Global Affairs

Time for celebration - and reform, as EU turns 60 this week

The biggest threat facing the European Union is not collapse but paralysis as its institutions are in urgent need of reform

LONDON • When leaders from a handful of European countries got together in the Italian capital of Rome 60 years ago this week to sign a treaty of cooperation, few guessed how historic that moment would be.

The treaty was largely about the gradual elimination of trade tariffs, the harmonisation of currency exchange rates and some pious promises of future friendship, the sort of texts governments sign all the time.

And the original signatories of the Rome treaty - France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - were hardly the only movers and shakers of Europe; as Britain's prime minister dismissively remarked to his colleagues in London at that time, the British had no intention of joining a club of "six nations, four of whom we had to rescue from the other two" during World War II.

The British were dead wrong.

For that boring Rome treaty gave birth to one of the most remarkable political enterprises of our times: the European Union. So, when leaders from the bloc's 27 member nations get together in Rome later this week, they have plenty of reasons to celebrate, with the British reduced yet again to their traditional role of sulking from the sidelines, reassuring themselves that they are right to get out and that the rest of Europe is mad to stay in. And, as in 1957, the British will probably be proven wrong.    

Still, the European Union is facing a deep, almost existential crisis. It remains the only "game in town", the only idea and political framework which retains the support of a majority of Europeans. But it is no longer able to answer Europe's current needs. And although everyone agrees that the EU requires reform, there is no agreement on what this should be, or how it is to be accomplished.


The history of the Treaty of Rome tells us everything we need to know about both the EU's achievements and its fundamental problems. It was a treaty negotiated in utter secrecy; officials who drafted it had to sign pledges banning them from talking about its contents even to their families, heralding a basic disdain about asking the electorate what it wants, an instinct which persists to this day.

The treaty stands as a great moment of European vision, but was also a classic example of bureaucratic incompetence. Italy's state printer failed to produce the necessary copies on time, so the prime ministers who signed the treaty in 1957 appended their signatures to a pile of blank sheets of paper; the ceremony went ahead, but it was largely for the benefit of the press cameras.

The treaty was derided by politicians in most of the signatory states. The French government rushed to ratify it because it knew that General Charles de Gaulle, the country's wartime leader, was about to take power, and he detested pan-European projects. In Germany, Mr Ludwig Erhard, the architect of the country's post-war reconstruction, dismissed the Rome treaty and everything it stood for as "macro-economic nonsense".

The bits that everyone remembers about that treaty - the lowering of trade restrictions - did not prove the most important, but the one initiative which did change Europe, namely the creation of a European court to enforce treaties and regulations, was hardly noticed at that time.

And finally, the treaty was concluded after European countries tried everything else and failed; as the late British historian Tony Judt shrewdly observed in his seminal book on the topic, the European Union "was grounded in weakness, not strength".

Still, it succeeded, brilliantly. It created a continent in which war between European nations is unthinkable. It survived the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and then united the continent at the end of the Cold War. It helped promote global trade, and global rules of good governance. It erased borders. And above everything else, the EU engineered Europe's prosperity and sense of common identity.

If the EU comes across as annoyingly smug, preachy and moralising to other nations, that is largely because the continent knows that none of its own achievements could have been taken for granted.


Still, the European Union is a victim of its own success; its achievements are now taken for granted, and warnings that these could be reversed if the EU is not constantly given more powers are not taken seriously. There are also inherent problems in making EU institutions more responsive to public opinion as long as the first loyalty of the overwhelming majority of Europeans remains their nation-state; there is no Europe-wide political party, and the EU itself cannot create one.

More significantly, while the EU once stood for economic prosperity and progress, it is now largely viewed as an organisation which, at best, can manage a genteel economic decline. Less than a decade ago, Europe was the world's wealthiest continent; today, it stands third on the global pecking order, behind Asia and North America.

And although Britain's exit from the EU will hit the British hard, it will also hurt the EU badly. It will mean the departure of a national economy which accounted for 17 per cent of the EU's gross domestic product, 12 per cent of the EU budget, half of the EU's nuclear arsenal, and about 40 per cent of the union's military capabilities which can be deployed outside the union. Suggesting that the EU can go on as before is, therefore, folly.

But although the EU leaders gathering in Rome later this week will spend most of the time congratulating one another about past achievements, they will also devote some time to what is gingerly referred to as "contemplation" about Europe's future. And it is here that the real problems begin.

The good news is that there is no other nation about to leave the union; suggestions that Britain's departure would usher in a broader process of European disintegration remain figments of overheated imaginations among Britons with a visceral hatred of Europe, and their newfound friends in the Trump administration in Washington.


But the bad news is that no European nation knows how the union could be reformed to meet future challenges. The traditional way of accomplishing reform - convening another summit to conclude another Rome-style treaty - is precluded, since there is no government which would dare put such a treaty to its jaded electorate.

The other way of implementing reform, by stealth through bureaucratic regulations which nobody debates in public, will not work either, because the changes that Europe needs are profound and cannot be sneaked through the back door.

Even reforming the EU budget and expenditure - a necessity when Britain leaves - will create winners and losers to a degree seldom encountered before in Europe.

And the only other alternative, which is to sit the crisis out in the hope that Europe's economies will pick up growth and greater wealth will be spread more evenly, is no longer available; although all EU economies are now out of recession, the "old continent" has no hope of catching up with growth in Asia and North America, so Europe's relative decline seems unstoppable.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, governments are thinking about more narrow solutions to Europe's future. At a "mini-summit" recently hosted by France, the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain agreed with the French that the EU should be allowed to function at "different speeds", with some nations proceeding faster than others towards closer integration.

But while this sounds logical, it could spell the death knell of the EU. For it will destroy the principle of the equality of member states, and rekindle all the national rivalries of the past.

It is also a fairly transparent device by the French to regain their supremacy - together with the Germans - in Europe. It is noticeable that the French did not think of inviting Poland, eastern Europe's biggest country, to their latest mini-summit; they did not do so because France expects the 12 former communist nations in the EU to either listen to what Paris tells them, or be relegated to the margins of European decision-making.

The snag for everyone is that while the need for change and reform is acknowledged by all, the only way this could be accomplished is by ignoring existing treaty arrangements, by setting aside much of the philosophy underpinning the Rome treaty.

And Europe's biggest problem is not collapse but, rather, paralysis, as its Rome treaty institutions are increasingly rendered irrelevant, and as governments take more and more decisions outside the structures whose creation six decades ago they celebrate this week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'Time for celebration - and reform, as EU turns 60 this week'. Print Edition | Subscribe