Author: Dimitar Bechev, EUobserver
Believe it or not, there are still countries in Europe where protestors enthusiastically wave the EU’s star-studded flag rather than burning it in anger.
These days Kiev’s embattled EuroMaidan is as much the heart of the Union as the Schuman roundabout in Brussels.
Students in Sofia University calling for decency and accountability, in a country whose 2007 accession is viewed by many as premature, also show the EU remains a force for good in times of self doubt.
Neither the crackdown by Ukraine’s riot forces nor the smear campaign against Bulgarian students can kill hopes of living in democratic societies governed by the rule of law.
The EU is in desperate need of a narrative to justify its raison d’etre.
The old story of war and peace has little traction for young generations who have no memory of pre-1945 Europe.
The tale of prosperity fares no better.
British Prime Minister David Cameron blames free movement of people, a cornerstone of the single market, for Britain’s woes, as transition periods blocking Romanians and Bulgarians’ access to EU labour markets expire at the end of 2013.
Meanwhile, populists on the left and the right abhor the euro as eroding the welfare state or a devious plot to make them pay for someone else’s debts.
The idea that Europe makes member states stronger in an increasingly volatile world has also failed to inspire its citizens.
Governments are only too happy to cut defence budgets as part of austerity, and shrug off appeals to contribute to missions abroad. Europe wants to be a bigger version of Switzerland, not a replica of the US.
Enlargement to capture the imagination
In truth, democratic enlargement is the closest we have to a European story capable of gripping the political imagination. Protestors in Kyiv and Sofia have few doubts that the EU is part of their cause.
Rather than undermining democracy the Union helps it take root, deepen and mature.
In the case of Ukraine, an authoritarian President resists integration as it may lead to a loosening of his grip on power.
In Bulgaria, democratic procedures work on paper, but the state is captive to vested interests, while society is stifled by distrust in the country’s institutions.
What the EU has done in both countries, either thanks to its fundamental values and principles or through direct actions, is empower civic spirit and the aspiration for a more dignified future.
The EuroMaidan and Bulgaria’s anti-government protest, which have lasted for more than 160 days, speak to the EU project’s continued vitality and relevance.
There is a fundamental misconception among scholars on the EU’s promotion of democracy. The Union is not an exporter of democratic norms, habits and culture. It does not and cannot effect regime change by itself.
To countries wishing to join or already inside the club, Brussels transfers rules and it often does so in a bureaucratic manner.
Intervention is legitimate because it is asked for, driven by demand from within.
Member states from Central and Eastern Europe did not embark on their democratic journey because the then EU pushed them. It was their own choice. The EU helped lock in and catalyse processes already underway.
It is easy to underplay the transformative influence coming from Brussels.
Negative examples are plenty: starting with the failure of the “colour revolutions” in parts of the old Soviet Union and ending with the democratic backslide in states such as Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania.
Entrenched habits die hard, old hopes are dashed and corruption is endemic. Ukraine’s “Black Saturday,” when riot police attacked pro-EU students on 30 November, shows that authoritarianism is a depressingly viable scenario.
Corrupt elites have adapted well to life in the EU. Funds from Brussels have bankrolled state capture.
Western Europeans find it incredible that Bulgaria’s centre-left should govern in concert with the xenophobic, ultra-nationalist Ataka (“Attack”) party.
But many Bulgarians see the marriage of convenience as perfectly understandable given the cynicism in public affairs.
Some people in both Ukraine and Bulgaria simply leave their countries for a better life abroad.
But the civic awakening proves the sceptics wrong.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s resort to brutal force to suppress anger will strengthen the resolve of an important segment in Ukrainian society to move the country closer to the EU.
If Europe has a cause today, it is to ensure that Ukraine does not slip further down the Belarusian path.
In Bulgaria, there is already a new culture of protest embedded in the very fabric of politics. Over the past years, citizens have discovered their power as a robust counterweight to state institutions and elites.
The genie is out of the bottle, though it is clear that it will be a drawn out struggle with no easy victory in sight.
Besides, Ukraine’s ordeal is a vivid reminder to Bulgarians that membership in the EU makes a huge difference.
In past weeks, the streets of Kiev were peppered with billboards displaying images of Bulgaria’s economic hardship as a stern warning of the EU’s ruinous effect.
The message was hard to miss: Brotherly Russia offers you a much better deal.
But these days Sofia and Kiev are linked in a much more positive way. Protestors marching across Bulgaria’s capital are seen carrying slogans “Ukraine is Europe” along with Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue flag.
Who said Europe lacks a story and a cause?
*Dimitar Bechev is the director of the Sofia office at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think tank