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Mayday!

Since 1927 this expression, based on the second half of the French call for help “Venez m’aider” has been used to signal a life-threatening emergency for ships or aircraft. Out of this context, and spelt in two words, it may of course simply refer to a day in the month of May. For the European Union, which celebrates its own birthday each year in May, this semantic coincidence starts to have multiple semantic implications. As a matter of fact, the term ‘emergency’ may not be too far-fetched to describe the state it is currently in.

May days of Europeanness

It is true that “Europe Day” on 9 May remains an occasion for the advocates of European integration in a number of member-states for organising a larger number of events with the objective to raise awareness among citizens of the benefits of being part of the Union. But this celebration can no longer hide the seemingly irresistible rise of Euroscepticism. France is a good observation ground: on the local level, Europe Day events, often spread across several werks and underpinned by an amazing number of town twinnings across the continent and warm-heartedly celebrated. At the same time, in national politics, Eurosceptic discourse is on the rise. Not only, as usual, in the extremes of the political spectrum, but also within the government.

Over the last five years the financial and economic crisis has repeatedly shown that the individual nation-states are no longer capable of acting autonomously in an increasingly interdependent world and that adequate solutions can only be found within a European framework. And yet, at the same time, neither the governments nor the peoples of Europe seem genuinely ready to move towards a more solidary and, yes, federal Europe. A political Union appears to be no longer an attractive option to a growing number of citizens.

It is all the more surprising that this same month of May 2013 gave new evidence to the fact that the big European celebrations of popular culture have lost nothing of their attractiveness or legitimacy. Both the Europe of popular music, celebrated at the “Eurovision Song Contest”, and the Europe of football as embodied in the Champions League are in excellent shape.

By coincidence both finals of these pan-European parties took place in reputedly Eurosceptic countries this year, the UK and Sweden. Their reputation notwithstanding, the two countries were visibly delighted to be the hosts of these massive continental media events. The organisers of the song contest in Malmö even chose the slogan “We are one” and placed in their logo the Swedish flag, in the shape of a heart, right next to the word “Euro”. And London, host to both the women’s and men’s Champions League finals, had been chosen to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the creation of modern football, this English pastime that became a European, if not global, passion.

It is undeniable that these big popular celebrations of music and sport are as much the expression of a social need of being “united in diversity” as they are an explicit display of a common cultural belonging. How come the successive generations of political leaders in Europea have not been able to put this spontaneous enthusiasm to use for building a community of solidarity? In other words: to transfer these positive emotionsDid they actually ever have the intention in the first place?

In 2014 May will see not only the finals of the Champions League and the Eurovision Song Contest, but also the elections to the European Parliament. Guess which of these events is most likely to produce emergency “Mayday!” calls?

Albrecht Sonntag, Centre for European Integration, ESSCA School of Management, Angers.

This post was initially written a op-ed piece for the Sport & Citizenship quarterly.



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