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Global Affairs

Sunny now, cloudy future ahead

Fair weather graced the European Union's 60th anniversary, but the bloc's prospects are looking cloudy with strong headwinds

LONDON • Leaders from the European Union spent the weekend consciously repeating every step taken by their predecessors exactly 60 years ago, when the founding treaty was initially signed.

They gathered at the gilded palace chamber in the Italian capital of Rome, at the same spot where their predecessors had stood. They put their signatures to a ringing new document, pledging "to renew the European project", just as Europe's post-war leaders had done generations ago. And they went to seek spiritual guidance from the Pope at the nearby Vatican, just as their predecessors had done six decades ago.

But even though the props were the same, the latest EU summit was pure theatre, for there is little similarity between the situation facing the continent 60 years ago and the predicament it faces today.

Decades ago, there were only six leaders at the summit table, and English was not spoken. Now, there are 27 leaders, and they can make themselves understood only by using the language of the country that is about to leave the EU.

The founding leaders were mostly Catholic, so the pilgrimage to the Pope back then made sense. Today, the largest share of Europeans are either atheists or non-Catholic; the trip to the Vatican was therefore just a hollow attempt to repeat history. And - just to underline how much the world has changed - the Pope who now heads the Vatican is the first non-European to do so in more than a millennium.

More importantly, the Rome summit six decades ago took place in pouring rain, but looked forward to bright European uplands - the one that ended over the weekend was blessed with good weather, but had to contend with Europe's cloudy future.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

It was only out of courtesy that Britain delayed by a few days the presentation of its formal notice to quit the EU, allowing the Europeans to enjoy their celebratory weekend. And it was only out of courtesy that the leaders who attended the Rome gathering set aside their internal differences - for they can't agree on where Europe should go from now on.

The past 60 years were about Europe's glory; the next 60 could well be about Europe's survival.

European politicians reacted to Britain's decision to leave the EU very much like a spouse might react when told suddenly that the marriage has irretrievably broken down - first an outburst of anger, followed by an uncontrollable quest for revenge, and then the slow realisation that there is still life after the tragedy and that new opportunities beckon.

Relations between Brussels and London remain very painful, and divorce negotiations with the British could turn out to be protracted and ugly. Still, there is a sense of European opportunity - a feeling that, freed from those pesky Brits who frequently moaned and constantly vetoed integration proposals, Europe can finally move ahead in any direction it wants.

There is also a consensus that maintaining European unity is more important than trying to avoid angering the Brits; the message from Brussels is "Farewell Britain, and thanks for the memories".

FIVE UNREALISTIC OPTIONS

With perfect timing, the European Commission, the bloc's executive body, released earlier this month a White Paper identifying five "pathways" for the future of the EU. The Commission argued that EU governments could either carry on as they are now, concentrating on just a few areas of cooperation, or abandon all efforts at integration and just try to defend their single European market.

But should governments wish to be more adventurous, the Commission suggested, they could decide in unison "to share more power, resources and decision-making across the board" within the EU, or individual member-states could opt to forge ahead with greater cooperation, while others opt to proceed at a slower pace.

All very interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. Quite apart from the fact that these five so-called "pathways" amount to a statement of the blindingly obvious and could have been laid out by a first-year university student, none of the five alternative futures identified by the Commission is realistic.

CARRYING ON AS BEFORE

Carrying on as before after Britain leaves is not feasible, if only because the disappearance of Britain as a member-state - when it is the world's fifth-largest economy and responsible for paying about 12 per cent of the EU budget - will necessitate some painful adjustments inside Europe.

Concentrating on just a few areas of cooperation won't work either, because governments cannot agree on which areas are essential and which are desirable, or which matters are best done by the EU as a whole and which are better left to nation-states.

And just defending Europe's single market while abandoning everything else is also nonsense, since the single market is not an abstract expression of economics, but the outcome of political coordination. Abandon that, and the single market will collapse as well.

In reality, there are only two potentially feasible approaches if the EU is to survive: Either all remaining EU member-states agree to pool together even more of their sovereignty, or those countries willing to do so are allowed to proceed, while others stay behind, resulting in a so-called multi-speed Europe.

However, the problem remains that there is no way greater integration can be accomplished without changing existing EU treaties, and that there is no way a new treaty can be adopted given the mood of the European electorate today.

According to the EU's own internal polling, the bloc is, on average, unpopular with 45 per cent of the continent's voters. And in no fewer than seven countries - including some of the most important member-states, such as Italy, the Netherlands and France - the figure exceeds 50 per cent.

In short, the only reason the EU is hanging together is that no other European government wishes to repeat the British folly of asking its electorate what they want. And the only reason some European governments remain determined to push for deeper integration is that they assume the EU will continue to be a project pushed from the top down, by politicians who will continue doing what they want, rather than listening to what their voters demand.

Furthermore, although a multi-speed Europe makes sense because it gives individual nations the time to adjust according to their circumstances, the concept also threatens to destroy the EU as we know it. Such a move would kill off the basic principle that all EU nations are ultimately equal, sharing the same burdens and advantages proportionately.

In Rome over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that "a Europe of different speeds does not mean that there is not a unified Europe". Her Germany and France are the most ardent supporters of the concept.

But that's largely an empty slogan. The only reason Germany and France have no reservations about supporting the concept of a multi-speed Europe is that they know nothing can be done in the EU against either of them - it is easy to promote the idea that countries can do as they please if one knows from the start that whatever others do is largely irrelevant.

But it is misleading to suggest - as Dr Merkel and French politicians currently do - that it is possible to protect some areas of cooperation between all member-states, while isolating countries from other areas of cooperation.

Besides, nobody has explained how a multi-speed Europe can come about without amending existing EU treaties and regulations. And nobody can explain how, say, the Polish electorate might be persuaded to vote for a treaty change that would allow their nation to be marginalised or overridden by Germany inside the EU.

The reality is that the EU is stuck with its existing structures, which no longer answer its needs but cannot be modified. It is also stuck with a deep divide between a poor south and a rich north, and between its eastern and western halves, which have different attitudes and aspirations.

The Union won't disintegrate. But it risks being paralysed in endless discussions about reforms that cannot be realised. And that, too, will be a return to history.

David Willey, a veteran journalist for the BBC, Britain's state broadcaster, was present at the foundation of the EU in 1957 as a trainee reporter. Over the weekend, he recalled how the ceremony to mark the signing of the founding document six decades ago was delayed because of a last-minute row between Germany and France about which bananas should be allowed into EU markets.

The Germans preferred the big long ones, grown largely in Latin America; the French insisted on the short sweet ones produced by the then-French African colonies.

That's Europe, in one peel - from the sublime to the ridiculous, and back again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Sunny now, cloudy future ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe