"Are we going back to our nation states or are we going forward to a more integrated Europe?" For the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, this is just a rhetorical question. In a televised debate between him and the other presidential hopefuls the question about "more or less Europe" was almost unanimously answered: Europe needs more integration, solidarity and unity. For the politicians of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the European Green Party, the answer is, unequivocally: more power to the European Union (EU).
Many of the potential voters in the 28 EU countries, representing a population of over 500 million, do not agree. After years of economic hardship, 27 million European citizens unemployed (among them six million young people) and neo-liberal politics that resulted in the dismantling of social programmes in most European countries, Euroscepticism is rampant. A little less than 60 percent of the European electorate is expected to refrain from voting at all. And of those who intend to go to the polls between May 22 and 25, many will vote for Europe's Eurosceptic far-left or far-right.
The Greek politician Alexis Tsipras, leader of the European Left, pointed to one of the EU's main weaknesses during the presidential debate: its democratic deficit. Citizens do not really understand how Brussels works, how main decisions are made and how they can have their voices heard.
The TV debate itself, between the candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, was actually an example of this democratic deficit. Contrary to what one might expect, the European public cannot directly elect one of the five presidential candidates, who will be the EU's face in the next five years. However, the result of the parliamentary election must be taken into account by the 28 member states when appointing the new Commission president next June.
Open to capital, closed to people
In spite of the EU's growing pains, lack of transparency and unpopularity among many ordinary European citizens, the need for a more integrated approach of the most pressing problems was clearly demonstrated during the presidential debate when the question of immigration came up. All agreed that the EU needs a common immigration policy.
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With the images of boat refugees in the Mediterranean and body bags with drowned Syrians on Lampedusa beach in mind, the presidential candidates called the lack of European regulation and lack of protection of refugees "shameful" and "not acceptable".
Leader of the European Greens, Ska Keller, reminded the audience that the EU was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Price 2012 for its contribution to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights. That this Nobel Price laureate let this tragedy happen is really a shame, according to Keller.
While more than two million Syrian refugees have entered neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, only 60,000 found official refuge in the EU, mainly in Sweden and Germany, since the start of the civil war three years ago.
But many Syrians try their luck through unofficial and dangerous ways to get into Europe.Greek left-wing politician Alexis Tsipras said earlier that the Mediterranean Sea has become the cemetery of desperate people who cannot live in their own lands: "Europe is open to capital and markets but closed to people who need to immigrate. It's a shame we're losing our humanism."
The Migrant Files, an investigative journalism project, found that since 2000 around 23,000 immigrants died attempting to reach Fortress Europe. The findings of the journalists imply that on an average, four to five persons die daily while escaping war, lack of security and poverty.
A common immigration policy
A genuine common European policy on immigration and external borders is, however, difficult to achieve because of the Union's member states' jealous defence of their sovereignty. A common immigration policy presupposes deeper European integration, including mutual foreign, social and labour policies.
It is ironic that the politicians of the extreme right who are calling for "less Europe" and for Brussels to have less interference in national affairs, are, at the same time scaremongering on immigration and calling on the EU to stop the frightening immigration stream.
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Italian MEP candidate Iva Zanicchi of the rightist Forza Italia stoked fears when referring to an influx of immigrants: "Remember this word: ebola. It's coming. Yes folks, there is cholera." In the Italian media, officials were quoted as saying that hundreds of thousands migrants stood ready to leave from the Libyan coasts to come to Europe.
The idea of an alien invasion even led some politicians to call for Italy's programme to rescue refugees from the Mediterranean to be scrapped.
After two shipwrecks off the island of Lampedusa which killed more than 600 people, operation Mare Nostrum has rescued, according to Italian media, more than 20,000 people from the Mediterranean at an estimated cost of $1,2m a month.
South European states like Italy, Spain, France, Cyprus, Greece and Malta have all called for more EU help in patrolling the Mediterranean, together with greater burden-sharing of refugees and financial support from the EU.
It's not only in the south of the Union that the immigration file is one of the important topics in the electoral battle. The Dutch extreme right wing Partij van de Vrijheid (PVV, Freedom Party) of Geert Wilders called for "less Europe" and "fewer Moroccans". The PVV wants the Netherlands to leave the European Union, to abolish the euro and "to take control again of our own borders".
The PVV, expected to do extremely well in the European elections, wants "the Dutch to stay who they are". That is why the party is strongly opposed to mass immigration and to the "Islamisation" of the Netherlands. All immigration from Muslim countries should be stopped immediately. The PVV works closely with the similar right-wing Belgian Vlaams Belang, the French Front National and Austrian Freedom Party, and is expected to form a vociferous joint faction in the new European parliament.
In this election campaign, the European public opinion seems, above all, to be concerned about "more or less Europe", economic recovery and social issues like unemployment and poverty. The influx of huge numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants certainly calls for a common European strategy and policy, but right now the problem is first of all a political crowbar eagerly used by the extreme right for its own electoral purposes.
Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.