Demystifying the European Union
Jul 31, 2019
Anna Eijsbouts’s father, Tom Eijsbouts, is one of Europe’s foremost scholars on European constitutional law—a “walking Encyclopedia on the topic,” as Anna often describes him. But even with so much knowledge about its inner workings at hand, Anna found it difficult to understand how the EU worked as a system, and where its voters fit into the picture. She knew she wasn’t alone.
“The structure of the European Union is difficult to understand for most people,” the younger Eijsbouts, who is a Dutch citizen, told me. “The complex system that keeps it functioning is incredibly opaque.” This disconnect, Eijsbouts believes, has grave consequences. It can alienate citizens, contributing to widespread malaise about the EU and poor voter turnout. (Turnout has been steadily dropping since the EU’s formation, in 1979; in 2014, it hit a historic low of 42.6 percent, and only recently climbed back to 50 percent.)
“It’s hard to believe in the change your vote might help create if you don’t know where it goes and what it does,” Eijsbouts said.
Worse still, when people feel distanced from their political system, they are susceptible to internalizing false narratives and political rhetoric. “Certain politicians have been lying about what the EU does and how it works,” Eijsbouts said. “Considering how the system is quite difficult to understand, politicians have been getting away with this and preying on their constituents, often blaming the EU for unpopular decisions they’ve actually helped to make. This often results in suspicious and skeptical ‘protest’ voters, and makes informed arguments near impossible.”
Eijsbouts, who is an animator, decided to take things into her own hands. She teamed up with her father to create Voting in the EU, an animated video that clearly and concisely illustrates the European Parliament. Tom Eijsbouts wrote the script; Anna animated and produced it. In order to make the video more widely relatable and understandable, they focused on elucidating how the EU model is built on the trias politica system—a separation of powers that serves as the model for most modern democratic states.
“Initially, this film came from both my own curiosity and a shared hope with my father to change the political debate—to give it substance, while taking away some of the fearmongering that seems to be currently ruling it,” Eijsbouts said. The hope was that if EU citizens could understand their government, they might feel more invested in it.
Eijsbouts considers herself generally pro-EU. “I believe it’s a largely—although occasionally awkwardly—democratic system,” she said. She believes that the problems the world is currently facing, such as global warming, the refugee crisis, other human-rights issues, need to be addressed on a larger scale than that of each individual European country.
What she didn’t want, though, was for people to dismiss her video as pro-EU propaganda. So she turned to crowdfunding. “We decided to make a film for the people, funded by the people,” she said. The need for a brief but comprehensive overview of the EU quickly became clear; the project was funded in just over a week.
These days, following the 2019 European elections, Eijsbouts is experiencing a strange mixture of feelings. “To be honest, I live between terror and hope right now,” she said. Though the growing nationalist and populist milieu scares her, Eijsbouts was relieved that the surge of far-right votes didn’t materialize as dramatically as expected, and that pro-European parties won a good number of seats in the election. In the Netherlands, Eijsbouts said there seemed to be “a new, younger energy around the campaigns.”
But the history of the EU is far from written, and Eijsbouts remains attuned to developments with Brexit, as well as the rise of populist leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
“We will have to see whether the EU continues to be influenced by lobbyists and businesses,” she said, “or whether it will move toward regulation that will actually benefit and protect its citizens. I genuinely hope it will, and I genuinely believe it is the only way to secure a future in which mankind doesn’t completely mess up its planet.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.