As we mark today the anniversary of the departure of the British forces from Malta, on Wednesday the United Kingdom triggered another withdrawal process the effects of which we will only truly begin to fathom as the negotiations for the UK to leave the European Union progress and, subsequently, a new relationship between the EU and the UK is forged.
The reality of ‘Brexit’ will only start to sink in once the terms for the UK leaving the EU are agreed to. However, last Saturday’s celebrations in Rome marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty establishing the European Economic Community were already overshadowed by the fact that we are already taking an EU of 27 as a fact. Although formally the UK will remain a member of the EU for all intents and purposes until the day it actually stops being part of the bloc, the absence of the UK from the anniversary celebrations was one significant factor that somehow prevented the kind of euphoria that marked, for instance, the 50th anniversary celebrations in Berlin a decade ago.
However, the British have decided to leave and 27 countries have declared their commitment to a “stronger and more resilient” European Union. The so-called ‘Rome agenda’ is based on four pillars: security, the Single Market, a social Europe and Europe as a global player.
However, the declaration contains no explicit reference to the five scenarios for the future of the EU proposed by the European Commission on March 1. It does describe the Union as “the best instrument to achieve our objectives” however, stops short of stating how the EU will evolve in the coming years unless it’s just a question of ‘Carrying on’, which is the first of the five scenarios presented by the Commission in its White Paper on the future of Europe.
One of the most remarkable statements made to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome was that by Pope Francis when addressing heads of state or government of the 27 on March 24. Referring to the current moment as an opportunity for self-examination, he said the EU is called today:
“To care for the ailments that inevitably come with age, and to find new ways to steer its course. Yet unlike human beings, the European Union does not face an inevitable old age, but the possibility of a new youthfulness. Its success will depend on its readiness to work together once again, and by its willingness to wager on the future. As leaders, you are called to blaze the path of a ‘new European humanism’ made up of ideals and concrete actions. This will mean being unafraid to take practical decisions capable of meeting people’s real problems and of standing the test of time.”
This is precisely the kind of language Europe needs right now. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of language we are hearing from politicians as politics is transformed into a game whereby policies seem to be proposed not because they are based on values or principles but because they have a better chance of garnering votes. Sometimes I fear that mainstream politicians in Europe have come to the conclusion that the best way to counter Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry or their like is to sound a bit more like them.
Although when first set up, the European Economic Community had very concrete objectives, primarily the establishment of a common market based on the four fundamental freedoms – free movement of goods, persons, services and capital – as well as a customs union, the first recital in the preamble of the treaty speaks of the determination of the contracting parties “to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”.
The EU has never been just about the single market. Thankfully, the Rome Declaration recognises this and specifically also mentions the social dimension as well as foreign and security policy.
What worries me is that unlike the six founding member states of the European Economic Community in 1957, the 27 current members of the EU do not seem to share a common vision for the future of Europe.
Janis A. Emmanouilidis and Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank dedicated to fostering European integration, have described the Rome Declaration as “a watered-down document full of compromises reflecting the lowest common denominator, taking into account specific national interests and concerns with respect to the future route of European integration”.
Indeed, there was concern at some point as to whether Poland would sign the declaration because of its objection to the idea of a ‘multispeed Europe’ as well as its insistence on national sovereignty. One only need recall that the European Council meeting in Brussels on March 9 failed to adopt any formal conclusions as is the practice because of Poland’s objections following the decision by the Council to confirm Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, as its president. The Law and Justice Party, currently in government in Poland, claims that as prime minister, Tusk was responsible for the crash that led to the death of the then president Lech Kaczynski in 2010. Only recently, Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz claimed some criminal conspiracy between Tusk and Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing Tusk of “abuse of trust in foreign relations”.
At the end of the day, Beata Szydło, sporting a bright yellow dress, did sign the declaration also making a gesture with her hands immediately after possibly trying to reassure those present that Poland would not have marred the celebrations.
Undoubtedly, Poland, and the other three countries of the Visegrad Group – the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – will not be making life easy for the other 23 member states in terms of further EU integration. Although the Rome Declaration states that the Union “is undivided and indivisible”, one needs to see how acting “together, at different paces and intensity where necessary”, while moving in the same direction, as we have done in the past in line with the treaties will work out in practice. This statement is the closest one gets to some preference being expressed for a multi-speed Europe.
A discussion on the future of Europe engaging persons from all walks of life is critical right now. The people need to reclaim Europe for it to become, once more, “the hope of the many”.