Money, Money Everywhere Why Does the EU Get Such a Bad Rap?

Has the EU really lost touch with its citizens? Is it unable to improve people's lives? Yes and no. Across Europe, EU money flows from Brussels into thousands of projects and ideas. Why does nobody notice?

Maurice Weiss / DER SPIEGEL

By Ullrich Fichtner

On the search for an alternative narrative of Europe, there are plenty of places to start: A giant, next-generation bio-product mill is being built deep in the forests of Äänekoski, Finland. A new, state-of-the-art trauma center is under construction on the outskirts of Birmingham. On the Greek island of Crete, resourceful entrepreneurs are replacing pig fat with olive oil to make better sausage for the world. Near Barcelona, pharmaceutical researchers are experimenting with plasma and proteins to develop drugs to treat genetic defects. Off the coast of Suffolk, England, German wind turbines are going up in the North Sea.

Thousands of small companies in the Netherlands receive low-interest loans, thousands of homes in France are being renovated to make them more environmentally friendly, thousands of jobs are created by such measures. Portugal is getting a 4G mobile network, a large printing company in Heidelberg is getting cheap R&D funding to expand its digital portfolio, Spanish ports are linking up with the railway network, contaminated wasteland in Belgium is being converted to clean building sites, and many Polish dairy farmers will have the opportunity to work with more modern machinery in the future.

Such are the outlines of the other European story. It is rich and colorful, but it is also so discordant and diverse that it is almost impossible to create a single, compelling narrative. The bits of good news go largely unnoticed.

Making things even more difficult is the fact that some of the worst storytellers happen to be located in Brussels and the European capitals. Year in and year out, they fill entire libraries with books full of laws, papers, projects, programs and reports, but the texts are usually so incomprehensible, so blighted by footnotes, cross-references and legalese that no one can understand what has happened thus far. And no one can say what is happening now, either. And when it comes to figuring out what the future will bring, we are especially clueless.

Such is the situation in Europe at the beginning of 2017. March will see the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which marked the beginning of the European adventure. But in many places, the prevailing mood is that there is nothing to celebrate. Project Europe has been running on fumes for years, and now it seems as if majorities in society and the media believe that the European Union belongs in the dustbin of history. That the entire anemic episode has come to an end, those eternal Brussels congresses where elitist Eurocrats engage in nothing but myopic navel-gazing. That, at least, is the well-practiced cliché.

But the examples mentioned at the beginning, the hospital in Birmingham, the sausage factory in Crete, the wind farm in Suffolk, the pharmaceutical research facility in Barcelona, the environmentally friendly houses in France - all that and more would not exist without Europe, without the European Commission, with the European Investment Bank (EIB), and without the "Juncker Plan," the unofficial title of the "Investment Offensive for Europe" launched two years ago by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The Juncker Plan is an attempt to use smart lending to trigger additional investments worth many times the original sum, with an ultimate goal of 315 billion euros, distributed among thousands of projects throughout the EU. This article's aim was to take a closer look at the Juncker Plan.

Humming Along

The idea was simply that of examining whether the European Commission's strategy to provide a beneficial jolt of liquidity into the European economy is working. The plan was to find out whether the funds are truly being disbursed, whether the companies in the glossy brochures actually exist and whether the stories about them are true. The research involved traveling to the construction site in Birmingham, to the Cretan sausage factory, to Barcelona and the French region of Picardy, and to Munich and Luxembourg. And yes, it's true, the companies and the projects all exist, and while they may not amount to a huge jolt, they do inspire hope. Loans are being disbursed and the money is being transformed into machines, buildings, software and jobs. In other words, Europe is alive. Europe is humming along.

But during the course of the research, we discovered something else. It's more of a feeling really: that Europe's institutions are the last to profit from these success stories, if they profit at all; that hardly anyone makes the connection between the wind farm in Suffolk and the European Commission, between the sausage factory and the Juncker Plan, between the hospital and EIB loans, between Polish dairy farmers and European ideals.

It became apparent that although this Europe is working tirelessly everywhere to achieve its goals, its successes remain invisible, while in the 28 member states (soon to be 27, without the British), a bright spotlight is shone on every failure. The sad thought emerged that this EU, which has become part of our everyday lives, an indispensable player in even the most remote corners of the continent, has nevertheless remained a remote, unpopular entity.

Brexit supplied spectacular evidence to support this notion. Wales, for example, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of European support. A great deal of money has been sent to the British region so that museums could be operated and festival halls built. The EU helped rebuild roads and pedestrian zones, create educational and sports facilities, and build bicycle and hiking paths. But the majority of Welsh voter supported Brexit, more even than the nationwide average. Some 52.5 percent of the Welsh, 854,572 people, voted to withdraw from the ridiculed, despised and hated European Union.

These numbers alone made it seem pointless to simply dissect the Juncker Plan and write, for example, that within two years this bold program has helped 290,000 companies in 27 countries receive loans and provided 100,000 people with new jobs. It seemed pointless, because such information apparently goes in one European ear and promptly goes out the other. When Europe does something, the common response is: So what? How is that my concern? What do I have to do with Birmingham? Or sausage in Crete?

Europe is the forest that people are unable to see for all the trees. Spend half an hour on the European Commission's website searching for funding opportunities, and you'll end up feeling thoroughly confused. There is no branch of politics and no segment of society without a corresponding subsidy program.

Limited Effect

There are funds to promote civil society and others to address asylum issues. The European Commission promotes foreign trade and competitiveness. "Creative Europe" supports artists, filmmakers and other cultural workers. "Galileo" funds a navigation system supported by 30 European satellites; "Copernicus" provides money for the collection of geodata; "Erasmus" promotes the exchange of students and trainees. There are funding programs for honorary positions, for nuclear safety, for cultivating the rule of law, for urban areas, for villages and for underdeveloped regions. There is something for almost everything. And yet its effect seems to be nothing.

Supposedly so out of touch with its citizens, Europe is in fact on every market square and every street corner, and yet most passersby consistently overlook it. There are currently 1,175 small and large EU programs underway in Barcelona alone, a huge number, and the story isn't all that different in Lyon, Liverpool, Milan, Prague, Rotterdam, Lisbon, Seville, Cologne, Vienna and Warsaw.

In the German state of Saxony, where enthusiasm for Europe wanes by the year, there are 5,753 entries on the catalog of projects funded by the EU. The list includes hairdressers, small software companies, law firms, youth workshops, kindergartens, English tutors, naturopaths, employment agencies, clubs, associations, businesses and government agencies. The EU, it would seem, is doing its best not to forget even a single citizen of Saxony with its largesse.

The subsidies are for 110 euros (117 dollars) or 2,585 euros or even 253,000 euros, and there are loans galore. The money goes to cities and towns like Dresden and Leipzig, Werdau and Chemnitz, Radebeul, Zwickau, Pirna and Schkeuditz, Hoyerswerda, Grimma and Glauchau. But even as the money flows and Europe extends its helping hand, surveys show that only 33 percent of Saxony residents believe that Germany's membership in the EU is "generally advantageous," down from 52 percent only six years ago. How is this possible?

Are the bailout packages for Greece, Ireland and other countries to blame? Have these bailout packages had any effect on people in Germany? Is anyone in Germany worse off because of Europe? In fact, aren't many people better off? Could it be that people's heads are still full of old fairytales about standardized cucumbers? Or has Europe simply replaced the enemy that was missing in our highly polarized world?

There is apparently a collective emotional barrier against thinking money from Brussels is a good thing, against thinking that that Europe is a good thing, against recognizing the values of the EU as our own. Europe is held responsible for everything bad. There is hardly any place where Europe is able to gain a foothold.


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goldles 01/23/2017
1. European Project
A long time ago I voted to join the Common Market, a great idea and still is, but nobody ever asked if I wanted to join the 'European Project' and that's the nub of the discontent. From Maastrict on-wards more and more the EU has nibbled away to gain extra powers for its onward march, on its 'European Project'. As it ever asked the people of the nation states it they agree. Maybe if they had, then the positions they find themselves into day would be different. They should try less listening without hearing more hearing and adhering.
distrak 01/23/2017
2. EU failure
This was very interesting and welcome article. Had the EU done ANYTHING to prevent 1.5 million people--mostly muslim men--just walking into Europe the past two years. If ANYONE in Brussels had shown any leadership, had any guts, shown ANY common sense, I think the people in Europe would pay attention. Right now, all we hear (and see) about the EU is boatloads of Africans inundating Italy, herds of Afghans illegally entering Germany like it was their birthright and a LOT of EU disinterest in doing ANYTHING about it. People don't like being swindled by human traffickers, welfare shoppers, and illegal migrants. And the EU is doing nothing to prevent it.
sinkovec 01/23/2017
3. The Image of the European Union in the United States
Hello, the article I just read portrays perfectly what the US media tells people here every day. I know that they do not speak from personal or corporate experience. They merely parrot what the European press reports. And as you know better than I, the European press drips with criticism, negativism and cherry-picked "horror stories". Beside the fact that the US media are lazy and generally biased against anything European, politicians have their particular reasons for demonizing the "nanny states", the (democratic) socialist aspects of European societies. Germany, the picture book example of a successful EU nation, is frequently criticized for its stupid and misguided "Einwandererpolitik", its immigration politics. There has not been a war on US soil in lifetimes of anybody here. Yet, the folks here just know everything about the foibles and countless errors and omissions committed by Brussels. The uneducated and under-educated the uneducated represent the vast majority of Americans, as exemplified by the election of its new president. No EU member should expect Americans to know where Brussels is located on a map when 70% of high-school graduates according to a recent study can't even find Paris. The "press", which means the electronic "news" media like TV and radio, is willfully uninformed about what makes Europe, Europe and how it is so refreshingly different from US society, its public institutions and its sanitized and spun information apparatus. It has never been easier than today to find real, unbiased news and fact-checked or peer-reviewed reports, documents and papers on just about anything. And yet, at no time in its short history have people been as uninformed, misguided, incurious and have put such low value on learning and knowledge. The hit song "We don't need no Education" sold over a million records. There you have it.
david.lawrence 01/23/2017
4. Where does the money come from?
I understand that much EU money is spent across the EU and that some is spent on UK projects but the UK makes a net contribution to the EU as does German. i.e. the UK and Germany people contribute more that they receive back via projects. This means that the UK puts in more than it gets back directly. I know much of the contributions made are also eaten into by the bureaucracy in Brussels. It would make much more sense to put the funds into the local communities and manage them via locally devolved powers and not governed by bodies which are at arms length to the real needs of the local communities. The EU has funded many ridiculous projects such as statues being erected in town centres of Wales when what is really needed is Jobs and houses. Money needs to be spent wisely. Local people feel that they are told where the EU money is to be spent and not consulted accordingly. Much of the money that has been earned in the UK by non UK nationals coming to work in the UK is sent out of the UK and back to the employees home countries. I realise this helps those non UK nationals and their families which I recognise as a good thing but we need to see the money staying in the local communities and those communities profiting from that money. In addition it is my opinion that while Germany also makes a larger contribution to the EU than it receives back in EU projects it also receives additional indirect benefits as many German Companies profit from these EU projects. So, its German Turbines that are used for Wind farms that are built in the UK etc. I do agree that the best companies should get the work but the work needs to be shared with the EU nurturing and encouraging the development of new industries across the EU and not to continue to consolidate manufacturing in Germany.
Inglenda2 01/23/2017
5. Just the opinion of a European citizen
The mistake being made by many, is to speak of the EU as if it is Europe. It is definitely not! Few people in Europe have anything against a co-operation of European states, but what we now see in Brussels, is a club of self-satisfied, over paid politicians, an army of lobbyists and a huge crowd of civil-servants, who appear to believe they are our masters and can spend our tax money on a whole array of useless regulations and unnecessary projects. Very little of that, which the EU now does, could not be done better by regional governments, at a much more economical price
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