The European Union at fifty: a second life

Aurore Wanlin
15 March 2007

On 25 March 2007, the European Union will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the treaty of Rome, the founding document of what became today's union of twenty-seven member-states. The occasion will be marked by a summit conference of leaders in Berlin (whose German hosts currently hold the rotating presidency) on 24-25 March, from where a major "Berlin declaration" will be proclaimed. The document is expected to contain a resounding statement of the European Union's values and principles as it looks forward to the next fifty years.

This is all quite appropriate as far as it goes: landmark birthdays are occasions for a certain ceremony and rhetorical extravagance. Equally, however, the cost of overdoing things can be painful. Perhaps the most satisfying such events are those where justified pride at having passed an existential milestone is combined with calm awareness of the path that has led to this point. Such introspection is difficult in the midst of fixed patterns of thinking, routines and relationships built up over a long period. But it is essential if healthy life and development are to be sustained.

This, then, is the test for the European Union leaders in Berlin. The challenge they face is threefold: to come to a balanced assessment of the successes and failures of the EU's fifty-year journey, to honestly examine what works and what doesn't in the present-day union, and to look ahead with a clear understanding that the issues the union will face in the next half-century will be very different from those in the last. If they manage all of that, they will deserve their champagne.


Aurore Wanlin is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London

Also by Aurore Wanlin in openDemocracy:

"European democracy: where now?"
(2 June 2005)

"Adieu, Europe?"
(29 June 2006)

The history of the present

In many ways, the European Union has been a success. A club of six countries has grown into a far-reaching political organisation with twenty-seven member-states and 500 million inhabitants, which represents the world's biggest economic and trading bloc. It has been a facilitator and guarantor of peace, stability and prosperity to most of a continent that in the decades before its creation had been ravaged by national strife and international wars.

In institutional terms, it has survived countless internal splits, angry summits, "empty chairs" and years of "eurosclerosis" - while continuing to attract more aspirants to membership and to incorporate them efficiently in a gradual process of enlargement. The ability of the European Union to sustain its core identity and architecture while being open to continual change is surely one index of fundamental health.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that the EU today is at a crossroads. The French and Dutch people's rejection of the EU draft constitution in the referenda of May-June 2005 brought the constitutional development of the union to a shuddering standstill from which it has yet to recover. Several of the union's defining policies - such as the common currency (the euro) and the common agricultural policy (CAP) - are excoriated by critics but have diminishing support even among many former advocates. Politicians doubt the EU's relevance in a global economy and whether it is still capable of making Europe stronger and more competitive. Perhaps even more seriously for a project whose ultimate lifeblood is democratic legitimacy, many voters across the EU seem to have lost faith in the European Union as in any vital sense "theirs" to own. In an age when most people no longer fret over the risk of another "European civil war", the prevailing view of Europe is less governed by its constructive role in the decades after 1945 and more by the image of a remote, bureaucratic and in some ways undemocratic organisation.

The contrast between the EU's past achievements and today's inertia, then, can appear striking. But the surrender to a nostalgia which sees much of the last fifty years as a golden age would be no solution. A clear illustration is the tendency to contrast the great pioneers of European unity - men such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman or Paul-Henri Spaak - with their far more anonymous (and in many cases indifferent in performance) successors. It is true that Europe has been relatively unfortunate over recent years with its heads of state and governments: most have been short of pro-European feelings and have proved all too keen to defend short-term national interests at the expense of a long-term vision for Europe.

However, exceptional people often spring from exceptional circumstances. Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman or Paul-Henri Spaak and their contemporaries were arguably able to achieve so much because their moral qualities and ideas had been tested and developed by living through the horrors of the second world war; without the latter, they might never have come to power at all. Today's European Union leaders may not be extraordinary, but individual leaders with grand visions rarely thrive easily in peaceful and prosperous societies. They must meet the challenge of their own and not yesterday's times.

A look in the mirror

There is still much to learn from the European Union's inheritance. The lessons are there if the past is interrogated in a questioning and constructive spirit, and treated as resource and inspiration rather than monument. The forthcoming anniversary celebration offers a valuable opportunity for deliberation and discussion that in looking back also clears the way to modern, fresh, outward-looking thinking. Here, then are six lessons from an assessment of the EU's fifty-year experience:

Do not ask the EU to do what it cannot do. National leaders should give up grand ambitions and grandiose rhetoric that cannot be sustained in practice. The mismatch between the Lisbon agenda's original ambition of turning the EU into "the most competitive knowledge-based economy" and the actual outcome is a perfect illustration. The national governments' failure to meet their targets may have discredited the agenda itself and reinforced European citizens' scepticism about the EU's ability to deliver: a devastating double-blow. It is true that the EU as a whole cannot be expected the burden of responsibility, as the Lisbon agenda's implementation depends mainly on the member-states; but the French and Dutch "no" vote on the draft constitution demonstrated that citizens hold the EU as well as their own governments to account for the comparative lack of growth and jobs in Europe

Give the union the means to fulfil its objectives. National governments have become increasingly wary about surrendering levers of power and authority to the union in order for it to advance the goals to which all are formally committed. Energy policy is a good example of an area that everybody agrees is crucial to Europe's future, and one where most agree that integrated action at the EU level would have clear benefits. Yet EU leaders do not seem prepared either to make the necessary compromises to create a truly level playing-field over energy production and distribution, or to define a common position towards Europe's crucial interlocutor in this field, namely Russia.

Clarify the division of labour between the EU and national member-states. Citizens are asking for, even demanding, more clarity. To achieve it was part of the objective of the draft constitution, but its efforts can in retrospect be seen as too timid. In the next stage, some policies may indeed need to be "repatriated" to the national level. At the same time, any such reform must be thoroughly discussed and very carefully implemented; to unpick the acquis communautaire (the body of shared regulations that must be incorporated into a member-state's national legislation as a condition of accession) could also lead to an unravelling of the union. EU leaders should ensure that they do not empty the union of any substance, and indeed - in looking forward to the major defining issues of the next decades, such as climate change - they should not fear transferring new competences to the EU. Gordon Brown, Britain's prime-minister-in-waiting, is among those politicians (by no means all on the narrowly "Eurosceptic" right or left) who question whether the EU is still relevant in a global economy. The debate is important. But some answers are already obvious: energy, migration, scientific research, as well as global warming are all areas where union-wide cooperation is vital and where the EU can clearly add value. But it can only do this if it has the necessary competences and the financial means to act accordingly

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union’s past, present and future:

Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is"
(23 June 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis, "Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition"
(21 February 2006)

Frank Vibert, "’Absorption capacity’: the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)

Anthony Barnett, "The birth of Europe?"
(9 October 2006)

John Palmer, "Germany and Europe: the pull of unity"
(16 February 2007)

Match the EU's budget to its delivery, and both to the institutional debate. The review of the union's budget offers a unique opportunity to put money where the mouths of most EU leaders are. It will provide national governments with the opportunity to clarify the overall situation and take responsibility for areas of cooperation among different member-states that want to act together and deliver. The EU's overall budget may be too small, but it would be wrong to decide to increase it simply for the sake of meeting the presumed needs of an enlarged EU. Rather, it should be carefully prepared and linked to the institutional debate. French voters rejected the constitution in part because it failed to answer the question: "what is the EU for?" If the EU leaders link these two issues, they would gain a triple benefit: create space to try to answer that question afresh and in practical terms, give the EU a new sense of direction, and - most importantly - provide it with the means to deliver

Maintain the community method of decision-making. The traditional community method is by far the best the EU has had so far. Would the commission have launched and realised the single market using the "open method of coordination"? The EU is strong if its institutions - the commission in particular - are strong. An honest broker capable of defining common ground that satisfies all governments despite their widely diverging starting-points is essential to achieving its goals. True, the single market probably needs to be reviewed; the EU economy has changed since it was launched in the 1980s. But the role of the commission, and the community method at the core of its operations, should remain central

Style matters. EU governments cannot expect the EU to work if a leader criticises others for being badly brought up, if ministers never show up to council meetings, and if most blame the EU for decisions they themselves took. Some politicians do not hesitate to make unrealistic and protectionist promises to their national electorates at general-election time. But all should remember that the union in itself has been one of the most unique and extraordinary achievements of Europe over the last century. It is a fragile and vulnerable heritage, however. It needs to be improved, but mostly because it is and has always been a work in progress. That may be even truer now, when the world is changing so quickly. But preserving it is also the responsibility of all its leaders.

A seventh lesson at the end, then: leadership, too, still matters. Let's hope the summiteers in Berlin are listening.

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