Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Peace and the project of Europe

For 60 years, the European project of integration has secured the peace on the continent, and also beyond. Regardless the challenges the European Union now faces, it is vital that it succeeds

Italy hosted an exceptional European summit — and a symbolic one — 25 March. The leaders of the 27 member countries of the European Union gathered in the Italian capital to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

Sixty years ago, the leaders of six European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) had gotten together to launch a historic process of gradual integration that kept growing till it comprised 28 countries before the British voted for the famous Brexit on 23 June 2016. Otherwise, there would have been 28 leaders in Rome to celebrate an astonishing — and I may add, an inspiring — model of integration among like-minded countries.

It is interesting to note that before the act of signing, a British diplomat, Russell Bretherton, had predicted that the “future treaty... has no chance of being agreed; if it were agreed it would have no chance of being ratified; and if it were ratified it would have no chance of being applied.” Perhaps General Charles De Gaulle was not mistaken, after all, in objecting to the membership of Great Britain in the then European Economic Community.

European history in the 20th century was marked by two major events. On the one hand, two world wars that almost devastated the European continent in the first half of the century. And, on the other, the signing of the Treaty of Rome in the second half. The underlying assumption behind the treaty was that never again would France and Germany go to war if bound together by economic interests. Adherence to the treaty has kept the peace on the continent and led Europe on the road to prosperity ever since. The historic project set in motion in March 1957 met with great success. However, now it faces serious challenges.

The celebration in Rome last week should not eclipse the fact that the project of integration on the European continent is no longer smooth sailing — if it ever was. The European Union suffered a major setback in Great Britain opting out (Brexit), and faces a growing populist surge in some leading countries like France, strengthened by the election of US President Donald Trump in November. He welcomed Brexit and predicted others would follow. There were widespread fears that the Dutch would vote for Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party in the general election 15 March. They did not, even though his party gained more seats in parliament.

European governments were relieved. However, France, Germany and Italy have elections coming up and there are fears that the parties that are not attached to the European Union will gain in these elections, if not an outright win at least greater influence when it comes to questions related to the European project.

The French go to the polls to choose their next head of state 23 April. The second round will take place 7 May. The odds have been that Marine Le Pen of the National Front would make it to the second round. She has called for the withdrawal of her country from the EU. If elected and if this comes to pass, it would be a setback of historic proportions for the Treaty of Rome. Its ramifications would be felt far and wide in Europe, and the world at large.

The unscheduled meeting between Marine Le Pen and the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday, 24 March, has heightened fears in European capitals that Moscow would like to see Le Pen as the next president of France, and which would result in the disintegration of the European Union.

The Germans, for their part, will go to the polls in September and the Italians in early 2018. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing Martin Schultz, former speaker of the European Parliament. It is a tight race and Merkel is called upon to convince the German electorate that she would do more, if re-elected, after 12 years at the helm and during which Germany and the European Union have faced very serious crises: the financial crisis of 2008, the Greek debt quagmire, growing terrorist threats and increased acts of terror in France, Belgium and Germany inspired by the so-called “Islamic State” terrorist organisation in Iraq and Syria, and not least successive waves of mass immigration from faraway shores to the continent.

Early last year the EU reached an agreement with Turkey whereby the Turks would prevent illegal immigrants from travelling to Europe through Greece in return for visa waivers for the Turks to enter the Schengen area. Against the deterioration in Turkish-European relations and the decision to suspend activating this waiver, the Turkish president warned Sunday, 26 March, that he would not hesitate to let illegal immigrants travel to Europe if the Europeans don’t activate the waiver. Add to that the fears of a resurgent Russia and an isolationist America under President Trump. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, warned US Vice President Mike Pence, when they met last month in Brussels, not to encourage other European countries to opt out of the EU, because “if the European Union collapses, you will have a new war in the western Balkans.”

The Economist summed up the challenges facing Europe in these terms in its latest issue: “That a project set up to underpin Europe’s post-war security should falter at the very moment when that security is under threat is a bitter irony. It is also a reminder of how much is at stake if Europe fails to fix itself.”

This unprecedented situation has led Junker to publish a White Paper that tackles five scenarios for Europe by 2025. The first scenario is for the union to muddle through with the same economic, financial, monetary and visas policies that have been followed ever since the signing of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, in 1992 and 2005 respectively. The second scenario, more ambitious, consists of going forward, by leaps and bounds. This is called the federalist option in Euro-speak. Under present circumstances, it is hard to imagine that such a scenario would find resonance among European politicians and electorates. The third calls for more concentration on developing the common market at the expense of ideas and plans for further political integration.

Fourth comes the challenging scenario of a multi-speed Europe. It is an idea that goes back to the 1990s. It was proposed by the Christian-Democrats in Germany. Within this scenario falls the plan of a more integrated union in the field of defence, to empower European countries to deal with the terrorist threat, Russia’s re-emergence on the international scene and the threatening spectre of American disengagement under Trump. Needless to say, this option does not have the wholehearted support of member countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

The fifth and last scenario is the humblest and practical under the present state of affairs: namely, to do less but do it more effectively. Gone are ambitious ideas of more integration across the board. Rather, there would be less intrusion from the European Commission in social areas like employment. These would be left to national governments, each according to its needs and conditions.

Regardless of which scenarios prevails, one thing is sure: the European project has secured the peace for the last six decades, not only on the continent, but also in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa.

Has anyone forgotten the Battle of Alamein in 1942 between the German Army led by Field Marshal Rommel and the British Army under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery? We have a stake that the European Union succeeds in meeting the crucial challenges ahead.

For the last six decades, the member countries in the union have lent support to Egypt, the Arabs and the Palestinians in most of their key positions. Europe has been a balancer, from an Egyptian and an Arab point of view, between the United States and the former Soviet Union, now Russia. Europe could have done more for us if we had decided in the late 1970s to deepen our relations with the Europeans in a more strategic framework. But our strategic priorities have been ordered in a way that has prevented us from this very important option.

In retrospect, the Venice Declaration of June 1980 that spoke, for the first time, of the national rights of the Palestinian people is an example, among others, of how closer the European countries are to us compared to other international powers.

It is not too late to revisit our strategic priorities.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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