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Greatest threat to the EU comes from its political leaders

THE European Union is in a huge amount of trouble, and it's not because of the banking crises or potential failing of the euro; it's because, in the imagination of the people, our leaders are destroying a sublime idea.

As someone who has been an ardent supporter of the EU project for as long as I can remember, my faith is beginning to wane. It's a concept I have always believed in and it's held me in in good stead since I was 18 years old and left Ireland on a personal journey to use my right to travel and live in fellow EU states.

But I have now come to believe that if something drastic isn't done soon, the project will find itself dead in the water. And it's got nothing to do with the banks or the currency, it's got to do with the hearts and minds of the European people.

Last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided he needed to challenge a fundamental part of the EU idea in order to protect France from Tunisians who had been given visas by Italian president Silvio Berlusconi. The idea of free movement within the EU is one of its core principles. Without free movement, the EU doesn't really have legs. But Sarkozy has an election coming up. Would Enda Kenny be able to call for a change in the fundamental principles of the EU? Not a chance.

Now take Angela Merkel. Merkel is an intelligent individual. She must know that the terms of this so-called 'bailout' for the Irish are unreasonable. She must also know that they are terms which the Irish nation doesn't have a hope of meeting in the long term, and therefore, that this is a situation which is not in the long term interests of the EU project. However, when Merkel said last month that there could be no leeway on the terms, she also knew (and this is the kicker) that she had an election coming up and that German voters expected somebody who would always put Germany in their rightful place -- that is, at the top of the pile. Ditto the French and the British.

Contrast that with Ireland or Portugal, where nobody believes that their respective

governments have any sway whatsoever in the EU and therefore it doesn't affect how we vote. As EU citizens, we are all supposed to be equal. But this is not equality. How could it possibly be when Irish representatives are not allowed to have a say on how to solve their own country's problems, whilst Merkel and Sarkozy can say whatever they want about us? Why is our new Government not capable of defending us against people who are supposed to be our partners?

We can all accept that the bigger countries within the EU are due a little more nudge when it come to policy. What is very difficult to stomach, however, is the fact that the likes of Sarkozy and Merkel are using this influence to further their own political agendas.

And as for us. It's all about us; the Irish, the Germans, the French, the Brits, the Poles, the Portuguese, and every other European together. We should never allow populist politicians and bankers and cranks to take it away from us . . . ever.

The banking crises and the potential failing of the euro just might bring the EU to its knees. But, with a bit of effort, we can get back up. However, if leaders like Sarkozy and Merkel continue to hijack the EU project as a populist platform to electioneer in their own countries, it will almost certainly die in the imagination of the people.

And if that happens, the European Union (the greatest idea since Neanderthal man arrived on this continent 350,000 years ago) will sleep with the fishes.

Sunday Independent