More than ever, the European Union finds itself in a legitimacy crisis. The need for change is crystallising, and so the EU has embarked on a new debate on the future of Europe.

The big challenges the European continent faces are well known: migration; unemployment and the economy; the future of the euro; climate change; Brexit; relations with the United States.

Failure to deliver responses to these challenges risks destroying the remaining trust citizens have in the EU’s ability to bring together a community of nations to solve common problems.

But even delivering adequate responses to these major challenges is unlikely to be enough. The EU’s challenge is not only that it needs to convince voters that it is still relevant in addressing the big problems. That will be the minimum requirement.

The EU’s key challenge is to prove that it can deliver on the promise of a Europe that works for citizens.

These days, the EU displays a startling weakness: too often, its upbeat rhetoric does not match reality. The EU needs to match citizens’ belief in the power of the EU to improve their lives and demonstrably deliver on its promise of a European ‘Union’.

We have come a long way. In many areas we do have a common market (although in others, we do not). Freedom of movement is real. Real successes exist.

But in too many areas, official rhetoric often creates the impression that we have come (or will soon go) further than is the case. Ironically, these shortfalls are most often discovered by precisely those who see the real benefits of the EU for themselves – those who try to cross borders to work, study or take a holiday, or who shop online from a different member state.

“We have come a long way: real successes exist”

These people’s expectations for a functioning ‘Union’ are high. But when they set out to take advantage of the EU’s purported achievements in real life, Europeans far too often find a reality that is below their expectations.

This is something that is far more damaging to the EU than you may think. These are the experiences of people who actively wish to make use of the EU’s advantages, who can see the concrete benefit the EU can bring to their lives. If they are disappointed, the most likely advocates for the European project will be lost. If they are not convinced that the EU keeps its promises, nobody else will be.

Apart from the very important fundamentals of the four freedoms, from which citizens moving across borders very obviously benefit, numerous other mundane encounters with the EU suggest the Union under-delivers in real life.

For example, Belgian residents (including citizens of other EU member states) are banned from driving cars that do not have a Belgian licence plate. If you live in Antwerp and you borrow your mother-in-law’s car from Brussels, that’s fine. But if your mother-in law lives in the Dutch city of Breda and you drive her Dutch-registered car in Belgium, you risk a fine and immobilisation of the car. There are a few small exceptions to this rule – one, interestingly, being for employees of the EU institutions.

Another example: if you have an EU driving licence, it is genuinely valid in all member states. If you change your country of residence, local authorities may encourage you to exchange it for a local one. If you follow that advice (which you are not obliged to), you discover that it is not enough to just hand in your old licence. You also need a certificate from the original issuing authority that specifies that the licence is still valid and what, if any, restrictions are attached to it. Most of the restrictions are codified in an EU directive so that the numerical codes can be easily cross-referenced.

But the certificates are not standardised – so that a German certificate which also shows the explanation of the codes (in German) causes the Belgian authorities to request an official translation of the certificate (at a cost of €250). A genuine European effort to make life simpler fails miserably in practice.

There are many other examples. Non-UK residents, unfazed by Brexit talks, can open a basic bank account in the UK thanks to an EU directive, but they cannot use the bank’s smartphone app because they do not have a UK mobile number. Erasmus students registering their residence in their temporary new home country may find that they need to get their multilingual international birth certificates transcribed into an equivalent local document that looks the same.

“The rhetoric of the EU institutions almost never matches the reality, and that is now rapidly becoming a problem for the EU’s legitimacy”

And of course, there are numerous accounts of hospitals refusing to accept the European Health Insurance Card, leaving tourists with high medical bills to pay. Even if reimbursements can be claimed later, people ask themselves what the EHIC is there for in the first place.

All these experiences send one clear message: the EU doesn’t deliver what it promises.

The failure must lie with an EU decision-making structure that appears to be less concerned with citizens’ experiences and more with accommodating the status quo. In doing so, the institutions have collectively created a huge credibility gap. The rhetoric almost never matches the reality, and that is now rapidly becoming a problem for the EU’s legitimacy.

So what should be adjusted – the rhetoric or the reality?

Changing the reality won’t be easy – resistance to change is strong. But changing the rhetoric to reflect the reality is also unattractive at a time when it is more crucial than ever to demonstrate the value of the EU.

Both options can work, but a choice needs to be made if citizens are to continue to believe in the European project. Changing reality require a hard and honest look at how the existing intended benefits for citizens are delivered in practice, and how this delivery can be improved.

There is much work to be done – and it is work that genuinely needs to be done.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – European Council