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It's Europe Day, but Europeans don't seem to know

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Vadim Ghirda/AP

(Read caption) A huge European Union flag is installed in front of the Romanian parliament building in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday. The flag, with a weight of 800 kg and measuring 100 by 140 meters, was placed at the parliament to mark Europe Day.

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Today is Europe Day. It marks a pivotal declaration by French foreign minister for foreign affairs, Robert Schuman, on May 9, 1950, that led to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and essentially the foundation of the European Union.

In theory, Europe Day should be comparable to Bastille Day in France or the Fourth of July in the US. Instead, it’s hard to find people who actually know what it is.

One history professor did, but this was his take: “It’s nothing.” Pieter Lagrou, a contemporary European history professor at the Free University of Brussels, says he likes to tell his students the obscurity of the holiday marks "the symbolic deficit of Europe.”

The central question of "What is Europe?" is being picked apart across and beyond the continent. In the midst of debt crisis, nations are fighting to get in, questioning getting out and even splitting in two, and bickering over banking unions and political control and sovereignty.

On the ground – the level at which citizens take time to raise a flag and celebrate, or at least ponder, their national founding – it’s also an exceedingly hard question to answer.

Dr. Lagrou used himself as an example. He’s a Dutch-speaking Belgian, living in bilingual Brussels, with a French employer. His regional government and federal government are accountable to him. But so are his EU representatives.

If he, for example, cared deeply about a jobs-creation program, would it be his federal government or the EU that he should contact, and among the latter, who holds the control among the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament?

“The political landscape is increasingly difficult,” he says.

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As a journalist new to Europe, I made Brussels, the heart of the European Union, my first stop on the European circuit. Perhaps it would have been better to visit the EU capitals first and then Brussels, where it’s harder than most places to know whom you need to talk to, who holds the power, and how it all works.

I walked through the city, which is the first thing I usually do when I arrive somewhere new. I went to the European district, past the European Parliament and the Commission. I went to the daily Commission press briefing. There were only a few questions asked: about funding proposals in Spain for the unemployed, EU representation at the International Monetary Fund, and Macedonia. All answers were about the same: “We can’t speculate, we can’t answer at this point.” None of them shed any light on how the EU works.

I told many people that I couldn’t get my head around it. Without fail, they all replied, “Don’t worry, neither can most Europeans.”

They were joking to a certain extent (at least those who work for the EU). But Lagrou says there is a risk here. To many, the EU has become a giant bureaucracy “without a face or identity,” he says. In the face of crisis – as real fault lines are forming between nations, especially over austerity – many are increasingly losing faith in the project.

Each year, around Europe Day, the EU opens its doors to the public, so citizens get an inside look at the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the Commission, the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, and the Office of the Ombudsman. These kinds of events, of any governmental institution, are often disregarded as hokey. But it might be as important a time as ever to sign up for the tour. I know I wish I had.


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