At 60, the EU continues to inspire

The beleaguered organisation faces challenges but remains a global force for good

On March 25, 1957, the leaders of six European countries, namely, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, met in Rome and signed the Treaty of Rome. The treaty, which came into force in 1958, established the European Economic Community (EEC). It launched the European integration project.

In 1993, the EEC became the European Union. The family has grown from the original six to 28. The United Kingdom will, however, leave the EU in March 2019.

The EU faces a challenging period as it negotiates the terms of the UK's exit, and amid concern about whether Brexit might prompt other member countries to contemplate a similar divorce.

Despite the uncertainty, I think the EU is well positioned for the future.

I admire the EU for three reasons. First, because it has succeeded in maintaining peace in Europe for 60 years.


Second, because it has enabled its member countries to achieve prosperity, inclusive growth and a high quality of life. Third, because it is a force for good in the world.


People have short memories. Most people living in the 28 EU countries today take the peace they enjoy for granted. They forget that peace is not the natural state of affairs in Europe.

The Europeans had been at war with one another for centuries. We should never forget that World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) both started in Europe.

I believe the EU of 27 will have a bright future, provided that it is willing to undertake some needed structural reform and empower the private sector. The EU leaders' ambition should be to disperse the cloud of pessimism and make the EU economy boom again.

It was by a miracle that, after World War II, we saw the emergence of a number of European visionaries who were determined to put a stop to the endless cycle of war in Europe.

In 1952, the two historic enemies, France and Germany, decided to establish the European Coal and Steel Community. The idea was to deprive themselves of the possession of the raw materials to make the implements of war.

The inspiration was to abolish war and promote peace by integrating their economies.

Guided by this inspiration, the economies of the 28 members became more deeply integrated into what we have today - a single market and production platform, with free mobility of labour and a common currency (for 19 of the 28 members). In addition, in certain areas, such as trade and the environment, the member states have pooled their sovereignties and empowered the European Commission to act on their behalf.

The EU has an excellent education initiative called Erasmus. Under this scheme, thousands of European university students migrate each year to study at another university in another EU country. The grades they earn are portable. Because of this positive experience, many Europeans speak several languages, have networks of friends in other countries and bond with one another as Europeans.

This is an initiative which Asean should consider emulating.

The bottom line is this: Because of the EU, Europe has enjoyed 60 years of peace. This is unprecedented in European history. It is possible to say, with great confidence, that war between any two EU countries is unthinkable. It was therefore entirely appropriate for the Nobel Peace Prize to have been conferred on the EU in 2012.


In 1957, Europe was still recovering from the devastation caused by World War II. The Americans launched the Marshall Plan to help Europe to recover. The Americans also encouraged European countries to join the EEC and develop a culture of cooperation.

The European integration project had the strong backing of the Americans.

It is therefore ironic that, today, we have an American leader who has applauded the UK's decision to leave the EU as "smart" and who has derided the organisation.

Unlike the Europe of 1957, the EU is today a region of prosperity and inclusive growth. Europeans enjoy a very high quality of life. There are, however, some serious challenges.

Youth unemployment is a major problem in several countries. As a result, many young Europeans do not feel optimistic about their future. The EU's leaders should make a more determined effort to improve the business environment, liberalise their labour markets, encourage investment in skill development and create jobs and growth. They should take to heart a recent McKinsey report.

As the consulting agency's website put it: "A new McKinsey Global Institute report - Poorer than their parents? Flat or falling incomes in advanced economies - finds that between 2005 and 2014, real incomes in... advanced economies were flat or fell for 65 per cent to 70 per cent of households, or more than 540 million people."

I do not expect any other EU country to follow the UK's lead and exit the union. The EU of 27 will still be the world's largest economy and largest investor. It will account for 24.7 per cent of the world's gross domestic product and 14.2 per cent of world trade.

I believe the EU of 27 will have a bright future, provided that it is willing to undertake some needed structural reform and empower the private sector. The EU leaders' ambition should be to disperse the cloud of pessimism and make the EU economy boom again.


I admire the EU because it is a force for good in the world. Let me give a few examples. The EU champions the rule of law, both within countries and between countries.

The EU supports multilateralism, international law and international organisations. The EU is pro-environment and played an important role in the negotiations leading to the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

I want to use this opportunity to acknowledge the indispensable contribution which the EU made to the success of the 1992 Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development). I was chairman of the main committee at the summit. In 1992, then United States President George H.W. Bush was running for re-election.

In order to appease the right wing of the Republican Party, he decided that the US would not play the role of leader of the developed countries at the summit. I asked the EEC whether it could replace the US in that role. It agreed to do so.

By good fortune, the Netherlands was chairman of the council of ministers. The Dutch delegation proved to be a very skilful and reasonable interlocutor with the developing countries. The success of the 1992 Earth Summit was due, in large part, to the contributions of the Dutch delegation, on the one hand, and the Pakistani delegation, leader of the developing countries, on the other hand.


The EU is the world's most successful regional organisation. Asean is probably the world's second-most successful regional organisation.

In 2007, I was chairman of the High Level Task Force mandated to draft the Asean Charter.

In preparation for my work, I made a serious study of the EU's history, institutions and decision-making process. I came to the conclusion that the EU was an inspiration but not a role model.

The Asean countries were not willing to pool their sovereignties to have free mobility of labour, a single currency, a court and a Parliament. We would evolve our own model, based on our history, culture and circumstances.

However, the success of the European integration project was a constant source of inspiration to my colleagues and me.

  • Professor Tommy Koh, a veteran diplomat, was the founding executive director of the Asia-Europe Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'At 60, the EU continues to inspire'. Print Edition | Subscribe