On 25th March, leaders of the 27 EU member states (UK excluded) will gather in Rome, together with Senior Representatives of the European Institutions, to mark the 60th anniversary of the signature of the Treaty of Rome. This treaty, then signed by six countries (the original six member states of the EU) had set up what was then known as the European Economic Coal and Steel Community, which has in the meantime evolved into the European Union.
The timing of this special anniversary is almost Kafkaesque, and will most likely be significantly marked by the fact that the UK, one of the larger member states, will be absent from the symbolic occasion, where leaders will use the opportunity to take stock of the past and reflect on the future. It is therefore not surprising that some are suggesting, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that Europe is approaching its age of retirement.
In the run up to the meeting in Rome, and in view of the ever-growing anti-EU sentiment, the European Commission published a White Paper outlining possible methods of future cooperation. Should it go on in the same manner? If not, what should change, and how? Is a Europe of various tiers a viable option? How realistic and effective would European solidarity to different degrees be? This Paper is the Commission’s contribution to the discussion on the future of Europe in Rome, where the Heads of Government will also agree on a Declaration marking the importance of the event and hopefully also reaffirm their commitment to the Union.
The UK vote to leave is certainly one of the lowest points in the history of the European Union. And whilst this decision took everybody by surprise, and the shock is only just starting to wane, the wave of popular discontent has certainly not abated yet. This wave however, doesn't seem to stop with Europe, and the election of President Trump in the USA is further evidence of the anti-establishment sentiment that seems to have taken hold at grassroots level in the Western world.
With important elections looming this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, where the far-right movements are gaining ground and becoming stronger forces to contend with, one would be right to ask what is generating this sense of disillusionment with politicians far and wide? Why is it that the sometimes shocking, xenophobic and even outrageous statements of politicians and would-be national leaders still carry sufficient favour with large numbers of the electorate so as to be serious contenders or even actually get elected to the highest offices in their country?
Politically speaking, Europe, “the greatest peace project which the world has ever seen” (in the words of Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau) seems to be turning on itself. The depressive mood which has come about as a result of the financial and migration crises, the turbulence of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, terrorism, international security threats as well as the spreading of fake news, appears to have dented the natural human sense of optimism and the conviction (proven by 60 years of peace in Europe) that collectively we can do better than individually.
As the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker said in his State of the Union Address to the European Parliament in September 2016, Europe is going through an existential crisis. As humans, we all go through phases in our lives where we question and sometimes dismantle all that we would have hitherto strived so hard to build. I like to compare the difficult period that the Union of Europe is currently facing to such episodes in human lives... those of strong determination, character and will may decide to change direction but still go forward successfully and fulfil their ambitions.
A European Union of 27 will necessarily have to rethink its way forward but, given its difficult birth circumstances, and the test of time that it has survived over the past 60 years, it would perhaps be more appropriate to say that, rather than being on the verge of retirement, this political project is only now coming of age.