The 90 billion euro bailout of hopelessly-indebted Ireland this week has brought European issues to the fore once more.
The EU now wields a level of power and influence over all our lives that even its creators could scarcely have dreamed of when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957.
For those countries, like Ireland, that took the plunge and joined the eurozone, the full extent of that control is becoming only too apparent as the financial crisis bites ever deeper.
I visited Brussels recently for a conference on animal welfare with Struan Stevenson MEP. You can’t help but be impressed by the grandiose buildings of the European Parliament and the Commission, which make Holyrood and even Westminster look positively quaint. These towering structures and the myriad departments and agencies of the EU dominate Brussels physically and psychologically: its self-styled status as ‘Capital of Europe’ is hard to dispute.
And yet I couldn’t help thinking that despite the importance of these buildings and the institutions they house, I had never actually seen a picture of them. Before last week, I couldn’t have even visualized them in my mind.
The controversies surrounding the Scottish Parliament’s construction and its provocatively modern appearance have at least meant that most Scots are familiar (roughly) with the look of the building.
And practically everyone in Britain and beyond knows the iconic profile of the Houses of Parliament, with the sentinel of Big Ben at one end. It’s even on bottles of brown sauce.
Is this important? It’s easy to dismiss the point as irrelevant – surely it’s what happens inside the buildings that counts? The policies and debates that are supposed to create a more peaceful and prosperous Europe?
But I think you can argue that my – and doubtless many other people’s – ignorance of these structures’ form is symbolic of our general imprecision about what the EU actually does. It’s very hard to care about institutions that seem remote from your everyday experience, so distant you can’t even imagine what they look like.
And that is the challenge for European politicians and institutions. How do you get over that disconnent that means most European citizens still don’t regard themselves as such? Is such a goal even realistic?
We’re often reminded how much legislation now ultimately emanates from Brussels. It has authority in areas ranging from the amount of time we work to how much fish we can catch and which criminals we’re allowed to deport.
So there’s a duty on these European bodies to explain themselves. They need to tell us what they do and why they’re doing it. Only that way can the faint suspicion that hangs over the notion of ‘Europe’ be broken down and Europeans (as we surely are) feel more comfortable about sharing power with supranational institutions.
James Tout is a senior account manager at Indigo. His clients include Struan Stevenson, Conservative MEP for Scotland. Prior to joining Indigo, James worked for the Scottish Government’s communications office and as a newspaper journalist in Scotland and Englan