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Opinion: We must value the EU once again

The European elections were marked by Euro-skepticism and apathy. The people of Europe must learn to value the achievements of the European Union once again, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.

Deutsche Welle Christoph Hasselbach

Christoph Hasselbach of DW's Europe desk

No one can say it was inevitable, but it was expected. The next European Parliament will be even more fragmented than the last. Representatives from both far-left and far-right parties will be moving to Strasbourg in greater numbers than before. As for turnout, the picture is mixed: in some countries more people voted than before, but those votes often went to Euro-skeptic parties.

All in all, the general public's interest in the EU is shockingly low - even though all the parties tried their best to motivate the electorate. For the first time, they chose leading candidates to tour the continent and debate each other. They tried hard to personalize and enliven the election, and make it more relevant. It did little good.

Extreme parties: no project

The only reassuring thing is that the parliament will remain functional, despite all the enemies in its own ranks. The representatives from UKIP, the Front National, the Danish People's Party will deliver angry speeches, but they won't really be able to block anything - because they differ from one another too much - they're too focused on their own nationalism.

By the same token, their rhetoric is always directed at their own voters in their respective home countries. They prefer to be the voice of the dissatisfied, rather than develop a major common project. This will cause the centrist, Europe-friendly parties to stick closer together. No, the Euro-skeptic extremists don't present a threat, at least not in the European Parliament.

More than straight cucumbers

Perhaps more disturbing is the apathy among voters - or rather, non-voters - across Europe. For the majority of people, it seems that the unprecedented achievements of European cooperation have become so natural that they think everything will all continue as before, indefinitely: peace, the freedom to travel, study, and work, a common currency, free trade across Europe.

But these achievements aren't as self-evident as they think - we could lose them. We have to keep fighting for them. During the election campaign, it was easy to get the impression that all the EU was really about was banning light bulbs and straightening cucumbers - even though that last, still oft-cited directive has long since been abolished.

Debt crisis

The debt crisis of a few years ago showed how quickly an old order could be overthrown. The EU itself was peering into the abyss. That crisis has been overcome, more or less, but only thanks to common effort, mutual aid, and discipline. If each country had tried to find its way out of its crisis on its own, they would all have lost - even the stronger among them. Is that too long ago to still be a lesson?

How high the stakes are in Europe can also be seen from the Ukraine crisis: 25 years after the end of the Cold War, we're in danger of entering a new long-term European conflict. Astonishingly, the Ukraine crisis barely played a role in the election campaign, even though the EU is perhaps the best example of what balance and cooperation can achieve.

View from the outside

Do the critics of European integration want to threaten all that? They should ask people in the rest of the world what they think of the European project.

I met an African election observer at the last European election in 2009. When he saw the turnout figures - of 43 percent, the same as this time around - he shook his head and said, "In a lot of African states we'd be glad to have any free elections at all. And you Europeans throw away your rights!" It was a humbling meeting.

If we in the EU have no bigger problems than a few over-bureaucratic directives, then we really do have it good. Maybe we have it too good to appreciate the miracle of peace and common prosperity that we gained 70 years ago.

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