World 1 HOUR AGO EUROPE
New allegations about the misuse of EU funds by a former French government minister threaten to rattle confidence in the European Union less than a week before parliamentary elections. But "Volt Europa," a pro-EU group, wants to breathe new life into the European project.
In an interview on Wednesday to the weeklyL'Obs paper, the former parliamentary assistant of Marielle de Sarnez, revealed how she had been hired as a "governess" to the secretary general of the European Democratic Party, all on taxpayer's money.
De Sarnez, who briefly served as Emmanuel Macron's European Affairs minister before being swept away by the scandal, is alleged to have misused EU funds, notably to pay for her assistant to supervise the construction of a property in Greece.
"I fully understand that people are disgusted by this because it is absolutely a disgrace that you just violate laws or the rules that we have together," comments Nilufer Vogels, number two of pro-EU group Volt Europa in the Netherlands.
A pan-European progressive movement present in all 28-member states, Volt Europa wants to restore "trust" in the European Union and drive back populist pressures that have surged since Brexit.
Winds of change
"The tide of populist rhetoric has turned," Vogels told RFI.
"A lot of people are aware that they were influenced by the schizophrenic rhetoric of a lot of political parties, who sold them lies like 'take back control,'" she said.
Now pro-EU parties are trying to claw back lost territory from Eurosceptics.
They have been emboldened by the recent victory of Liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova in Slovakia's presidential runoff, and the coalition of Poland's centre-right Civic Platform (European People's Party) with other opposition parties to challenge the ruling ultra-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).
"I do think there is a new wind coming into Europe and that we are among those people who wanted that wind to happen," continues 41-year-old Vogels who's lived in Amsterdam since 2009.
Born out of the disillusion of Brexit, Volt Europa has made social economic justice a cornerstone of its campaign in eight EU countries.
Domestic turmoil overshadows ballot
"Too many people are not profiting from the welfare in Europe, so we should distribute that wealth in a much more honest way so more people can profit from it," adds Vogels.
Concerns about standards of living have been brought to the forefront in France through the Yellow Vest protests, which threaten to turn the parliamentary elections into a referendum on Macron.
The centrist leader faces the risk of losing to Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN) according to recent polls.
"I think that Macron was definitely onto something, but he only focused on the system and not on the people itself," reckons Vogels.
A win for the RN would bolster Europe's nationalists and populists and deal a further blow to Macron's ambitions to upend the EU's entrenched political order.
“Most people don't care about fixing the system, they only care if the system is there to give them a good job, pay the bills, provide healthcare and a good education," continues Vogels. The problem, she says, is that "we have created a system where the government doesn't take care of those things".
That has led citizens to lose faith in their governments, and the European Union with its faltering economic model, has not been spared either.
Surveys indicate that abstention could reach 70 percent among the youth alone in next week's elections, thereby putting pressure on pro-EU parties to convince citizens that their vote is worthwhile.
The latest allegations about the misuse of EU funds to pay parliamentary assistants is unlikely to help in this endeavour.
"We see the same flaws in the system, we see for example that the roof is leaking and that we need a new bathroom or kitchen," admits Vogels.
"But it doesn't mean that we want to break down the house. That's the difference between us and the Front National or other right-wing, extreme populist parties."
For now, the house is still standing.
Fear of EU decline
"The EU has brought us so much prosperity and also peace, we've never lived in all of Europe in such a peaceful period together," insists the pro-EU candidate, adding that the bloc's single market is now being copied by South America, Africa and even Southeast Asia.
In contrast, populist parties "just want to throw a bomb at the house and make it disappear". That would lead to the EU's decline, surmises Vogels. "The 28-member states would be shattered and we will just become prey to Russia, China or the US."
No one state is strong enough. "Not even Germany or France," stresses Vogels.