their task now is to focus their minds on a genuine dialogue with 'ordinary people' about what the EU is, or should be, about.
Mantras are as rife in Brussels as they are anywhere else. The latest, perhaps with a brief shelf life, is 'Getting the Message Across'. This means 'explaining' the future of Europe to the citizens of Europe. The EU is not normally good about feeling a collective sense of urgency (it prefers, if pressed, to go straight to panic mode), so the 'great debate' about the future of Europe is still pretty much at the 'how shall we organise the great debate' stage. I dont want to be churlish: the intention is clearly there. This is just as well, since 'getting the message across' is not just an option, or even a competing priority, it is an absolute necessity if the European Union is to survive in any recognisable form.
What is the message? It is tremendous that Chancellors, Presidents and Prime Ministers are now queuing up to set out their own vision of the future. But with all due respect, these competing views ensure one thing in the public mind: total confusion. Commentators also have their part to play in this, since they are often guilty of elevating these 'visions' into some new blueprint for Europe with the odd comment about the latest one being a slap in the eye to the authors of the previous ones. Confused? You bet we are. We do not, if we are honest with ourselves, understand any of it (with the possible exception of some specialist students).
Can you blame us? 'European integration is like a riding a bicycle' we used to hear. No, the metaphor was not a reference to fun activity easily learned. It means 'it has to go forward constantly or it will stop'. It rationalizes action for its own sake. And Europe is constantly tinkering with the very basis of the EU, its founding Treaty. It's like constantly picking at a scab and being astonished when the wound won't heal. So it goes with public understanding and popular support.
To spell it out: we Europeans currently find ourselves with an existing Treaty, the Treaty of Amsterdam. This is in fact a revision of the Treaty of Rome the third such revision in the space of ten years. But if you had forgotten about the Amsterdam Treaty, you have my sympathy, because today all we all hear about in EU circles is the 'Treaty of Nice'. This is the hugely incoherent latest revision, which has now to be ratified by all Member States. Before Ireland's 'No' last week, the Treaty was not expected to come into effect for another 18 months or so anyway (who knows about the timing now). And yet, and yet, Europe's elites are already talking about the next Treaty revision, sometime in 2004! This next review should be accompanied by the 'great debate' mentioned earlier. Is it any wonder the European Union lacks popular legitimacy and so few of its citizens vote for it?
Of course we can appreciate that our leaders want to stay one step ahead, they want to show they are taking a lead. But what is the point of all this leading if no-one wants to follow? The European Union is a great achievement. It deserves and justifies public support. It is far too important to be a victim of the frittering away of public support, in the way that is now happening. To reverse this process, however, Europe's leaders simply must make the time and use whatever means they have at their disposal to consult with the public on Europes future, using a language that everyone understands. For the majority of Europeans, it is not a case of 'stop the bicycle, I want to get off'. It is the case of peddling more slowly and having a clearer sense of direction.