Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

EU at 60: Where’s the celebration?

European Union leaders face challenges from all directions as the Rome Treaty marks its 60th year

EU at 60: Where’s the celebration?
EU at 60: Where’s the celebration?

So the 21st century is not the European century after all.

Amid preparations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty, the European bloc’s founding treaty, the atmosphere was low-key and for good reason.

The UK government declared 29 March D-day to officially notify the EU that the UK is leaving the union; a second Euro crisis is looming; the EU project is under threat from populist nationalism; there are differences inside the EU regarding the limits and the speed of integration; and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her uncomfortable talks in Washington last week with US President Donald Trump could not hide her displeasure when Trump failed to mention or refer to the EU even once.

For EU leaders, Trump’s deliberate dig was a chilling reminder of their predicament. Both the current US administration and Russia want the EU to disintegrate.

The discussions in Rome to reform the EU, which will begin formally 25 March, is only the start. The debate will continue for the coming nine months and will conclude at a December European Council meeting, after crucial French and German elections.

The long negotiations are a sign as to how the EU sees the challenges ahead: Enormous and tough.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, warned that the European Union could “disappear” as it faces an “existential moment”.

The reason for his gloomy assessment is not only the UK exiting the EU. Brexit is just one challenge among many. When the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker announced at the beginning of this month his “white paper” for Europe’s survival after Brexit, under the title “Scenarios for Europe by 2025”, his plan was met with mixed reactions. Support form big Western European countries and dissent from poorer Eastern countries.

The plan, seen by Al-Ahram Weekly, sets out five “pathways to unity” for the EU’s remaining 27 member states and is the focus of discussion at the Rome summit. It declares that, “The starting point for each scenario is that the 27 Member States move forward together as a union.”

“In an uncertain world, the allure of isolation may be tempting to some, but the consequences of division and fragmentation would be far-reaching. It would expose European countries and citizens to the spectre of their divided past and make them prey to the interests of stronger powers,” it adds.

The reform options range from scaling back to just policing a common market, to changing little and largely leaving things as they are, to more ambitious proposals to pull EU states closer together on economic and political matters and, in the most ambitious option, to create something close to a federalist EU.

Juncker dismissed a much-reduced role for the EU, saying the union should have greater ambitions to build on 60 years of promoting peace and prosperity.

However, the proposals have already met with opposition from suspicious Eastern EU states, led by Poland and Hungary, who fear that they will be marginalised by a new drive to revitalise Europe’s Franco-German federalist core.

Poland has promised to put up a tough fight against the idea of a multi-speed Europe. “We cannot accept any announcements of a two-speed Europe,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the governing Polish euro-sceptic Law and Justice Party (PiS).

“This would mean either pushing us out of the European Union or downgrading us to an inferior category of members,” he added, declaring that: “We must oppose that with all firmness.”

Mihaly Varga, the Hungarian economy minister, warned that “strong actors” in Europe could seek to side-line countries that decided not to join the euro, adding that this could even lead to “social unrest” among those left behind.

“There’s a real threat that [those] who favour a two-speed Europe will say that those who’re in the euro area are ‘in’ and those who are out of the euro are ‘out’,” he said.

For the other EU countries, the European Union is effectively multi-speed through the enhanced cooperation mechanism that lets groups of countries cooperate on specific issues without engaging the whole bloc. The Eurozone is the clearest example of this.

Finding a middle ground between the European powers that seek more integration (ie Germany and France) and the countries in Central and Eastern Europe who want more powers to return from Brussels following Brexit, will not be easy.

Not only many national governments in the EU are reluctant to accept the “more integration” option, but also public opinion in Europe is not convinced. A Pew survey of 10 leading EU states last year found 42 per cent of Europeans backed calls for more powers to be returned to national governments and parliaments, compared with just 19 per cent who favoured giving Brussels more power.

The immigration crisis of 2015 and 2016 has a lot to do with the Eastern EU countries’ desire for greater powers being handed back to the nation-state.

Other points of contention would be the debt crisis, defence cooperation and the future of the euro. Germany and France disagree about what to do with the Eurozone.

Also, the uncomfortable relationship across the Atlantic between the EU and the US does not help the EU cause in an uncertain world. Dealing with Trump is a big challenge. For the EU, Trump’s aggressive, nationalistic, anti-NATO, anti-EU rhetoric is unravelling the post-war internationalist consensus.

During her first visit to the United States, EU Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini asked the US not to “interfere” in European politics. Yet, Europe has no viable alternative to the US partnership, either in economic or security terms. And Merkel’s visit to Washington last week was a testimony that regardless of differences, Europe needs to work with the US. Meanwhile, the German chancellor has a personal role to play in this predicament.

Merkel might not like Trump and what he represents, yet she helped get him elected. She was the most negatively mentioned Western leader during the US election campaign. Trump used her immigration policy to scare off American citizens from similar outcomes if they allowed a candidate similar to her —Hillary Clinton — to succeed. He galvanised many votes using Merkel as a bogeyman.

In the face of Trump’s criticism of EU immigration policy, Merkel hit back saying that Europe’s destiny is “in our own hands”.

In Rome, EU leaders will start the EU rescue operation in an uncertain world with downsizing the effect of the UK leaving the union. “It will be part of the agenda, not the agenda,” an EU official told the Weekly.

And it has to be. The EU needs to reinvent itself after Brexit. Amid the rise of the far-right parties, Trump, the euro crisis and the immigration dilemma, “more of the same” will not be enough to save the bloc.

With all these issues and worries, no wonder the mood ahead of the 60th anniversary is not celebratory, but rather more contemplative.

add comment

  • follow us on