BERLIN The European Union needs to be seen to protect ordinary people and not just promote the interests of business and of a mobile, multilingual elite to regain citizens' trust, the chairman of EU summits said on Thursday.
Millions of voters showed their dissatisfaction with Brussels in European Parliament elections on Sunday, handing unprecedented victories to anti-EU parties in France, Britain and Denmark while populists gained ground elsewhere.
Receiving the annual Charlemagne Prize for his contribution to European unity, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy sought to draw lessons from the Eurosceptic protest vote and address concerns about the EU.
"It is urgent for the Union not to be seen as only benefiting businesses, but also employees," he said, according to the text of his speech in Aachen, a historic city close to Germany's border with the Netherlands and Belgium.
The voters' message to the EU was "be stronger outside and be more caring inside", Van Rompuy said.
Europe should protect not just "movers" but "stayers", not just the educated who spoke foreign languages but all citizens, and support producers facing competition as well as consumers who want cheap goods, he said.
The 66-year-old former Belgian prime minister, whose term ends in November, cautioned against some populist proposals, saying: "Protecting does not mean retreating behind our borders. It does not mean commercial protectionism either."
The EU appeared to be more popular in countries beyond its frontiers such as Ukraine than in some member states, he said.
"How is it possible that people now see Europe as a reason they feel powerless and without a say – whereas it was precisely conceived to make them stronger and regain a grip on their own history?" Van Rompuy asked.
Part of the problem was that people never considered Europe as a home or a shelter. While the bloc had worked well for years as borders were removed and regions became more wealthy, he said, globalization was now a threat to the system because it piled pressure on welfare states.
Many people now considered Europe an "unwelcome intruder" so it was vital for the EU to be seen to be protecting them, for example from financial speculation and Internet abuse, he said.
While citizens expected the EU to take action on issues that individual countries cannot fight alone, it should respect each country's welfare system, traditions and identity, he said.
"To me, overall, the citizen's message to the Union is clear: be stronger outside, be more caring inside," he said.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Paul Taylor)